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.