Descriptors for Sexual Minorities
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Embarrassing Questions About Sexual Orientation | Going Back In - Sexuality U-turns
The goal in the gender pronoun game is to avoid revealing the gender of your romantic and/or sexual partner. The usual trick is to speak of the person in question in a non-gendered fashion. Words like he/she, her/him, and hers/his are replaced with plural pronoun forms like they, them, and theirs.
In mainstream society, the person playing the game is usually trying to conceal the fact that their mate is the same gender as they are. However, the gender pronoun game has also been played within the gay community to conceal an opposite-sex partner. The game is also sometimes played with friends and relatives because the player's given orientation does not match the gender of their current mate.
In addition to using plural pronouns, the initiating player will typically avoid using their mate's proper name. They will refer to them with ubiquitous titles like 'partner' and 'significant other'. They will also attempt to adjust gender-specific details on the fly. And of course, they will avoid discussions of intimate moments that might be impossible to describe without the partner's gender being completely obvious.
Many people have been victims of the gender pronoun game without realising it. Once one has an awareness of the game, though, it is easy enough to spot. For instance, it is very common for the receiver to wonder whether the talker isn't holding something back. Sentences modified by the game have a distinctive stilted quality, especially when spoken aloud.
An example of some normal dialogue with a close friend:
I went dancing with Sheila on Saturday. Her skirt was too tight, and she kept having to pull it down. It was great!
The same sentences modified by the Gender Pronoun Game:
I went dancing with my partner on Saturday. Their, uh, clothes were on too tight and they had to adjust them a lot. Yeah.
Advanced Game Concepts
The gender pronoun game can become wildly complex, especially if the person is pressed to give more and more details about their mate. While concealing physical gender isn't too hard, obscuring qualities determined by social gender norms is harder. A pressured talker might slip up when describing things like their partner's clothing, hairstyle, hobbies, and so forth.
A slightly modified version of the gender pronoun game can occur if the player decides to use a substitute name for their mate. For some reason, names used by both genders like Chris and Erin/Aaron are popular for this. Sometimes the real person's name is used in modified form. For instance, Dan can become Danielle and vice versa. However, this trick is often detected when the player slips up and uses a different gender pronoun than usual.
Probably the most egregiously misleading trick used with the gender pronoun game is that of supplying the receiving player with a fake photo of the imaginary mate. This fake might be a picture of a distant friend or cousin of the appropriate gender, or it might be gathered from a source like a yearbook, fashion magazine, or even a demonstration photo inside a picture frame that is on sale.
How the Game is Won and Lost
The gender pronoun game is sort of like playing sexual orientation poker, where the person with the straightest face wins. The initiating player holds all the cards, but the receiving player gets to raise the stakes and the initiator has little choice but to comply.
The initiating player will lose if their bluff is called or if they are ever forced to produce their mate in person. Friends playing along with the game can also bluff badly and lose the game for the initiator.
The initiator wins if the receiving player or players agree to assume the gender of the initiator's partner. A receiver who sticks to their guns and keeps questioning will almost always win. However, many receivers are too confused or ignorant to put much pressure on. You'd be surprised how often the receiver loses without being aware that they are playing a game at all.
A Cautionary Note
Just to confuse things thoroughly, not everyone who uses plural gender pronouns and words like 'partner' or 'significant other' consistently are playing the gender pronoun game. Bisexual people sometimes develop this habit so they don't have to switch terminology when they switch partners. Practicers of polyamory may literally have multiple partners. A few feminists have even adopted the habit in order to deal a fatal blow to the perceived gender bias in various modern languages.
For that matter, people presenting imaginary mates may simply be embarrassed that they can't get a date. Because of the gender pronoun game and the social stigma increasingly attached to it, this has become a truly terrible idea with unforseen consequences.
If you're not sure whether someone is playing the gender pronoun game, you can try two things. First, you can ask them about it outright. You will usually get an honest answer, because most initiators haven't formulated a response to the direct approach. Alternatively, you can pressure the person to give more details or produce their partner. The more uncomfortable they seem when you do this, the more likely it is that they are playing the gender pronoun game with you.