Month: April 2017

The honest mistake: On being a pronoun beginner

Recently, I Tweeted this little two-part message:

I’m thinking a lot these days about the space in between ‘no big deal’ and enough is enough. Readers likely know that last fall I founded the No Big Deal Campaign. NBD aims to encourage folks who are new to transgender people and issues to go ahead, take the plunge, and use someone’s unfamiliar or unlikely pronoun to the best of their ability.

nbcbadgerev2

Alt text: the NBD Campaign logo with “I’ll use your pronoun, no big deal” and the URL: nbdcampaign.ca.

I founded NBD for many reasons, one of which was the recognition that while many people are willing to do this, the stakes attached to an error have become so high that the consequent fear might prevent people from even trying. What’s worse, I was seeing anti-transgender commentators swaying the public and some in the media with a harmful falsehood: that transgender people and our allies are intent on grievously punishing people for an honest mistake, in pursuit of ideological purity. Incoming protections for transgender people in Canadian federal law have been characterized by some as legislating both purity and punishment. To that, I say:

corgi srsly

Alt text: a Red Pembroke Welsh Corgi being wilfully obtuse with SRSLY in meme font.

As a non-binary transgender person, I need people to try using my pronoun and I know that there will always be a first time, a second time, and so on. I also know that this will necessarily involve mistakes. After all, when transgender people learn that a friend or acquaintance has changed their pronoun, it takes us time to get it right, too. This also means making mistakes. Shattering any false image or goal of perfection is, I believe, essential for producing greater everyday acceptance of gender diversity and reducing anti-transgender microaggression. It can build trust with willing yet nervous folks when we’re real about how, yes, transgender people mispronoun each other sometimes. As a movement, I believe we need to create a space that people want to step into. And while I whole-heartedly embrace the notion – both personally and in my academic work – that intentionality has little to do with the impact of our actions on others, as a teacher I also know that people need their intentionality to matter. Because I am a singular they user, I can say that it does matter: an honest mistake feels like an honest mistake.

However.

The ethic of “no big deal” is not a free pass to keep on making mistakes, over and over again, even honest ones. It’s also not a free pass from consequence. And recalling my Tweets up there, it is no guarantee that you won’t lose a transgender friend or colleague or date or family member if you keep on making that same old (even honest) mistake. When I teach about barriers faced by gender-neutral pronoun (GNP) users (many of which are experienced by transgender people regardless of their pronoun), I explicitly talk about this dynamic even as I work to create a space where mistakes are expected as part of the learning process:

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Alt text: PPT slide on resistance as a barrier faced by gender-neutral pronoun (GNP) users, including invalidation (mis-gendering by people who have been informed of one’s GNP), active refusal (saying no) or passive refusal (just using someone’s name, saying ‘this is too hard,’ or a forget/apologize dynamic that doesn’t change.

As a form of passive refusal to use someone’s pronoun, a forget/apologize dynamic that doesn’t change can be attributable to many things. It could be that a person just doesn’t encounter enough opportunities to practice (the solution being to ask for and seek out opportunities or advice). But people are generally more complicated. If something matters to us, we do our best. We remind ourselves before we see someone that this is something they need (be it a cupcake, an accessible washroom, or freedom from talking about an unpleasant topic). If we continually forget a person’s need, it might help to pay attention to that forgetting and learn that there is something about the need that we don’t understand or agree with. We aren’t convinced that this is legit. We have questions, we need answers.

This is an honest place, a starting place. One can both know that it is a social good to engage with transgender people in a way that respects our gender identities, and be honest that one is a beginner. A beginner is someone who knows that there are things they need to look up, to Google, or to practice. Beginners expect practice and expect their own mistakes. Beginners take pride in improvement over time.

The No Big Deal Campaign is for everyone, but particularly has the beginner in mind. I believe that there must be a place for beginners in any movement to benefit transgender people because transgender people need institutions – and the people who are/in them – to do a better job in relation to our needs. Chances are those people are just beginning to engage with and understand anything to do with transgender anything, and that’s both okay and unavoidable.

So, be a beginner. Occupy that space with your whole heart. Work at it and take pride in getting it right when you do. Have compassion for yourself when you don’t. But like every beginner, know that you aren’t a beginner forever. And if you find yourself still making rookie mistakes long after the fact, be honest with yourself about your own resistance, be curious about where it comes from, and ask a coach.

We Are They, Episode 3: Asiskiy Kisik

Greeting friends,

Our names are Ruth and Luke. We are the parents of two amazing little people (Ruth is Mohawk and Luke is a non-Indigenous person that parents two Indigenous children). This is a part of our eldest, Asiskiy Kisik’s, story. Asiskiy Kisik is a Two Spirit six year old child that uses ‘they’ pronouns. Over the past 18 months, as Asiskiy Kisik has used they as their pronoun, we have attempted to explore and support positive and proud means of identity development. As a Two Spirit, non-binary person, Asiskiy Kisik has very few spaces where their story is centred and their pronouns are respected. As parents, we are excited to share our family story. We actually offered to share this story.

This story is being facilitated by our friend, Lee, who we think was the first person that Asiskiy Kisik knew that used they as a pronoun. In writing this, we acknowledge our relationship to Lee as someone who we trust, however, we acknowledge that having a non-Indigenous person write this story could be challenging and triggering for others. There are many incidents of how Indigenous stories told through a non-Indigenous storyteller have caused damage to Indigenous peoples. Having the stories of Two Spirit people told by non-Indigenous people has caused damage. There has been a history of anthropological assumptions and prescriptions about Two Spirit people that have really harmed Two Spirit people. We want to acknowledge and provide warning that this story is the story of a Two Spirit person told to a non-Indigenous person. We want to give Indigenous peoples the heads up. This is an attempt to centre a Two Spirit story in a non-exotified way. We, as parents, do not identify as Two Spirit, but are an Indigenous family.

We also want to talk about the fact that we are using a pseudonym for Asiskiy Kisik, which is their Spirit name but are using our first names as parents. We want to give Asiskiy Kisik the ability to control their social media presence as they age, hence the pseudonym. We also want to ensure that Asksiky Kisik always knows that their parents are proud of them, so we are using our first names as a way to claim this story with respect and pride.

We ask that you read this story with the love and care that it was shared.

Nya:weh,

Ruth and Luke


 

In Episode Three of the WE ARE THEY series, we meet six year-old Asiskiy Kisik (pronounced as-kee kee-sik), a Two-Spirited person of the Mohawk Nation who lives in Toronto with their Ista Ruth, Papa Luke, and younger sister. Asiskiy Kisik is perhaps the youngest self-identified and out Two-Spirit in Ontario. This knowledge comes from Ruth and the constellation of Two-Spirit adults who have become a part of Asiskiy Kisik’s everyday life.

As my readers know, each episode of WE ARE THEY is based on an interview with someone who uses singular they, either because it’s their own pronoun or because they use it consistently in other ways. The series aims to share the diversity of singular they usage and users, and how gender-neutral pronouns are making change in the world around us, every day. I know that many folks reading this blog are not Indigenous, and I myself am a second-generation white settler of English, Scottish and Slovak heritage. My parents owned property, raised us and prospered on the unceded territory of the Musqueam First Nation on the west coast.

Asiskiy Kisik and their family have been a part of my life almost since they were born. For years now I have played with Asiskiy Kisik and their little sister, I have played music with their Papa, and I have talked and laughed my face off with their Ista. Creating this piece was a many-month process of hanging out, talking, and deepening this relationship. Through teas, dinners, conversations, and play dates, we (Asiskiy Kisik, their family and I) reviewed and edited drafts. Ruth asked Two-Spirit adults in Asiskiy Kisik’s life to weigh in on the process and the product. I am honoured by this family’s trust as the facilitator of this story, which is not my own.

To echo what Ruth and Luke shared above, the appropriation and misunderstanding of Two-Spiritedness by settlers has led and continues to lead to many types of harm for Two-Spirit people. My intention in writing this piece is grounded in my relationship with and responsibility toward Asiskiy Kisik and their family, in particular, and in my sense of responsibility as a queer and transgender settler toward Two-Spirit people. As a teacher educator, I hold myself responsible for how my students (future teachers) will greet, serve and work alongside Two-Spirit students and their families. There are very few resources available to support this work in teacher education, and I will be sharing this piece with my students. As a queer and transgender community member, I also know that many settler LGBTQ+ folks have little or no understanding of what Two-Spirit means (and does not mean). The settler-dominated LGBTQ+ community can be as hostile a place for Indigenous people as any other settler-dominated community. And so, overall, I offer this post in the hope that my readers, my students and I will be able to offer a more complex allyship and solidarity to Two-Spirit people, grounded in the knowledge that our journeys are not the journeys of Two-Spirit people despite sometimes using the same pronouns. Our proper, ethical posture will always be that of an engaged learner. This piece is a starting place, and these are the audiences I have in mind.

Because this piece is a staring place, it is important to describe the meaning and origins of the term Two-Spirit. Two-Spirit is a term often used by Indigenous people whose gender and/or sexuality don’t follow the path of others in their communities. Two-Spirit is a literal English translation of the Anishinaabemowin term niizh manidoowag and was proposed for this purpose by Indigenous people attending the third annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference held near Beausejour, Manitoba in 1990.[1] Two-Spirit is often thought to be an add-Indigenous-and-stir substitute for other words in the LGBTTSIQQA+ acronym, which it isn’t. Rather, Two-Spirit has a meaning both like and unlike words such as ‘queer’ or ‘transgender.’ One shouldn’t presume that an Indigenous queer and/or trans person will necessarily use it. Depending on many things, like a person’s community ties and family histories, the term Two-Spirit might not be a good fit.

Interviewing a six year-old about things like identity and pronouns was a delightful challenge, made possible by Ruth, who knew exactly what questions to ask.


 

“HELLO PERSON AT HOME!” Asiskiy Kisik hollars into my iPhone, seized by the idea of someone listening to our conversation later and welcoming them in with warmth and gusto. Ruth clarifies things: “it’s going to be Lee who’s listening, silly!” “Oh!” They laugh. When I do listen later on, I laugh too while holding my headphones a full six inches away from my ears.

I begin with a few earnest yet feeble attempts at probing a six year-old’s relationship with their pronoun. I ask Asiskiy Kisik why they use singular they. “I liked the idea of it,” they say, “and because people were hurting me on who I was, and I didn’t like that.” I ask them how their pronoun goes at school: do other kids use it? As is fairly common in Toronto public schools, Asiskiy Kisik’s is a uniform school where the only visible gender marker is often a kid’s hair, and Asiskiy Kisik’s is long in braids and barrettes. They reply that almost everyone uses their pronoun. Apparently, the only kid who won’t use Asiskiy Kisik’s pronoun isn’t singling them out. He’s just not very nice to anyone.

“So how does it feel using they?” I ask. “Good!” they say. “Do you like it?” “Yes, I like it!” Having watched me give it my best shot, Ruth expertly chimes in. “Asiskiy Kisik, are you a boy?” she asks, with a quizzical affect. “No!” Asiskiy Kisik asserts. “Are you a girl?” “No!” “Not a little bit boy and a little bit girl?” “No. I’m just an Asiskiy Kisik,” they reply, shaking their head and adding “I’m not a boy OR a girl!” Ruth continues. “And were you born a Two-Spirit?” Asiskiy Kisik nods. “And when did you become a Two-Spirit?” “When I was up with Creator,” they say.

Ruth explains to me that, in Mohawk teachings, each person comes into this world with a basket of things to help them: “you sit with the Four Sacred Beings and they help you figure out everything you need in your life. And so Asiskiy Kisik put this in their basket. It’s just who they are.” Asiskiy Kisik has an urgent question. “But I wasn’t holding a basket in the spirit world was I?” This prompts Ruth to distinguish between ‘literal’ and ‘figurative,’ as well as share her own nuanced and critical interpretation of the teaching. Asiskiy Kisik listens intently, busying their hands with my notebook and pen. “And being a Two-Spirit is a good thing to have in one’s basket,” Ruth concludes. “It’s a really good way to engage the world.”

“‘This one is my responsibility.’”

When Ruth was pregnant with Asiskiy Kisik, two different Elders told her that she “was carrying ‘a different child.’” After they were born, a Two-Spirit Elder named Blu “took Asiskiy Kisik from my arms, and took them for a walk. And when they came back, Blu said ‘this one is my responsibility, just so you know.’” Today, Asiskiy Kisik is surrounded by Two-Spirit adults, including an Auntie-Uncle and their two care providers who are Anishinaabe and Migmaw trans people, respectively. I ask if this was intentional, and it wasn’t. Ruth asked people whom she trusts to nominate care providers who in turn have their trust. This is just who arrived. “A lot of local Two-Spirit people have taken on a real responsibility with this one,” she says.

This responsibility will likely come to be Asiskiy Kisik’s own some day. We’re having tea and cookies as Ruth tells me what being a Two-Spirit could mean for Asiskiy Kisik’s future. “Asiskiy Kisik understands that they will probably have to do responsibilities as they grow older,” she explains. “They will not be ‘just a kid.’ They’ll be a kid who has to experience some teachings and learn how to…” Ruth pauses, seized by a movement in her peripheral vision. “And just how many cookies are you thinking you’re getting??” I follow her gaze to Asiskiy Kisik, who has enjoyed several cookies at this point and now has another one in each hand. They let out a stream of words: “I’m-not-eating-them-I’m-just-holding-them!” To no avail – the cookies go back into the jar. I point out the juxtaposition between Asiskiy Kisik the future Two-Spirit Mohawk Elder and Asiskiy Kisik the six year-old cookie liberator, and we hoot with laughter. Asiskiy Kisik is all the things they are, all at one time.

“A truck and a My Little Pony!”

About a year and a half before our interview, two incidents prompted Ruth to seek further avenues for Asiskiy Kisik to explore who they are. In each incident, the family received direct messages from strangers that Asiskiy Kisik’s gender was somehow unacceptable. On the bus, Ruth corrected an older man who was waxing on about the beauty of ‘her girls.’ The man became irate and violent. Soon after, staff at the family’s favourite diner took note of Asiskiy Kisik’s variable clothing. “The time before, Asiskiy Kisik had worn a dress and asserted their pronouns,” Ruth relates, “which obviously was very uncomfortable for the owner. And the next time we came in we waited twenty minutes for them to take our order and when I ordered my coffee it was more or less thrown across the table at me. So we left.” The significance of either incident was not lost on Asiskiy Kisik. It was time to do something.

Ruth contacted Blu, the Elder who had predicted Asiskiy Kisik’s path before they were born, and Blu suggested a Cree ceremony for children thought to be Two-Spirit. Although Asiskiy Kisik is Mohawk, “it would have been all the same world view,” Ruth explains, “just different ceremonies.” Ruth asks Asiskiy Kisik if they’d like to tell me about about their ceremony. “Remember when Blu came over and you got your Two-Spirit name?” Asiskiy Kisik insists they’d rather show me than tell me. And besides, they say, “I still have all the props!” They reach under the couch I’m sitting on and haul out the collapsible play fort in which the ceremony took place. Asiskiy Kisik prepares the scene on the living room floor while Ruth narrates. “We put inside two very gendered items…” “A truck and a My Little Pony!” interjects Asiskiy Kisik. In the traditional Cree ceremony, Ruth explains, a child would be encouraged to enter a tent containing bows and baskets. “They would pull out what is theirs, and be raised for those teachings.” Asiskiy Kisik then dramatically re-creates their own entry and exit from the tent/fort eighteen months ago. “Like this! Like this!” they shout, while gleefully launching their body off the couch and into the fort. To their great delight, I tell them that I need to see it again to really understand what happened. And maybe just one more time after that. We come back to the story. At first, Asiskiy Kisik brought out the truck, sat down, and refused to look at it. Ruth recalls Blu’s response: “she said, ‘if you could go back in and I told you that you could bring out both items, what would you have done?’ And Asiskiy Kisik’s response was ‘I would only bring out the My Little Pony.’” And that’s what happened next. In the long conversation that ensued, Asiskiy Kisik received a Two-Spirit Cree name from Blu which means ‘sky and earth.’ One doesn’t have to be either one thing or the other.

Do trans people have bedtimes?

When you centre a six year-old Two-Spirit, you learn some useful lessons about settler colonialism. For one, the Toronto trans march happens on Friday night whereas the general pride and dyke marches happen in the daytime on Saturday and Sunday. Holding the trans march at night is colonizing, and here’s why: the guiding assumption that trans people are adults without bedtimes draws on a linear Western developmental trajectory. It obscures the possibility that Two-Spirits and trans people could be young children. “Asiskiy Kisik wanted to do something to celebrate them,” Ruth says. “It’s their day!” And so the family invited their people to a picnic instead. “Asiskiy Kisik and I made little pride flags out of popsicle sticks and gave them to everybody. And as we all sat down, people were doing pronouns. It was great!” This kind of space where pronoun sharing is already normalized is a place to rest and refuel, not only for Asiskiy Kisik but for their adults, too.

“‘No, they’re neither.’”

Last summer we were all at the first birthday party of our mutual friends’ child in a small local park. Asiskiy Kisik and their sister together circulated among the play structure, the water park, and our picnic blankets in a pretty regular rhythm. At one point, Asiskiy Kisik came back and asked Ruth to do something she does very often these days: introduce Asiskiy Kisik to another child, in which she states Asiskiy Kisik’s pronoun. At times, Ruth feels torn between fostering Asiskiy Kisik’s self-advocacy skills and prioritizing their safety. “Am I over-parenting for them? Am I over-supporting socialization,” she often asks herself. “But they’re not ready. And they’re still really shy around other kids. They’re a lot ‘cooler’ and a lot more outgoing around adults.”

When Asiskiy Kisik asks her for help, Ruth has a clear strategy. “Whenever I introduce my kids I give both of their pronouns. ‘This is Asiskiy Kisik. They use ‘they’ as their pronoun.’ It is just the expectation.” Some people follow up by asking whether Asiskiy Kisik is ‘a girl or a boy,’ a question met with Ruth’s solid and unyielding reponse: “‘no, they’re neither. They use ‘they’ pronouns.’ I make it the norm that everyone should be doing this: saying what our pronouns are. ‘It’s not a big deal. This is what we do. These are just the right words to use for this person.’” Overall, though, Ruth reports that most people hear and understand. In fact, “I’m shocked by how many people get it.” Some parents even return the gesture and share their own and their children’s pronouns, unprompted.

That time at the birthday party, though, it didn’t go so well. The other adult dissuaded the child from playing with Asiskiy Kisik altogether. As Ruth walked back over to us, I noticed she was upset and guessed why. We talked about it, and right afterwards another party guest mispronouned Asiskiy Kisik. An accident, of course, but it all adds up.

“It’s about everything.”

When an adult trans person like me encounters a gender non-conforming kid so clearly and strongly self-identified, we often feel a powerful projection: that they are somehow like us. Perhaps this is also true in reverse; I may be in my thirties but, if you think about it, Asiskiy Kisik has no true peers. They’re younger than the other Two-Spirits they know. Their gender pathway is also different from the one taken by settler non-binary and/or transgender kids. While Asiskiy Kisik and I use the very same pronoun, mine tells others not to put me in the M or F box but does little else. My white settler culture doesn’t have a ceremony or a sense of my responsibility toward others like me. We don’t have a way of narrating as teachings the struggles I go through as a transgender person. That’s something I’ve had to find on my own. And when others don’t use my pronoun, it might be intentional or accidental, but it’s thought to be always, only about my gender. My white settler privilege also makes my gender seem ‘simple’ and possibly even detached from culture. This is something that greases my wheels as I wander around with this pronoun and in this body: that this is seen to be ‘just about gender’ and nothing else.

For the teachers and administrators at Asiskiy Kisik’s school, being called on to use Asiskiy Kisik’s pronoun is certainly not just about gender. As Ruth puts it, “it’s about everything.” In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its call to educators to help form a new relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples, every Canadian teacher knows they have a role in reconciliation (even if they aren’t yet sure what to do about it). Correctly using Asiskiy Kisik’s pronoun isn’t just ‘supporting a trans kid.’ It’s one of many daily enactments of the teacher’s role in reconciliation, because they/them is the meagre best that Standard English can do to recognize Asiskiy Kisik as a Two-Spirit in everyday speech. Right now, settler teachers don’t yet have all the tools to do this work on their own, but there are beginnings. And Asiskiy Kisik’s community is willing to help. At the time of writing, Blu and another Two Spirit person are planning to visit Asiskiy Kisik’s school and give some teachings about Two-Spirit people. It’s easy to look ahead and see Asiskiy Kisik doing the very same thing one day.


 

[1] More information on this gathering is provided on the websites of Two Spirited People of Manitoba and the Rainbow Resource Centre.