Month: October 2016

On resistance: Singular they and wearing one’s “anti-transgender underpants” on the outside of one’s clothes

On Tuesday I had an op-ed published in the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers. My op-ed was in response to prominent Canadian newspaper columnists Christie Blatchford in the National Post and Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail, who are in turn responding to a fiasco in which U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson proclaimed that having to use someone’s gender-neutral pronoun would be an attack on his freedom of speech. In other words, being compelled to use, say, my own pronoun (singular they) is a restriction on his freedom and this is dangerous. In so many ways, this is just a new flavour of the classic liberal debate: which freedoms trump which freedoms?

In their support of Prof. Peterson’s position, Blatchford and Wente (in my view) wildly inflated the situation by invoking the rhetoric of war: that Peterson is ’embattled’ (Blatchford) by his mythic struggle against ‘pronoun warriors’ (Wente).

To my knowledge, there has been one particularly inflamed protest on campus in which people on both sides clashed (mostly in verbal ways). But that’s it. And so, my goal in the op-ed was to show that gender-neutral pronouns are not actually a ‘battle’ but part of everyday life for users and the people around us. Prof. Peterson and people like me are not warriors raising a standard of some kind as we ride into the melee. None of us get to be that heroic or that fancy. In short, I wrote that:

I’d like to throw a wet blanket on this smouldering conversation, and suggest that using someone’s gender-neutral pronoun can be no big deal.

Since the op-ed’s publication, I’ve had lots of positive interest and inquiry through social media and email. However, the comments below the op-ed are, at best, less than constructive and tend to claim a grammatical basis for rejecting the idea that people like me exist and deserve to have our needs respected. I imagine that a minority of folks who actively, stridently resist singular they are truly concerned about grammar. But what about the others? Talking constantly with others about pronouns for the past 72 hours has led me to a new theory.

Particularly in Canada, respect for diversities of all kinds is fast becoming the status quo; I do not mean that Canada is a problem-free paradise (it most certainly is not). What I mean is that it’s becoming ever more gauche, awkward or frowned-upon to say prejudicial things in public life. I think that when things like “I’m not racist but…” and “have you had the surgery?” and “why can’t they get a job?” become cringe-worthy instead of crisis-worthy (i.e., more easy to dismiss), that’s a sign that the dominant culture is shifting.

Canada is, however, a politically-diverse country with many people who are not, say, on board with Bill C-16 (which would add ‘gender expression and ‘gender identity’ to federal human rights and hate crimes legislation) because they are not generally on board with transgender people a) being real or b) deserving special protection. There also are many Canadians who believe that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a waste of time and that indigenous peoples in Canada deserve no special consideration, or that there is no racial profiling by police in Canada’s diverse cities (or worse: that it’s warranted).

Now, if someone believes these things, they can easily refrain from stating their beliefs in public (e.g., online, at work, at school). They can maintain their privately-held beliefs and make choices about where and when they are aired. They have the right to air them (with the proviso that same is not hate speech), but also to protect themselves from unwanted scrutiny by choosing where and when this happens.

Which leads us to singular they, and being required to use someone’s preferred gender pronoun. As I frequently point out on this blog, learning to use singular they for someone takes some effort and some practice (tips). I’ve also suggested that someone’s seeming inability to use one’s preferred gender pronoun might be less about the pronoun and more about the quality of relationship between user and refuser; this suggestion is based on my own experience and the many experiences shared with me by readers over the years.

Let’s imagine someone who, as above, is not generally on board with transgender people a) being real or b) deserving special protection. Perhaps they air these beliefs in private but not, say, at work, because this would be frowned-upon. Under Bill C-16, however, they will be required to use a colleague’s preferred gender pronoun, and their employer will be required to provide an environment free of discrimination and harassment on the grounds of gender expression (which includes pronouns). This may become an issue of the individual’s job performance, as a result. So, they both hold these anti-transgender beliefs and would have to put in some effort and practice to use a (likely transgender) person’s preferred gender pronoun.

This is an extremely conflicted individual. I can empathetically put myself in their shoes and imagine their fear: that others will find out, because they keep on making mistakes and can’t bring themselves to make the effort to change. After all, social media and newspaper comments can be anonymous. Our own spoken words cannot.

Crucially, “just don’t talk about it” isn’t a viable solution to this conflict because pronouns are an everyday part of speech. Unlike other kinds of beliefs that are not skewed towards the acceptance of diversity but which can be privately-held, then, the pronoun issue may require people to wear their “I’m anti-transgender” underpants on the outside of their clothes. I can see why this exposure might produce fear, and I know how fear can become many other worse things.

Decades of psychometric research on attitudes towards sexual minorities (e.g., gay, lesbian or queer people) has found that actually knowing a gay, lesbian or queer person reduces homophobia. Interestingly, recent studies like this one are showing that the extent of personal contact with gay, lesbian or queer people affects heterosexual participants’ attitudes towards transgender people, too. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a study yet showing that contact with transgender people reduces transphobia, but it’s coming (say both the Queen and the polar bear on my wagered toonie). Basically, if you get to know us, research suggests that you might like us a bit more.

However, let me say loud and clear that TIMP and I are here for you to learn how to use singular they for any reason, regardless of the beliefs that you hold or whether you like transgender people. I receive and answer questions in the spirit of practicality, and I operate TIMP from the principle that askers need operable information (what to do about this pronoun), and not from a place of adjudicating why they need it.

So, if you are worried that you might get it wrong – regardless of why, and I really don’t care why – head on over to my Tumblr where I accept anonymous questions, and ask away.


TIMP in the Globe and Mail!

I have an Op-Ed today in the Globe and Mail (one of Canada’s national newspapers), where I offer a perspective on gender-neutral pronouns which, in my view, has been missing from recent Canadian conversations about this issue. Namely. that using someone’s gender-neutral pronoun doesn’t (have to) have the high stakes that it has been given.

We Are They, Episode 2: Morgan

Welcome to the second episode in the new TIMP Series We Are They, where I interview and profile people who have a range of unique relationships with this pronoun. In Episode 1, I interviewed Helene about her decision to raise her kid, Avery, in a gender-open way that includes using singular they as Avery’s pronoun.

In this episode, we meet Morgan. Morgan is a graduate student and university instructor who identifies as non-binary and uses singular they. Interestingly for TIMP purposes, Morgan is also someone whose gender expression has varied considerably over time.

I begin our conversation with a predictable question: why does Morgan use singular they? “I think that it’s the best way of communicating how I feel about myself outwardly,” they reply. “It’s a way of challenging binary genders and a way of carving out space for people like myself – or unlike myself – who also want to move beyond the pronoun that they were assigned at birth.” Although Morgan identifies a political potential of using singular they, for them it’s mainly personal. “It’s tied to how I understood myself when I was younger,” they explain. Although Morgan was assigned a female gender at birth, they experienced their childhood as fairly gender-neutral, from their given names to clothing to toys to their bedroom walls (yellow) to the activities encouraged by their parents. “It’s not to say that everyone has to follow that ‘I’ve known since I was a child!’ narrative. But there was a piece that I think I’d been trying to make sense of.”

Like me, Morgan uses the term ‘non-binary’ to describe their gender identity. I learned about this term from writing this blog and interacting with younger people on Tumblr, and it still feels new. Morgan tells me that they “came to this identity through a process of elimination. Like ‘I’m realizing I don’t identify with gender A, and I don’t identify with gender B.’ So it wasn’t like ‘I do identify with this thing!’ It was just like ‘I don’t identify with those things.’” This resonates. For me, ‘non-binary’ captures my sense that nothing else fits quite right.

“It’s like a sigh.”

At its most ordinary, being mis-pronouned can feel like bumping shoulders with someone on the sidewalk: an interruption in the flow of your day. Morgan beautifully describes the opposite – someone using their pronoun correctly – as being “like a sigh.” Imagine a long, slow exhale as the body begins to relax. “It’s such a relief to have someone use a word that doesn’t just feel jarring every time. Someone recognizing my pronoun is a sign of mutual understanding. In that simple act, it’s a moment of ‘I see you.’”

“I would absolutely be read as a woman right now.”

Being seen, correctly, as non-binary is uncommon for Morgan. I ask them to describe their gender expression these days. They answer quickly and emphatically: “I would absolutely be read as a woman right now. There’s no question.” This hasn’t always been the case. “There are periods in my life where I think I passed as a man in several instances, and then there are moments where I present what, for me, is high femme…” (Morgan raises a self-effacing eyebrow, making me chuckle) “…which is not actually high femme,” they say with a laugh. “Particularly this summer I was just feeling very drawn to feminine presentations.”

When Morgan’s gender expression has been more masculine, they have experienced harassment and violence. In middle school, this included death threats. “At the tender age of 12, you internalize that. So, not only is presenting as feminine how I have felt valued within my platonic, sexual, and romantic relations, but there’s also so much fear in giving that up.” While the privileges of masculinity are commonly acknowledged in LGBTQ communities, Morgan also feels safety and thus a kind of privilege in presenting as feminine.

But the other side of this privilege coin is not being accurately seen. Morgan says they’re generally unrecognizable as non-binary when presenting as feminine. “In fact, I really find that unless I have short hair there will never be a possible reading of me as other than a woman.” Morgan feels that having a more feminine gender expression makes their pronoun harder for others to accept and consistently use. “Especially when that’s the way you’re being read, to ask for a neutral pronoun to be used, I think that people dismiss it a lot more easily than you say people do with yours,” Morgan says, referring to reflections I shared on being a ‘visually’ or perhaps more obviously non-binary person. As my mum might say, I ‘look like a they’ – whatever that means – whereas Morgan doesn’t, at least not right now.

“I feel unworthy of taking up that space or that time.”

Almost every transgender person has to ask our people to work on changing their language and behaviour in some way. For non-binary folks, feeling entitled to others’ hard work can be an ongoing struggle given that we may not have had a ‘transition’ that the cis-gender world can understand. Although Morgan would “absolutely” be read as a woman these days and my gender is read with ambivalence, we are both non-binary transgender people who choose not to pursue any medical intervention. We wonder together how this may affect some non-binary peoples’ sense that our requests – for other people to work on accommodating us – are legitimate. “I don’t know whether I’d call it guilt, but there is definitely something going on where I feel unworthy of taking up that space or that time,” Morgan muses.

Morgan has experienced this in their own family: that ‘binary’ transition takes less effort for folks to understand. Thinking that their dad may not be able to make the requisite changes, Morgan hasn’t come out to him as non-binary, let alone as a singular they user. However, Morgan (consensually) outed their partner to their dad as a transgender man by talking about the partner’s hysterectomy, which their dad seamlessly accepted. I ask Morgan why this positive reaction doesn’t prompt them to come out, too. “This person is making a binary transition from one gender to another,” Morgan replies. “They are doing it by a medical means, therefore it is legitimate,” or seen to be that way. By contrast, Morgan’s own gender “is too far from that. It’s not even comparable in a lot of ways except that it comes from this feeling of ‘I am not this gender and I want to do something about it.’ You see that all the time: those invalidations that come from not taking that normative transition route.”

Invalidation vs. non-validation

Interestingly, Morgan shares that coming out as a singular they user can open them to up to more invalidation than just being she’d all the time. They use the term ‘non-validation’ to describe getting she’d by people who just are not aware that the woman-passing person they see might not identify that way. “I consider it a non-validation if I haven’t made that explicit request. Then it’s just like ‘oh yes, this is just the system of gender that we inhabit.’ Versus ‘I have made this specific request, you have dismissed it in some way and are continuing to use the wrong pronoun,’ which is a different feeling. That feels like an invalidation.”

It just might not be worth it to make the ask when invalidation is so much more sticky- and heavy-feeling than non-validation. “When I’m communicating a pronoun, I’m communicating a pretty intimate way that I feel about myself,” Morgan says. “Especially up against my presentation. It’s not readable. This is actually something that has to do with how I feel in my body and how I feel in relation to other people. I’m disclosing a lot.” Perhaps stating a pronoun preference is, at bottom, always going to be more fraught for people who aren’t visually apparent as non-binary. It’s kind of a big reveal, whereas people usually see me (them) coming.

“When is it emotional labour that I can’t do?”

Unsurprisingly, then, Morgan’s decision to ask people to use their pronoun involves a kind of deliberate cost-benefit analysis. “At what points am I going to really assert myself versus when is it not worth it? When is it emotional labour that I can’t do?” Morgan finds an analogy in their own experience of chemical sensitivity. Deciding whether to come out about their pronoun feels like asking someone not to wear a strong perfume. How bad will it be if this person keeps on doing what they’re doing? Will it mean not hanging out with them anymore, or can Morgan just bear it and get by? If Morgan decides to make the ask, “it always starts with an apology. ‘Oh sorry, I use this, I need this.’ And it shouldn’t have to be about making that other person comfortable but so often it is. And if you don’t do that comfort work you’re seen as…” They trail off, and I suggest a word or two. ‘Killjoy’ doesn’t seem to quite fit this feeling, perhaps because ‘killing’ is too strong. Maybe it’s like stubbing someone else’s toe: not life or death, but unpleasant enough to be avoided, if possible.

The always, the no-go, and the fuzzy middle

After we’ve been talking for an hour or so, I observe that Morgan seems to have compartmentalized their gender life into different zones: where they will always ask for their pronoun to be used, where they won’t bother at all, and the fuzzy middle. Morgan emphatically agrees. In queer or transgender community contexts, Morgan will generally make the ask even though they (and others) still see a lot of transphobia there. In predominantly straight and cis contexts, Morgan usually doesn’t bother, even when people there are long-time friends. “I have found it a really difficult process – especially outside of queer circles – to say ‘actually, I use they’.” Morgan offers that this might be unfair. “I’m making a lot of assumptions about how people will respond to things. I should maybe give them the benefit of the doubt.”

I push a little, asking Morgan about the reaction that keeps them from doing so. Their answer leads us to another no-go zone: any clinical setting, particularly those related to mental health. “As a mad-identified person, that’s a point of anxiety for me: that people will say ‘you’re weird!’ I’m worried that those two things will tie into each other, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to negotiate that. One of my diagnoses is borderline personality disorder and with that there’s an actual criterion of ‘confusion or uncertainty around sexual orientation or gender identity.’ It’s already pathologized.” The first time Morgan was being screened for BPD, the psychiatrist asked about their gender identity as if it were a symptom and not a part of their life. “That’s always a fear: that people will think ‘you’re weird, you don’t have any sense of self,’ which is not at all what it is. But my fear of it being read that way, I think, prevents me from really asserting needs that I should be asserting.” Morgan says they are working through this fear in relation to friends, but that the aura of stigma and pathology means they never disclose their pronoun preference in any kind of psychiatric or psychological context.

While Morgan’s ‘always’ and ‘no-go’ zones are mainly personal, the fuzzy middle is political. “The fuzzy middle is work places,” they say. “Places where I feel like ‘this is something you should get used to, and I’m going to massage you into it.’” Morgan’s fuzzy middle includes their mom – who works in education – and their professors. All of these people will encounter non-binary students at some point, and from a position of considerable power. Morgan wants to use their own experiences to prepare these people to do right when the time comes.

Teaching in the university as a non-binary person

Interestingly, as a new university instructor this year, Morgan is now also in a position of power. I’m eager to hear how Morgan’s particular experiences of gender inform their teaching. For example, would Morgan initiate a pronoun go-round on the first day of class? “I’ve grappled with this a lot about whether I should initiate that as a common practice. It’s a big decision about when I assert that as something I want someone to know about me. And I want to be in charge of when I do that.” A go-round might take away someone’s choice to disclose, which can have a range of different consequences.

As a student or an instructor, Morgan tends to come out more often in gender or sexuality studies contexts than in other disciplines. “For example, when I started teaching, in my gender studies syllabus I listed my pronoun but didn’t do that for my other class. It felt safe to do it in the context of people who are familiar with this usage.” As two junior academics, we then recoil together in (silly) horror at the prospect of being mis-gendered by an anonymous student in a horrible end-of-year teaching evaluation. “The idea of being doubly injured in that moment – I just can’t do it. It’s going to be too much!” Through the giggles, I admit to gender-editing student comments in my teaching portfolio as far back as 2011. Neither of us has any idea whether the many professors who write us letters of reference are using our pronoun, let alone using it correctly. The sheer awkwardness of checking makes this impossible to do.

Morgan and I have as many things in common as not, it seems. We’re both white, queer, non-binary, a wee bit silly, and on an academic career path. However, we get very different reactions when we say ‘this is how I identify, and this is the pronoun I use.’ My people are usually awkward but consistently friendly. After all, it’s not like they can’t see it coming (if only in retrospect). But Morgan’s people – even in queer and transgender community – are often in shock. As non-binary transgender people and gender-neutral pronouns continue to emerge and take up space, it’s crucial that policymakers and such don’t use my and other similar experiences as the exemplars to be accommodated. Instead, I hope we can imagine and create a world where anyone’s pronoun is no big deal.

A TIMP + University of Toronto webinar: They’re here! An introduction to gender-neutral pronouns for educators (November 16th)

Hi folks!

I’m delighted to announce that I’m giving a webinar (real-time online interactive lecture) for K-12 teachers and other educators on gender-neutral pronoun usage, user support and supporting non-binary students.

This is happening in collaboration with Continuing and Professional Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.

You can find more info here, including online registration.

This is accessible to anyone internationally, so please re-post widely and send over anyone who you think might enjoy or benefit from this professional development opportunity (including perhaps your own teachers)!