There is a push in certain corners of queer fiction writing to shift all pronoun usage to eschew the traditional ‘he’ and ‘she’ and instead use only gender-neutral forms like ‘zie’ and ‘hir’, as though pronoun usage weren’t already confusing enough — particularly when writing same-sex pairings. Our view on this is pretty simple: gender neutral pronouns have their place, but fiction isn’t it.
Gender-neutral pronouns are very well suited for situations in which the gender of a person is not known or as a way to encompass gender without resorting to the clunky ‘he or she’ structure or the controversial (well, among linguists) ‘singular they’. Their purpose is to avoid the current convention of using masculine pronouns as a default, as in ‘I don’t know who the speaker is, but I know he’ll be great’ and ‘Any student who forgets his homework will get detention’. In both cases, the person being referred to could be male or female — or even identify otherwise — but because English requires number agreement, a singular noun must take a singular pronoun, and unlike some languages, we don’t have a gender-neutral form. (‘It’ is not gender-neutral, it’s agendered.)
But in fiction, there is no need to cover over gender ambiguity because we should know what gender the characters are. Even among trans* individuals, the majority prefer to be referred to using either masculine or feminine pronouns. Relegating them to gender-neutral usages is actually a form of erasure in that sense because it denies them the right to identify themselves the way they are most comfortable. So, in general, stick to the traditionally gendered third person pronouns in your stories, chosen based on the preferred identification of the character in question. It’s less confusing, and makes for a convenient, universally understood shorthand to pick out your characters.
Now, that said, there are exceptions. If you are writing a character who identifies as androgynous, genderqueer, or who (as a character trait) simply rejects the concept of binary gender, then it would of course be appropriate for them to insist to be referred to using gender-neutral pronouns, and for you as the author to use them in narrative as well. However, I would strongly caution any author to do this for story purposes only, not as a way to inject a lecture on gender theory into your work. Readers don’t like to be preached at by their fiction.
Ultimately, as with any writer’s tool, gender-neutral pronouns should only be employed when the demands of the story require them. In the majority of cases, though, injecting them into stories without cause only distracts from the narrative and can hinder enjoyment of the work as a whole.
If anyone has any questions or comments–or would like to open up discussion on what was said here–we more than welcome it. We just ask for people to behave as adults and to be respectful of everyone else.