Gents – Re-/de-gendering “Gentleman”

The word “gentleman” has always held positive associations for me. It is associated, in my mind, with having a strong sense of self tempered by humility and with treating people respectfully. At its best, it represents a set of ideals that I strive for. Yet there are problematic aspects of the word that make it not the best fit for what I’d hope to communicate with its use. The biggest of those is its gendered nature. The ideals I think of as gentlemanly are most certainly not gender specific. I know female-bodied and woman-identified people who embody them wonderfully. The constant pairing of “gentleman” with “lady” leads to more complications. The rules of gentlemanly behavior often treat women as fragile and helpless or as objects to be obtained or molded. If I could discard the gendering I could find more comfort with the concept, and so I began to look for non-gendered words that are analogous to “gentleman.”

When I asked my friends and acquaintances for words that carried the same connotations as “gentleman” but were gender-neutral or gender-inclusive, I received a lot of suggestions, including gentlefolk, gentlebeing, mensch, comrade, dandy, sophisticate. I found them either clumsy, or not carrying the same associations for me. Finally I thought of something so simple that I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t seen it before. There already exists a wonderful abbreviation of the word “gentleman” that removes the unnecessary and exclusionary gendering. “Gent” can be applied to people of all genders.

In this series of writings I hope to look at what it was of the ideal of “gentleman” that spoke to me and from that build an analogous concept around the “gent” that is inclusive of all genders, informed by feminism and queered from the original. I only ask that you forgive my exclusion of the phrase “for me” from the rest of my writing on the topic. I speak only of the ways that I attempt to embody and modify the gentleman archetype, and do not wish to prescribe the behavior of others, nor to define for them what being a gent would be in their particular circumstances.

Please indulge me as I look backward to find the traditions to adapt and carry forward. If being a gent is an inclusive retelling of gentlemanly ideals, then from what do we draw gently1 ideals?

I’m aware that for many, the word “gentleman” is associated with social class, the gentlemen being those whose wealth can separate them from the vulgar masses. Indeed, it entered the English lexicon in the late thirteenth century as a term for a man of noble birth. I do sympathize with such a reading of the word, but it has not been my experience.

Within a hundred years of the word’s appearance, Chaucer’s characters were describing the word in a subversive way, contrary to it’s earlier definition. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” includes:

But, for ye speken of swich gentillesse
As is descended out of old richesse,
That therfore sholden ye be gentil men,
Swich arrogance is nat worth an hen.
Looke who that is moost vertuous alway,
Pryvee and apert, and moost entendeth ay
To do the gentil dedes that he kan;
Taak hym for the grettest gentil man.
Crist wole we clayme of hym oure gentillesse,
Nat of oure eldres for hire old richesse.

That is, “You say you should be called gentlemen because of your ancestry, but such arrogance is worth nothing. Look to who is always virtuous, who intends in all circumstances to do what noble deeds he can. That person is the greatest gentleman. Christ would have us claim our gentility from Him, not from the riches of our elders.” It’s this understanding of the word that carried into my youth. Growing up poor in a rural area, being a gentleman was about one’s behavior toward others, not about money, land or belongings. It was not laden with a sense of superiority, but a sense of offering oneself. Indeed, there were more gentlemen, as I understood it, amongst the lower classes around me than I ever experienced among the middle and upper classes. It was not a marker of inequality, but a marker of equality. All had the ability to be a gentleman, or not, dependent on how they acted toward those around them.

Perhaps my roots in the southern U.S. have added to that idea of a gentleman being defined by what one does, not one’s station in life. Whatever one’s opinion of Robert E. Lee, his Definition of a Gentleman also speaks to this understanding of the concept.

The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.

The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly–the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light.

The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.

I propose that these passages2 are the starting place of moving from “gentleman” to “gent.” The very core of being a gent is having a respect for others as individuals of equal worth, and treating them in a way that shows that respect.

Treating people with gently1 respect can be a feminist act that cuts away at the gentleman/lady duality that made me uncomfortable with the gentleman concept. Opening a door for someone is a kind gesture, regardless of their gender. Opening a door for someone because of their gender gives the impression that they are in a different class, are less capable, or are something to be attained by means of preferential treatment. Giving such an impression (indeed, holding such opinions) is disrespectful in that it casts the other person as less than an equal. Gently behavior is holding a door open for someone because you wish to be kind. Any other motivation is an insult, even if the person receiving the action is unaware.

I feel that the requirements of a gent go a step further, however. Holding a door open isn’t enough. In the etiquette of opening doors, as with all actions, a gent not only acts from a desire to be kind to others, but makes room to accept the kindnesses of others. Often, when walking through two sets of doors, my partner will open one for me, and I will open the next for her. When traveling by car, the person driving will unlock the passenger side door, and the passenger will reach across to unlock the driver side door. Being a gent means making room for others to behave as gents as well. This means not only happily giving, but graciously receiving the kindnesses and signs of respect offered by others. It also means doing these things without expectation or attachment to desired results. Some will not return respect in kind. To a gent, this is inconsequential.

How else can acting as a gent be feminist act? Let us adopt Lee’s definition as an inspiration, and see how it may translate into contemporary understandings.

The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly–the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light.

We can read the “power” of which Lee wrote as related, if not identical, to privilege. Should a gent be in a situation of having privilege that others do not have, be it through the actions of the gent, a matter of circumstance, or from the structure and expectations of society, the gent will behave in such a way that the privilege and any potential power differential is acted upon minimally. Ideally it would not be acted upon at all. In our current world it’s easy for us to add to Lee’s list “the privilege that white people have over people of color, men over women, cisgender over transgender.” This is nothing if not the best approach I’ve ever read to beginning to manage one’s privilege.

A gent will be aware of privilege, and do what they can to refrain from acting on it. Furthermore, as none of us are perfect, when we do act on our privilege, our response is to be humbled, recognizing that using our station is a failure in respecting others as individuals and as people of equal worth. And from that humility a gent will hopefully come away with a greater understanding of privilege and strive to hold more to their ideals next time.

It is my hope that I have communicated here some of the ways in which I am trying to adapt the old ideals of the gentleman, as I understand them, into a modified set of ideals open to all. In my introduction I spoke of the two ideas that are forming the basis of this exploration. In this writing I covered one of them, that of treating people respectfully. Next I hope to unpack more of what I mean by “having a strong sense of self tempered by humility.” I shall relish any comments readers may have on what I’ve written here, or any thoughts that may be related to the topic at hand.

Care for some further reading before the next installment? Here are a few other pages on gentlemen that may have material to inspire gents. What of what they present applies to you? What doesn’t?

Are gentlemen a dying breed?
Today’s Gentleman


1: I use “gently” here not meaning “in a gentle fashion,” but as the corollary of “gentlemanly.” Should anyone have suggestions for a less clumsy adjective, please do share them.

2: Thanks go to the editors at Wikipedia for giving me these passages as a starting point.

2 Comments

  1. Tom

    From “Today’s Gentleman” –

    Dr John Walter Wayland, an historian and teacher, submitted “The True Gentleman” to The Baltimore Sun in 1899 as part of a competition for the best definition of a true gentleman with Wayland’s submission being crowned the winner.

    “The True Gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies; who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity; who is himself humbled if necessity compels him to humble another; who does not flatter wealth, cringe before power, or boast of his own possessions or achievements; who speaks with frankness but always with sincerity and sympathy; whose deed follows his word; who thinks of the rights and feelings of others rather than his own; and who appears well in any company; a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe.”

    That says a lot to me; it is a synopsis of the code by which I try to live. I have read of the concepts of “manners, class, and propriety” being integral to gentlemanly behaviour. I subscribe to that theory also, where class refers not to strata but to impeccable conduct.

    Concerning the gender difficulties posed by the suffix “manly” – I have found no substitute which is not awkward. The term “gent” carries male connotations. The term “Lady” is most definitely gender-specific and anyway has varied and diverse connotations from the term “gentleman.”

    “Gentlefolk” is the best, from my point of view, though that does have its own set of societal constructs. To say we must form our own constructs is valid, but for the sake of interaction with the public at large we are compelled to converse with an eye toward the accepted if implicit constructs – to do otherwise is akin to saying “I know all the English-speaking world refers to this a ‘chair’ but for my purposes I shall refer to it henceforth as a ‘carriage’.” To diverge from accepted definitions leads to confusion.

    It must suffice then to agree that a woman is not fragile, as porcelein, nor so easily offended or besmirched as virgin snow. Compare the term “gentleman” to the use of the term “handsome” with regard to women. “Handsome” definitely has male connotations, yet it can be used safely to describe an appropriate woman. Perhaps the term “gentlemanly” can be so employed?

    The passage from the bible that speaks something about “Howsoever you treat the least of my people, ye also treat me” is apt. I will say that it has gladdened my heart to see the smile generated on a panhandler or the ilk when I have treated them with the deference I would give to a woman in business dress.

    Again with the sexism, but frankly I do pay more heed to a female than to a male, albeit for reasons totally unrelated to desire. Call it a societal construct, but I am more attentive to women than to men. Concepts such as “the weaker sex” and “it’s a man’s world” factor in this, I’m sure.

    Humility. This seems to be an overriding concept to gentlefolk. Perhaps I should expand my set of descriptors or watchwords for gentlefolk to “humility, manners, class, and propriety.”

    Chaucer. 1300s. A time of manors, fiefs, serfs, knights and ladies. A society much more based on class, a society in which it was much more difficult to transcend the class into which one was born. Being a “gentleman” was a birthright, though whether an individual lived up to the term is an altogether different story, depending, in your words, upon “how they acted toward those around them.”

    I was reared in a poor and rural setting, my father the owner of hogs and hunting dogs before they were given to the curse of the working class. Yes, there were gentlefolk among us, as differentiated from the “small and mean,” though we described them as being “good people” – men who, tired after their own day’s work, would stop by a recent widow’s house and mow her lawn before going home to their family, accepting nothing in return, teaching so much by example. Men and women who would give of themselves to help those in need, time and again, accepting nothing in return, though they themselves had only what was needed. Herein lies a concept: Doing it because it’s the right thing to do, that must be considered a part of any gentle endeavour. The Golden Rule. Such simplicity. Humble beginnings have colored and limited my experience of the world, though I do subscribe to Thoreau’s belief: “I have traveled extensively at Walden Pond.” I do hope I have traveled enough to discern a gentleman from the opposite.

    This isn’t really the input you seek, but it’s what I have at the moment.

  2. Thoughtful and provocative. In particular, the Chaucer quote rocked my world, and made a compelling case that the class element of the word does not have to be treated as the primary meaning.

    Adding to the mix: my partner uses the term ‘gentleman butch’ to refer to butch women with a certain elegance of style. It usually appears in sentences like, “Holy shit look at that gentleman butch walking by oh my god I think I have to go sit down and fan myself for a minute.”

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