On my old blog, I wrote a piece where I talked about feelings of alignment with the identity of genderqueer and my preferred pronouns, they/them. If you’re squinting at your screen and thinking “Huh?”, take a trip over to these pages, do some reading, then come back. I’ll wait for you.
Are you back with at least a vague idea about what all this genderqueer and they/them stuff is about? Good. Let’s go! In my previous Disjointed Ramblings, I explained part of my journey toward identifying as genderqueer. I’m about to be meta as hell and quote my blog on my blog.
I have never felt comfortable with binary gender or that someone else, or society as a whole, gets to decide who I should be and how I should behave and react and feel because of what certain parts of my body look like. It’s not that I am ashamed of being read as female or that I hate it or I think being female is in any way not-ok, and it’s not that I feel like I’m male or want to be perceived as male. It’s that the entire system, the whole gender is a choice between two things issue, doesn’t sit well with me at all.
I didn’t feel like I had any right to question my gender identity because I am a (sometimes, kind of) femme-presenting person and there are aspects of my appearance which are generally associated with femaleness. Some of these are things I did not choose, like my waist-to-hip ratio and the not-inconsiderable size of my chest. Some of these things I did choose, and while I don’t associate them with any particular gender, I’m aware that society-in-general does, like dyeing my hair pink, (sometimes) wearing make-up and nail polish, or (often) wearing long skirts instead of trousers. Even when I wear stereotypically masculine or androgynous clothing, I tend to be perceived as not only ‘female’ but often overtly sexual because of the shape of my body.
Since I began giving the whole gender issue more thought instead of just telling myself to shut up and stop being awkward, I’ve had the pleasure of reading about other people’s experiences of gender and gender identity that really resonated with my own. This included plenty of those wonderful this person has just described my situation better than I’ve ever been able to describe it myself moments. It’s kind of amazing, discovering that feelings you’ve had for years, that you’ve always thought were weird or different or somehow unrelate-to-able, are actually pretty similar to other people’s feelings. It’s even more amazing to feel like maybe you could talk about those feelings openly because other people have and maybe if you do, even more people will feel able to and fewer of us will end up wandering through the world feeling like we’re carrying a burden that is solely our own to bear.
Two pieces of writing about gender identity have stayed with me since I first encountered them. They aren’t written by people I know, or even people I know anything about. They are written by strangers and while I don’t wish to reduce complex, fascinating human beings to one paragraph each, I also don’t want to give the impression that I represent them or they represent me or that we are in any way connected.
I’ve never felt quite like a woman, but I’ve never wanted to be a man, either. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be something in between. To quote Ruby Rose: I called myself a girl, but only because my options were limited. I always assumed that everyone felt that way.
– from How To Be A Genderqueer Feminist by Laurie Penny
People told me I was a woman, and I believed them because the way they treated me was consistent with my understanding of that category. I never questioned the feeling of arbitrariness, because I naively assumed that other people experienced their own genders in the same way.
– from Preliminary Navel-Gazing (Towards an Eventual Contribution to Gender Theory): Part 1 by mhuzzell
Last year, I changed my gender on Facebook to genderqueer and I changed my pronoun to They. I removed gender identifiers from other social media sites where this was possible and changed my Tumblr name from missdecemberbliss to mxdecemberbliss. I posted a link to my Disjointed Ramblings blog on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. It wasn’t a coming-out as much as an updating of information to accurately reflect my current situation. I didn’t really come out as genderqueer for the same reason that I didn’t come out as bisexual way-back-when (I now prefer simply queer as the descriptor for my sexual orientation) – I didn’t want to, I didn’t feel I should have to and other people’s assumptions about me are their issue, not mine. I didn’t have a closet to come out of. I was never in a closet.
In conversations about gender, as with in conversations about sexual orientation, I am absolutely open and honest about my genderqueerness (although I don’t always use that word because a lot of people have never encountered it), as I am about my queerness in general. I just never felt moved to make a huge announcement about any of it. That said, I want to make it clear that I completely understand why a lot of people do choose to come out and I don’t think for a moment that they shouldn’t, or shouldn’t want to or need to. Different things are right for different people and the most important thing for anyone is that they are being true to themselves in as far as they can safely do so. Coming out is an incredibly important process for a lot of people and I support that one hundred percent.
Due to, I assume, my comparatively quiet introduction of my they/them-ness a lot of people still use she/her pronouns for me and while I definitely feel more comfortable with they/them, I don’t feel terribly upset or affronted by the use of she/her. I’m going to let past-me explain this.
I’m actually alright with she/her pronouns too and am not like OMGHORRIFIED at being referred to as female because my experience of life has been shaped by people’s reactions to me as a person who is perceived to be female, so that is still a part of who I am.
I tend to use gender neutral language as much as possible and while this was an effort to begin with – saying y’all or folks instead of you guys, for example – it feels completely natural to me now. This feels like an appropriate moment to point out to anyone who protests that they/them is plural, LANGUAGE EVOLVES and also they/them is already commonly in use when the gender of a person isn’t known. For example, “Oh, your friend is coming to visit? How lovely! When do they arrive?” or “Your coworker was in a car accident? I hope they’re alright”.
In case anyone thinks I’m trying to speak for all non-binary people, I’m most definitely not. Some people feel very strongly about only having gender neutral pronouns used for and about them, which is cool. Individual preferences should be respected. Just cause one genderqueer person is sort of alright with she/her or he/him pronouns doesn’t mean all genderqueer people are. Some people who use gender neutral pronouns prefer ze/hir or any number of other options (there’s a list here, if you’re interested).
There are also transgender people who choose to use gender neutral pronouns either in an ongoing way or as a step towards using she/her or he/she pronouns which reflect their true gender. I do not identify as transgender (although some genderqueer people do feel comfortable under that umbrella) so I can’t speak for trans people and would instead like to direct you to this page on GLAAD’s website as a good starting point for reading about transgender identities.
Pulling back from that slight tangent, I want to explain why I don’t jump in and correct people who use she/her pronouns for me and how you (yes, you, all of you) can help make it easier for non-binary people to feel comfortable saying “I use they/them pronouns” without it being A Big Deal. This begins with a couple of seemingly unrelated stories, but bear with me. It’ll all become clear.
I don’t drink alcohol very often and when I do, it’s generally in very small quantities. For most of my 20s, I didn’t drink alcohol at all. When I was out with workmates or acquaintances (rather than close friends) and was offered a drink, I always said “No thanks” or opted for a soft drink so as not to be rude and decline a kind offer. About ninety nine percent of the time, this led to me being asked “Why not?” (seriously!), to which I would answer “I don’t drink alcohol”. The responses to this ranged from a deeply personal line of questioning about religious choices, medication, health conditions and other things that I had no desire to talk about with people I wasn’t close to, to aggressive assumptions that I had a problem with other people drinking followed by fight-picking about alcohol consumption. My boring truth was that prior to that stage in my life, I was heavily into partying and used to drink a lot so I reached a point where I just didn’t really want to do it at all for a while.
For the last eleven years, I have been living with a disability which does not have instantly apparent visible symptoms (unless you knew me before and have seen how much my appearance has changed because of it). When this has come up in conversation, usually in relation to something totally mundane like my briefly and politely explaining that I can’t attend an event that doesn’t have parking close by as I’m unable to walk very far, some people (not all, or even most, but enough) have responded by basically accusing me of anything from making excuses to exaggerating to outright lying based on the fact that, to them, I don’t appear to be disabled or unwell. Often, upon accepting that I am indeed not a healthy human, I have had to endure a barrage of insensitive questions and lectures which is frustrating, upsetting and not something I have the energy or inclination to deal with.
Based on those common reactions to utterly uninteresting statements explaining that I don’t drink or I’m not well, I very much do not want to get into a ‘debate’ about MY OWN identity, especially as a lot of people (in my experience) like to claim that their opinion on issues that are purely conceptual to them is more relevant and valid than the lived experiences of people whose lives are directly affected by those issues. I’m usually happy to chat with open-minded folks about gender stuff but I don’t have the energy to educate hostile people, especially not hostile people who talk to my chest and insist that I am female because boobs. I pick my battles and I don’t pick that one right now. Also, I don’t want every conversation to turn into a conversation about gender, or about me. That’s a lot of work and a lot of focus-shifting that I don’t feel comfortable with, especially as she/her pronouns don’t bother me too much, although they/them is definitely my preference.
So, what can you do to help create a supportive environment in which people of all genders, or no gender, can feel comfortable being open about their pronouns? If someone says that their preferred pronouns, or simply their pronouns (some people have one set of pronouns that they’re OK with and that’s that, no ‘preferred’ about it) are different from what you’ve been using, don’t view this an an opportunity to interrogate them or worse – to argue with them about WHO THEY ARE. I guarantee that the person you’re talking to knows themselves better than you know them. Just accept it and endeavour to use the correct pronouns in future. If you mess up (and you will mess up, cause we all mess up), correct yourself and carry on. Use the right pronouns for people even when they’re not there to hear you. Do your best. This stuff is important.
Alternatively, you can ask people what their pronouns are. I find this one a bit difficult in practice because to avoid drawing attention to your assumption that someone is non-binary or trans it would make sense to ask everyone and I haven’t found a non-awkward way to say “Nice to meet you. What are your pronouns?” to every person I encounter. If you also find this a bit difficult, you could try using gender neutral pronouns for people until they make a clear reference to their gender. There are some communities and environments where it would actually feel totally natural to ask everyone their pronouns but there are also plenty where you may end up not feeling safe as a result of starting that conversation (for example, in certain workplaces). I’m going off on a tangent and this may well end up being a blog post in itself at some point.
Finally, I’d like to thank a friend for inspiring this post by referring to me as ‘they’ in a comment on Facebook today and making me incredibly happy. I’m still navigating the unfamiliarity of accepting that I can wear skirts and make-up sometimes and still inhabit a genderqueer identity without letting the side down. I’m still struggling to accept certain aspects of my appearance outside of other people’s reactions to them. I’m still getting to know a part of myself that I pushed down and held under for so long. Getting to know yourself is a life-long process and contrary to popular belief it isn’t necessary to pick a firm definition and have that be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, for ever and ever amen.
So…they/them pronouns please 🙂
Please, please, please, for the love of all that is pink and fluffy, do not lecture me about how labels aren’t important and how it doesn’t matter what other people think. Labels are descriptives, they are shorthand for complicated concepts, and are used as such in conversation. They also make it possible to look stuff up on the internet. I’m not being all “I AM THIS” because I must attach someone else’s words to my own existence. I’m exploring concepts, ideas, feelings and myself so when I do that with words, I use, y’know, words.