Lee Pitts: The He/She Dilemma
On the front page of our weekly newspaper there was a picture of a very masculine bull that the writer called a “cow.” To 98 percent of our population every bovine is a cow, even when it’s not. You can’t really blame the urbane journalists, most of which are at least two generations removed from the farm or ranch. It would be like me trying to identify a famous rap singer. But someday, just for fun, try explaining the difference between a heiferette and a steer to an urbanite and watch their eyes roll back in their heads.
Even people who should know better don’t understand basic farm animal plumbing. Many years ago I wrote about a World Champion Livestock Auctioneer (who was actually an auto auctioneer) guest auctioneering at a big auction in the middle of cow country and when the gate swung wide to let a single steer into the ring he called it a cow.
I must admit that even I have trouble sometimes identifying the sex correctly of some dogs, cats and babies. I particularly have a penchant for looking down at a beautiful baby in a stroller and saying to the proud mother, “My, what a pretty baby girl you have.” Only to be told by a very mad mom, “It’s a boy, thank you very much.”
It’s very humiliating for all concerned, and I’m sure the kid didn’t appreciate it either.
It’s always bothered me that basic information about animals and agriculture is not taught in schools. And let’s face it, food is pretty important in most people’s lives. But, instead my generation was made to memorize lots of junk. I think of the wasted hours I spent trying to learn to use a slide rule only to have a cheap hand-held calculator perform the same tasks in the blink of an eye. When I took a computer class in animal nutrition we had to feed hand-punched IBM cards into a computer the size of a truck and then wait 24 hours for a least-cost ration that I could have figured out with a pencil and piece of paper in five minutes. I remember thinking at the time, “This computer thing is never going to catch on!”
Who types on a typewriter any more or uses a dictionary? Why did we spend so many hours learning to spell when a computer merely corrects our errors. And all the countries I memorized in Africa aren’t there any more. I don’t know where they went. But one thing has remained constant, farm animal anatomy.
Not that this whole sex thing couldn’t stand a whole lot of updating. As a writer whenever I’ve referred to someone I used the third person pronoun “he,” as I was taught to do in English. I often wondered if this didn’t make the shes of this world angry. Granted, there were a few things referred to as females, boats for example. But giving every noun a sex like they do in Spanish with an “o” or an “a” on the end of the word makes things way too difficult. And it uses up too much valuable space in magazines and newspapers to write, “he, and or, she.”
It surely won’t make things easier in the sex department that residents of Oregon and California, who don’t want to associate themselves with either the male or female category, have been successful in creating a “third gender movement.” They have persuaded their state and local governments to give people more than the usual “male” or “female” options when filling out paperwork because they don’t associate themselves with either sex. They contend the government is ignoring who they really are.
What we really need is a word that encompasses everyone. Think how much easier it would be if we just used the all encompassing heshe or shehe. But NOOOO, that’s not how we do things. I’m told that Facebook now gives their users 58 ways to respond when asked their gender. Two of the more popular options other than male or female are “unknown” and “non-binary.” Doesn’t that sound poetic? Just imagine how beautiful our speech will be when “he” becomes “gender non-conforming” and she becomes “agendered” or “non-binary.”
And I thought calling a bull a cow was bad.