So, you’ve just met a genderqueer person.
Or maybe they identify as bigender, agender, gender-fluid, neutrois, or as otherwise non-binary (that is, some version of neither male nor female). Maybe they’re someone you’ve known for a very long time, but they’ve only just told you about their gender. What does this mean? How should you handle this?
Honestly, right now, there isn’t much you need to know.
Quite probably, this person has already asked you to use non-binary pronouns (i.e. something other than “she” or “he”) when talking about them, to call them by a new name, and/or to change the words you use to refer to them in some other way.
It’s not actually super important for you to understand what any of this means at this point (though it is kind of nice if you want to!) What you need to understand is that if this person has come forward and asked you to use these words for them, it is because this is important to them. It’s not a silly request, even though it might seem pretty weird. For many people, it’s a very fundamental thing, and an important part of feeling respected and accepted for who they are.
If this person is someone who is close to you in your life
Really, if this is someone you care about, this is good news! You’ve just been given straight-forward instructions for how to demonstrate to this person that you care about them and their happiness, in a way that really doesn’t ask a whole lot of your time or effort. How often does that happen in life? Not nearly often enough. Take advantage of the opportunity!
Basically, if this is someone you care about, and they’ve told you what will make them happy and comfortable, it should be a no-brainer for you to do that thing, even if you don’t really understand why it’s important.
If they haven’t asked you to change the way you refer to them in any way, but you do want to do *something* to support them, you can always ask. “Thank you for sharing this with me. Is there anything I can do to support you?” is a pretty good place to start.
If this is someone that you don’t have a close relationship with
OK, so maybe this isn’t someone you’re particularly emotionally invested in. Maybe they’re a co-worker, or just some acquaintance of yours. In this case, be aware that this person has just made themself vulnerable to you. Coming out to people you don’t know very well is always a risky venture. Do yourself and them a favour and commit to being the best version of you that you can be. And please understand that no matter how strange this whole thing seems to you, you can be damn sure that this person knows far more about themself than you do. So trust in what they’ve told you about themself, and don’t be an asshole. Restore someone’s faith in humanity, and respect their request without making them justify it.
But, but, but…!
No, it doesn’t matter if you think the person is question is obviously “really” a woman/man. If you feel that way about them, that’s way more your problem than theirs. If you wouldn’t require a person to have long hair/wear a skirt/whatever else might qualify someone as being “feminine enough” before calling them “she”, then you shouldn’t have any problem using gender neutral or variant pronouns for someone, even if you don’t think they’re somehow “androgynous enough” or whatever.
And no, don’t worry about whether this is just a phase. It doesn’t matter, and it’s none of your concern anyway. If this person changes their mind later, they’ll let you know, and you can go back to however you used to refer to them. It’s not a big deal. Stop worrying about it. Seriously.
This applies to whatever other “but”s your brain is formulating right now, too. You don’t really understand what’s going on with this person’s gender. Maybe you never will. But don’t fall into the trap of assuming that your confusion must mean this person is somehow “wrong” about their gender. I promise you they’ve done way more thinking about the matter than you ever will. And they do know what they’re talking about, even if you don’t get it.
See, I told you it was simple!
All you really need to know is what the person has told you, about themself and/or about what language applies to them. Really, that is *all* you need to know. This person has empowered you to be awesome, and to be respectful. And it’s as simple as doing what they asked. It really is.
But, if you’re already ok with all of that, and you really do want to know more about what this means, or what it’s like to go through life as a genderqueer person, please feel free to browse around! You can read about the things I’ve written about my own gender identity (and gender identity in general), and other people’s stories that I’m collecting in the Gender Perspectives series or the gender section in my Blog Roll.
Other places you can go for further reading/listening/learning:
- Genderqueer Identities (link is to their genderqueer FAQ) is a great resource for genderqueer people and those who want to know more about us.
- Nonbinary.org has a great, comprehensive wiki about non-binary genders.
- GenderCast: Our Transmasculine Genderqueery, a podcast about all kinds of gender issues, especially relating to genderqueer and transmasculine folks (that is, people whose gender identity leans more toward the masculine than their birth-assigned gender might suggest).
- Genderfork, a community devoted to exploring gender identities and expressions.
- Ivan Coyote is an amazing story-teller. Get your hands on their books if you can, and binge on youtube videos. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you won’t regret it.