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"Playing the pronoun game" is the act of concealing sexual orientation in conversation by not using a gender-specific pronoun for a partner or a lover, which would reveal the sexual orientation of the person speaking. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (LGB) may employ the pronoun game when conversing with people to whom they have not "come out". In a situation in which revealing one's sexual orientation would have adverse consequences (such as the loss of a job), playing the pronoun game is seen to be a necessary act of concealment.
The pronoun game involves avoiding reference to one's sexual orientation and allowing the listener's assumptions on the matter to prevail. It also involves not drawing the listener's attention to the fact that the sex of a pronoun's antecedent is not being specified. As such, playing the pronoun game involves
- re-phrasing sentences such that they avoid the need for third-person singular sex-specific pronouns (e.g. "We decided to eat out," rather than "She and I decided to eat out."), often using amphilogism, a form of circumlocution (e.g. - "The person I was with and I decided to go to the play");
- using gender-neutral language such as "firefighter" rather than "fireman", phrases such as "my partner", "the better half" or "my significant other", or the person's name where it isn't sex- or gender-specific; and
- using gender-neutral pronouns that have long-since entered common usage, such as singular they, without employing uncommonly used (and thus attention-calling) neologistic gender-neutral pronouns such as "thon", "hu", "xe", "sie" and "hir" or the spivak pronoun construction (see gender-neutral pronoun, 'spivak pronoun').
Often, people playing the pronoun game regard it as stressful. Without proper care, the blatant concealment of pronoun-gender can make the sexual orientation of the player just as obvious as it would have been had the game never been played.
Artists may play the pronoun game in a slightly different form, avoiding the gendered third-person pronouns by using the second person instead. For example, the song "Come to My Window", released about the time singer Melissa Etheridge publicly revealed her own homosexuality, avoids explicitly identifying the sex of her lover by addressing her directly:
- You don't know how far I'd go
- to ease this precious ache
- You don't know how much I'd give
- or how much I can take
- Just to reach you
- Wofford, Brittany (2002-06-19). "Fun with pronouns". Independent Weekly.
- "The pronoun game (and other related phenomena)". Retrieved June 12, 2005.
- "A look at language and gender in Latin and English". Language and Culture, ANTH 3063. Archived from the original on 2004-08-18. Retrieved June 12, 2005.
- "Straight Friends at Fest". Michigan Womyn's Music Festival Discussion Forum. Retrieved June 12, 2005.[dead link] which discusses how heterosexual people also play the pronoun game to hide their sexual orientation in predominantly homosexual environments
- "The pronoun game". Archived from the original on 2006-07-21. Retrieved June 12, 2005. Gives an example of how people often don't notice someone is playing the pronoun game.
- "Who's That Lady?". CityBeat. 2001-05-16. Archived from the original on 2001-06-24.
- "Anthropological diary". Retrieved June 14, 2005. which discusses the avoidance of lying