pronouns

What to do about babies and gender

[Content note: reference to adult-child related sexual creepiness]

As a person who intends to have kids at some point, and as someone who is very aware that you can’t tell what a person’s gender is (/what their gender is going to be or whatever) when they’re born, I have to deal with the question of what I’m going to do about my future babies and gender.

I mean, hopefully it’s obvious that I have no intention of imposing any sort of gender norms or expectation on any kids I have. And I will listen to them about their own gender as soon as they are able to tell me about it. But there is still the question of what to do about pronouns etc until they’re able to do that.

In an ideal world, I would lean toward using neutral pronouns – either the perennial ‘they’, or something specific as more of a placeholder (I remember reading a long time ago about someone who referred to their fetus using the ‘ou’ pronoun, and I like the idea of using something that isn’t so clearly linked to non-binary/genderqueer identities, since that may carry a lesser version of the baggage involved in traditionally masculine or feminine pronouns.)

But living as I am in an entirely un-ideal world, I’m not sure this is what I will actually end up doing. I may very well wind up simply using the pronouns assume the baby is cisgender (unless they’re intersex, in which case, gender neutral pronouns it will be until I can hear otherwise from them), as a sort of default/educated guess (since there is a high likelihood that they will be cis), for a few reasons.

The main one is, I just don’t know that I have the energy to have all the conversations that would be involved in refusing to gender my baby. Although I am not going to adhere to gendered expectation with clothing, toys, etc with them, I know that people would push back harder against gender neutral pronouns than other things, simply because it makes them uncomfortable to use them. Which is a terrible reason, obviously, but still. I have enough work on my hands doing this for myself, and people are more upset by gender neutral pronouns when they are applied to children, and more prone to inappropriateness or downright violence (or trying to get me to lose custody of my children even, probably) than I am prepared to deal with.

Which, on some level I feel like maybe I should not have kids unless I am willing to fight for that for them. But on the other hand, I don’t think that placeholder pronouns alone are going to harm a kid who is otherwise raised as much as possible without gendered expectations. I don’t think that ‘he’ or ‘she’ is somehow inherently a more harmful placeholder than ‘they’ or ‘ou’ could be anyway.

My other fear, though, is not about me and my own energy, as much as it is about my child. A baby who is referred to by gender neutral pronouns may attract some really unsavoury behaviours from people who really really need to know the baby’s ‘real’ gender. I am quite sure that refusing to indicate a binary gender for my baby would make a whole lot of people suddenly really interested in changing that baby’s diaper, or helping them with their bath, or something. And that level of creepiness is not something I want a baby or toddler subjected to.

I am also afraid that being quite to obvious about my gender neutral approach to parenting would result in other adults trying to over-compensate for that, and my children being subjected to even more over-the-top, explicit gender policing than they otherwise would.

So, I dunno. I don’t know what the least harmful route to take, really. I’m just going to do my best and what feels right, I guess.

What have you done or plan to do to socially transition? 30-Week Genderqueer Challenge part 9

This post is part of my participation in the 30-day genderqueer challenge, which I have modified to a weekly exercise.

Today’s prompt: What have you done or plan to do to socially transition? Pronouns, name, coming out, etc.

I’ve written about most of this stuff pretty extensively as I’ve gone through the transition process, but here’s the cheat sheet:

The first thing I did when I came out as genderqueer was changing my pronouns to they/them. This was an immediate thing that I did at the same time that I told people I am genderqueer.

My initial coming out wave involved sending out a handful of brief group messages to my closest social circles, that were mostly the same, but tailored in minor ways to the groups themselves.

I started changing my name socially more than a year later – as in, I decided I wanted to be called Kasey, and I changed my facebook name and let people know this was my name now.

It was at this point that I decided I could no longer put off coming out to my parents, and so I also sent them a long email explaining the situation re my identity, pronouns, and name, all together.

It wasn’t until a year after that that I changed my name professionally (and as some of you will remember, this was an absurd debacle), and it was another six months before I finalized the legal name change.

At this point, the only question hanging over my head with respect to social transition is whether I will ever decide to come out at work about my gender, and whether I will ask to be referred to as they.

On the one hand, I am in a very secure position as a union employee in a place that recognizes gender identity and expression as a human right (and explicitly acknowledges non-binary identities under that protection). Even if I have problems if/when I decide to come out, I will have nearly invincible back-up.

On the other hand, I have chosen a career in a very public-facing occupation and a great deal of my workday is spent interacting with strangers or near-strangers. So it is unclear whether the effort of coming out at work would be worth the relatively minor reduction in potential day-to-day dysphoria in my work. So for now I am (mostly) content with things as they are.

So, that’s my social transition process!


Catch the rest of my 30-week genderqueer challenge here!

Can we please stop calling for a single, “standard” non-binary pronoun?

This is something I’ve seen come up both within non-binary communities, and a point I see raised by cisgender folk claiming to be allies. This whole non-binary genders thing would apparently be way easier to handle if everyone just agreed on one pronoun set for us/these people (depending on who’s saying it) and used it across the board. Usually the person or people suggesting this even has has a pronoun set in mind that they think would be best, though to be clear there is no standard set that everyone agrees upon as generally best, either.

Here’s the thing though. The reason I know that there is no single pronoun set that adequately represents the genders of all non-binary people? It’s because not all non-binary people have chosen the same pronoun set.

Each of us, when we decide that we need people to use non-binary pronouns for us, makes a choice about which pronouns we prefer. We make those choices based on a huge number of things, including in many cases (like my own) what pronouns we think will be easiest/most convenient for others to use. But that is not the only consideration, nor should it be. In fact, the first thing I ever wrote on this blog looked at some of the reasons why people with different non-binary genders may prefer different pronouns

When someone chooses a pronoun set other than ‘they/them’ (for instance) it’s not that zie* didn’t know it was on option. Zie doesn’t need some cisgender person to explain to zir that ‘they/them’ is there for zir and would do the job of representing zir gender. Zie chose zie/zir (or whatever other pronoun set) because that pronoun set represents/expresses zir gender better than the other pronoun sets. And Zie is the only person who gets to have an opinion on the matter.

To tell people that they should use just whatever pronouns others are more comfortable with, that that would be easier for them, is the same shit we’ve seen in every movement toward queer liberation – we want the weirdest folks who make the normals the most uncomfortable (whether it’s queer people who are unabashedly sexual and promiscuous, or trans people who refuse to ‘pass’ correctly, or ace people who have the audacity to be sex-repulsed, or whatever the fuck else) to step into line so that those of us who have an easier time of fitting in already can have and even easier time of improving our lives while continuing to throw the “real” weirdoes under the bus.

And I’m having none of it.


*I’ve decided arbitrarily that this hypothetical person uses zie/zir pronouns, in order to be able to actually write this paragraph at all, since the only other apparent option is to refer to zir with the indeterminate they, immediately after clarifying that this person doesn’t use ‘they’. Which, I’m not going to do that, even to a hypothetical person, mmkay? Substitute any other pronoun set and the argument stands.

Things I tell myself upon being misgendered

I tell myself that it’s ok.

It doesn’t hurt that much. After all, it’s just an honest mistake. Pronouns are hard. People don’t know any better. It’s not their fault, not really. Though I don’t know whose fault it is then. I guess I’ll make it mine?

Anyway, it doesn’t hurt *that* much.

It can’t possibly hurt as much as I think it does, because if it did than I don’t know how I would keep going. And somehow, I always do.

It can’t possibly hurt as much as it feels like it does.

I tell myself I can take it.

Because I am strong. Because I have to. Because I have no choice. Because I will never live a life free from this pain.

And so, I tell myself I like it.

I can wear these scars like a badge of honour. I tell myself that by not making a big deal out of it, I am being brave. At the very least, I am being nice.

I tell myself this is the easy way.

This way, I’m the only one who gets hurt, who knows anything is wrong. And, after all, I can take it, right?

I tell myself a lot of things.

I am such a fucking liar.

Gender Perspectives, Vol. 4

download[In the Gender Perspectives series, I hope to curate writing by people with a wide variety of gender identities and experiences, talking about their gender, what it means to them personally, and what it means for the ways in which they move through and interact with the world. Basically, this is where I point out that I’m not the only person in the world who has complex thoughts about gender, and that there as many ways to be Trans* and/or genderqueer as there are to be cisgender (and yes, there are many different ways to be cisgender). Check out the rest of the series.]

  • Janitorqueer just finished a three-part series on his own ways of navigating the world as a genderqueer person, including:

    why he prefers male pronouns;

    I prefer to be referred to with male pronouns: He/Him/His. The reason for this is: because it is my preference. It really is as simple as that – no explanation needed. It feels the most right (although no pronouns actually feel “right” for me). That’s all it comes down to – a feeling.

    feels comfortable in women’s washrooms;

    If there is a single stall / gender neutral one available, I would prefer to use that bathroom. But usually there is not, and it is not something that I am personally concerned about. I feel comfortable enough in the women’s restroom. I don’t have any anxiety about it. I don’t second guess it.

    and avoids selecting a gender on official forms.

    In general, I attempt to mix and match gendered options to optimize my comfort level, and that has usually worked for me. But when it comes to declaring, “I am male” or “I am female,” I simply cannot do it… Legal stuff feels like a more black and white, either/or arena than bathrooms, pronouns, and anything else in the real world which is comparatively flexible and fluid. What I mean by this is, for example, I like when people say,”sir,” “man,” and use male pronouns because they’re seeing me, we’re interacting, and that interaction has the potential of being nuanced, fluid, changing. I could walk in the women’s bathroom today, and tomorrow decide to go in the men’s, without too much consequence (hopefully) if I wanted or needed to.

    The legality of being one gender or another seems so much more finite, set-in-stone, weighty.

  • Guest blogger Hex at Disrupting Dinner Parties talks about the struggle as a genderqueer person to be seen as “really” trans.

    As a non-binary person who is just starting to physically transition, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that process is valued by queer and allied communities. I’ve been out as trans for almost a year now. I’ve been using the same pronouns and presenting myself roughly in the same way for most of that time. About two months ago I started taking testosterone… [A]s people found out about my taking hormones – long before there were any actual effects – my preferred pronouns were used more consistently. I started getting requests to sit on panels or to lead trainings. In short, people became noticeably more respectful of my identity.

  • Megan over at Undefine Me discusses her sometimes complicated relationship with her body, as a cis female.

    I’m a cisgender female. I was born with XX chromosomes that result in the primary and secondary sex characteristics that we associate with females. But I think we have this societal idea that when gender is mapped onto a physical body, that cis bodies = comfortable and constant and trans* bodies can be uncomfortable (via dysphoria) and are inconstant. To be honest, I’m still learning how to live in my ever changing body.

  • And, finally, I bring you that most impossible-to-find piece of all: a cis dude’s perspective*. Sky at A Bright Cape talks about his experiences of gender, or ultimately, the reasons why he feels like he can’t even begin to explain how he knows he is a cis man. [Yes, full disclosure: I am “Val”. I couldn’t find any cis men talking about this stuff, so I (gently) pressured him into writing this, ok?]

    How exactly would I distill down the essence of what it is like to feel that I am a man? It is a tricky thing because it isn’t as if I have ever had to defend that feeling to others nor examine it particularly – the very essence of privilege right there.

    When I was young I always felt that I was a man but that the standards for being manly were stupid and awful.

——

*Totally not sarcastic, I swear. When it comes to having people talk about the ways they think about themselves and their gender identities, cis dudes are pretty silent.

Is it misgendering to call a binary-identified person “they”?

It’s a concept that has emerged alongside the growing ranks of people embracing non-binary gender identities, be they genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, or bigender: referring to people with binary gender identities (i.e. women and men) as “they” constitutes misgendering them.

Or does it?

misgenderLet’s start by defining a couple of terms. Misgendering is a big problem for Trans* folks, and also for a lot of gender-bending cisgender people (think butch women, or femme men). When a trans woman (generally, a person who was assigned male at birth but who identifies as female) is called “he”, she is being misgendered. And when a femme man (someone who identifies as male, but who may dress or behave in ways normally associated with women) is called “she”, he is being misgendered. Sometimes misgendering is deliberate and malicious, and is intended as an insult (as when people refuse to refer to a trans person by their preferred pronouns, because they refuse to accept trans identities as “real”.) Other times it is a result of ignorance about that person’s identity, and can be an accident – someone might see a woman with a brush cut and believe that they are looking at a man, and call her “he”, but then feel bad about it when they realize they made a mistake, for instance. In any case, it can be an upsetting (or even just emotionally complicated) experience for the person being misgendered.

When non-binary identities and pronouns are added to the mix, things become more complicated. I’ve written before about how I get that it is unreasonable for me to expect random strangers on the street to see me, and think, “oh, this person isn’t a he or a she”. They are, ultimately, going to decide I belong in one box or the other. And the best I can hope for is that they have trouble making that call (as happens pretty frequently to me these days: I’ll get called “Buddy”, or “Sir”, or (squee!) “Boss”, followed immediately by an apology (which I generally just ignore) when I actually turn around and interact with the person in question, and they “realize” that I’m actually a woman, or something.)

pronounsFurther yet, even if I’m in a context where a person might clock me as potentially non-binary, they can’t from that supposition then automatically know what pronoun to use, since there are so many non-binary pronouns out there.

Right, so: referring to someone who identifies as male as “she” is bad. Referring to someone who identifies as female as “he” is bad. Referring to people with non-binary identities as either “he” or “she” as also bad, though in all cases it’s only really bad if you are actually aware of the gender identity of the person to whom you are referring.

So, then, it seems to follow that referring to someone who identifies as either male or female as “they” is misgendering. Because “they” is a pronoun used to refer to (some) non-binary people.

But really, it isn’t that straight-forward. Or, at least, I don’t think so.

The difference, you see, hinges on the very construction (because all genders are really just social constructions, donchaknow) and meaning(s) of genderqueerness in the social context.

I’ve linked before to my favourite definition of genderqueer: “the radical notion that a gender identity can be articulated imprecisely enough that it discourages people from trying to police my gender.”

queerfuckyouThe thing is, to a great extent, genderqueerness is about defying definition of one’s gender. It’s about being deliberately imprecise. It’s about refusing to accept the existing gender definitions, certainly, but also in many ways about refusing to articulate a new one. It is, in the most direct and true definition of the term, about queering gender.

And I am talking here about the actual queer of queer theory, not the Queer that you hear so much about in the mainstream media, that really just means “short-hand for lesbian or gay or bisexual”. It’s about the queerness that refuses to identify with those existing categories, that resists the idea that those are even concrete concepts. It’s about the radical refusal to accept that one is even definable.

In fact, I really believe that this deliberate ambiguity is one of the reasons why “they” seems to be growing into the most popular of the non-binary pronouns. Linguistically, the precedent that allows for “they” to be used in the singular is in cases when one is referring to a “gender indeterminate” subject or object.

That is to say, grammatically speaking, they has a history of being used in the singular in very specific cases of talking about hypothetical people (who are by definition gender indeterminate, because they could be any gender). For example, one might say: “If a student [singular] requests an extension on their assignment, it should only be granted if they have a valid excuse.” Some people will tell you that this is not grammatically correct, but it is a form of language that has been used by many writers for many centuries, and it succinctly gets its meaning across (it’s certainly better than the awkward construction of “he or she”, which comes packaged with the problem always having to give precedence to one gender or another), so I don’t really see what point those people have in the end.

In this sort of construction, it is generally assumed that the hypothetical person (in this example, the “student”) in question has a gender, but that we simply don’t know it. And thus we refer to the student as “they” in order to avoid misgendering them.

Simply put, the act of referring to an individual person as “they”, at least historically, is about avoiding identifying their gender at all, not about applying an incorrect one. And I think that we can see that this meaning continues to hold even today, when people are actively requisitioning “they” as the appropriate pronoun to refer to their individual selves. And there are a couple of reasons why I believe this to be so.

First off, people still use “they” in the historical form I have here identified. In a conversation I had with my father this summer, we were discussing a young man who had fallen off of a float at the Toronto pride parade this year, and died. My father apparently didn’t catch the gender of the person who had died when it was mentioned at the beginning of the conversation, and thus when he asked for more information about what had happened, he simply referred to the person as ‘they,’ as in “But, how did they fall?”

Now, I am not out to my parents about my gender identity, and I don’t believe my father knows that there are people who identify as they; it was simply natural for him to conversationally fall back on the pronoun when he didn’t know the gender of the person he was talking about.

You actually see this in a lot of places. It’s still pretty common for people in same-gender relationships who are closeted abut it to play some kind of pronoun game when talking about their partners. What is worth pointing out about the pronoun game is that it often involves using really torturous sentence constructions in order to avoid identifying the gender of one’s partners. Really, if a closeted person wants to simplify things, all they (he or she?) have to do is go ahead and use different-sex pronouns for the person they are referring to (i.e. a closeted lesbian could simply refer to her girlfriend as “he” in order to avoid suspicion.) But most often, people feel intensely uncomfortable about doing that, and much prefer the twisty constructions of gender neutrality, and the use of “they”.

Why?

I hope the answer is obvious: calling one’s (for example) lesbian lover “he” would be a gross misgendering of that person, and doing so feels extremely disrespectful, even when it is not done in her presence. But calling her “they” does not carry the same taboo. And I really do think that this is because on a visceral level we (correctly) understand that referring to someone as “they” is nothing more than the deliberate act of eschewing their gender entirely. And as such, it cannot represent a mis-identification of their gender. It is a lack of identification, and nothing more.

And I don’t think that the fact that “they” has become a pronoun with which people actually identify themselves changes the fundamentally indeterminate nature of the pronoun. Because even if and when individual non-binary people experience their gender as a determinate, concrete thing (and I do believe that this experience is fairly rare), they must still contend with the fact that they are sharing their pronouns with a multitude of people of vastly differing identities, experiences, and genders. “They” does not carry any concrete information about a person’s gender. And that’s what many people like about it. For many people, that’s the whole entire fucking point of identifying that way in the first place. It’s a refusal to allow other people to identify us, because no matter how they try to do it, it’s going to be wrong.

Another way of putting this would be to say that when people do refer to me (and many other non-binary people) as “they”, they aren’t ‘correctly’ gendering me, since that would be impossible; they are simply avoiding misgendering me. For other people, “they” may be shorthand for their correct gender, but ultimately, the multiple genders that fit under the “they” umbrella means that the most meaning you can derive from it is “not explicitly identified as male or female”.

im_a_person_what_are_you_stickers-r73d28b8d06494b23a0562b9da0e12f69_v9waf_8byvr_512So, then, the TL;DR: “they” is a pronoun that represents gender indeterminacy, and as such it can perfectly comfortably accommodate various uses, including (but probably not limited to):

  • Referring to people whose gender identity is actually indeterminate
  • Referring to hypothetical people, who are by definition gender indeterminate
  • Referring to people whose gender identity we don’t know
  • Referring to people in contexts where, for whatever reason, we do not want to identify their gender, and prefer to leave it ambiguous (as with the pronoun game; but also I find that it can be an interesting experiment to try to remove one’s gendered language from everyday conversation – does it really matter whether that angry customer who ruined your day was male or female? Does it change or colour the story? Should it? I do think that a person’s gender is relevant to some stories, but it just as often isn’t.)

It’s the pronoun equivalent of referring to someone as a person, instead of as a man or a woman, ok? And calling someone a person doesn’t constitute misgendering, it constitutes not gendering. And that’s ok. It’s probably even a good thing sometimes.

A gender identity primer

gender: queer (via un_cola on Flickr)

As good a place to start as any, I guess.

I originally wrote the following in part as a coming-out piece on my livejournal. The other part of the impetus was a falling out I had had with a friend, in which he postulated that people who don’t want to be known as either “she” or “he” should go by “it”, and I had struggled to explain why that is totally not ok (which is where some of the harsher rhetoric is coming from). Anyway, here it is:

Non-standard gender identities are any identities other than the masculine and feminine. “Genderqueer” is often used as a blanket term for these kinds of identities, but I don’t think that it necessarily accurately describes everyone. People’s gender identities are expressed in a myriad of ways, but I think the one that is most apparent and striking is often their use of a pronoun other than “he” or “she”. I kind of want to take the time here to explore the meanings for some of the different pronouns that get used, and some of the motivations that may lay behind the choice to use each one.

I should preface this by saying that what I’m writing here is not definitive in any way whatsoever, and that I can’t even remotely hope to cover all of the considerations or perspectives of people with non-standard gender identities, or their reasons for choosing the pronouns they do – this is a very individual call, and each person’s feelings about individual pronouns may vary.

“It”: in the English language, “it” is a genderless pronoun. As such, it may seem to be a clearly appropriate pronoun for genderless people. However, the word also has a problematic history in it’s application to people. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that calling a person “it” makes it easier for one to commit atrocities against that person; as such, the act of actively choosing to identify oneself as such is an unfathomably brave form of self-expression (regardless of the reasons for that choice). It also means that suggesting that this pronoun is the most appropriate pronoun for someone who does not actively identify as such is inherently disrespectful. Not only can it come across as dehumanizing, even if it is clear that that is not your intent, it is presumptive to assume that such a genderless pronoun is suitable for every non-masculine, non-feminine person. Not all of us are genderless (and this is actually only one of many reasons why someone may decide against an identification as “it”).

“They”: because “they” is often used as a singular in cases of a gender indeterminate antecedent, it can be the perfect pronoun for gender indeterminate (or gender-fluid) people (like me!). Rather than being genderless, my gender identity is actually just subject to the whim of the moment. And rather than expect people to check in with me hourly to see if I’m more of a he or a she at the moment, I prefer that they use “they,” as I feel that such use leaves room for whatever self-expression feels most appropriate to me at any given moment. I suspect that other people have different motivations for the use of this pronoun, but I hope this gives you the flavour of the kind of considerations involved. For me, “they” is simply the most accurate word.

“Ze”: some people have alternative gender identities that are more concrete and stable than mine. For these people, their gender identities may be seen as simply something new that the language has not yet accounted for, and as is usually the case when new concepts arise in a culture, new words are sometimes required to accommodate and acknowledge these identities. In using the pronoun “ze,” someone may wish to communicate (among many, many other things) that their identity fits a category that is entirely separate from the masculine and feminine genders.

“Ou”: the basic concepts that apply to ze can be applied here as well. I have to admit that I am confused by the fact that “ou” seems to be a derivative of the second-person singular instead of the third-person singular (as is “ze”). However, since I know how difficult it is to actively take on and express an alternative identity like this, I am certain that a great deal of soul-searching goes in to the decision to use the pronoun. As such, I would never presume to reduce such a choice to the person’s misunderstanding of the grammar involved; I am certain that there are some very real motivations behind this choice. If/when I find out what they may be, I will let you know!

EDIT: So I looked into it; turns out that ou is an archaic English term, and it simultaneously encompasses the pronouns “he”, “she”, and “it”. That’s kind of awesome.

And of course, I should also note that there are other pronouns out there, and that each individual person chooses their pronoun for their own reasons.

So yeah, these are just some of the things that genderqueer people and people of other non-standard gender identities consider in their quest to accurately represent and express themselves to others. The kindest thing you could for anyone who tells you about an identity that you don’t understand is to ask what their identity means to them, directly and non-judgmentally, without presuming that you know more about what their chosen identification means than they do.

That said, now that I have actually come out about my own identity, if you do have any questions or hesitations about it, please feel free to ask me about it. I’d like to help you to feel comfortable with this, and I know that’s not necessarily an easy place to get to. Just be aware that I have put a lot of thought into this and that my identity is not open to any kind of debate.