gender-neutral pronoun

Make mine a word salad: ‘Chosen pronoun,’ ‘preferred pronoun,’ or just plain pronoun?

milknhoneey said:

i saw your post about the inclusion of pronouns in bios. i just wanted you to know that saying preferred pronouns is not correct. using the right pronouns is not optional, which is what preferred implies

Hello milknhoneey, and thanks for your comment.

My goal in the pronoun work that I do is to loosen up as many rigid rules as possible in order to call people in to doing the work using the tools they already have (e.g., how to apologize when you make a good-faith mistake). I think this is better than producing circumstances where people can give themselves an ‘out’ because they come to believe that gender-neutral pronoun users are on another planet and that meeting our needs requires a niche skillset, vocabulary and mastery of protocol.

I’ve thought long and hard about ‘my preferred pronoun’ versus ‘my chosen pronoun’ versus just ‘my pronoun’ etc. and I deliberately move around in my usage of these phrases, sometimes using all three. This is because, as above, I want inward-facing debates of this kind to yield to conversations about exactly how GNP users can go about getting our needs met by all the different constituencies in our lives. I want more skill-sharing and less debate. Also, as a teacher, I do a lot of work with my (mostly cis-gender) students to notice and name their own preferences in the gender department, and to own their own gendered intelligence and strategies for presenting and being read as the kind of (odds are) man or woman they identify as. I believe that the more this kind of expertise is situated as such, the more people can be called in. I know that many folks have bad experiences with ‘preference’ language, and my strategy there is to make more visible the preferences that cis-gender people also have but which are invisible as such.

I hope this provides some food for thought, and all the best,

Lee

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You don’t have to be in one basket all the time, for everything.

Anonymous asked:

I’ve always been known as a daughter, sister, and she. Recently, though, I think I started liking/using the terms child, sibling, and they. I don’t know why…. I’ve been using these words online (partially to keep my identity safe and partially because they sound right) but I feel like I’m,,, faking my gender. I’m still mostly /okay/ with ‘she’ – it’s what I’ve been called since I was a baby – I just really don’t like feminine titles/addresses (daughter, sister, Ms., etc.)

Hello Anonymous!

I think that your question is very important. The way that gender normatively works is by insisting that we take all or nothing: that we either do ALL of these things, or ALL of these other things. Sometimes transgender folks get caught up in this too (this is why we have transgender conservatives and libertarians openly advocating against non-binary folk).

But I digress. Basically, within your own local network of close people, I suggest that you choose the ones who are the most important to you and actually just have a conversation about the kinds of things that feel good to you and the kinds of things that don’t. You don’t have to choose an entire basket just to get some people to stop mindlessly doing things that don’t work for you.

Now, outside of your network, having these needs met will take more (or a different) sort of effort/energy because gender is often all we have to rely on when dealing with strangers. The trick is to calibrate parts of your life so that you have your needs met there, as best as you can, so that when you venture into parts which (for now) might be more challenging the gender needs department, you have enough gas in your tank.

I hope this helps, and write back sometime,

Lee

Unloading on someone who makes a good-faith pronoun mistake is both understandable and not okay. Paradox!

Anonymous asked:

Do you know of anyone who describes themselves as a woman or man but doesn’t accept she/her or he/him? I just got yelled at online for assuming a self-described woman used she/her pronouns. I know you can be nonbinary and woman or man-aligned, but I thought even for those people, she/her or he/him was accepted. I’m wondering if this is just a ploy to trip people up (since the person in question is abusive) or if you can actually be a woman and not use she/her.

Hi Anonymous!

First, let it be known loud and clear that using a gender-neutral pronoun (GNP) is not a free pass for behaviour that is harming of others. Yes, people who use a pronoun that departs from normative expectation can face all kinds of barriers and difficulties. And yes, the everyday stress of being a GNP user can cause an explosion of pent-up hurt to erupt onto someone who made an honest mistake. This is understandable.

But to my eyes, that this is understandable doesn’t make it okay. Ever. It’s an occasion for repair of some kind, to whatever extent possible and in whatever form possible. Sometimes that can’t happen. That sucks, and again is both simultaneously understandable and not okay. A paradox. In my experience in communities, the absence of this nuance – both understandable AND not okay – has enabled harming behaviour. And outside of our communities, a lack of nuance will not get us anywhere in the ally department.

More specifically, I don’t know of any people who openly, explicitly identify as women and exclusively use they/them to the extent that she/her is unwelcome. I also haven’t heard of people claiming a pronoun and using that to intentionally deceive or wield power over others. Having a gender-neutral pronoun takes a lot of work, and is likely too labour-intensive to maintain if it is not a life-affirming need.

I have no data on your situation or on this person, of course, and I generally tilt toward self-identification in these matters (i.e., that people can use the pronoun that works for them and should have it respected). That said, unloading on someone who made a mistake is not okay (despite, yes, being understandable). I hope that in the space(s) you share with this person there is nuance, courage and compassion. Sometimes there isn’t, and we need to do better.

Thanks for writing,

Lee

On dating ‘a they’ and chronic coming out

Anonymous asked:

Thanks for your work. My partner started using they pronouns a few months ago. I feel okay about using it around family and friends, but telling new people is hard. Does it get easier? We’re getting pretty serious (sometimes talking about marriage and kids) and I’m worried that I will forever be stressed about using their pronouns around new people (especially since my job involves a lot of travel and conversations with clients usually come to asking about partners/personal things.)

Hello Anonymous! This is a brave and important question to ask.

It is true that dating ‘a they’ has challenges that don’t pop up when dating ‘a he’ or ‘a she.’ Today people are always listening for gender markers in how we describe our partners (in some ways, the outmoded presumption of heterosexuality allowed a kind of invisibility – but I digress). What I can tell you is that decisions about this are as individual as people themselves. Your own employment context, your partner’s needs and feelings, and your energy level are all factors that need to be considered as you move forward together.

Because you are thinking future, I think we can take solace in the fact that using singular they/them is becoming more understood in many (North American) contexts and encountering ‘a they’ is less and less of an out-of-body experience. Yesterday I was at a car dealership in the Toronto outskirts with my partner, and when I gently asked the salesman not to call us ‘ladies,’ he responded by telling me about the TV show Billions (which I haven’t even watched yet) and its ‘gender-neutral’ character who uses they/them. Basically, he was letting me know that he’s aware of my deal in an awkward but kindly way, and he moved on quickly and well. (He had studiously avoided using any pronoun for me the entire time.) I see and believe that dating (or being) ‘a they’ will only become less and less of a thing in the coming years. And yes, we were potential customers aka people who were not to be alienated due to our privilege. I don’t know what would have happened if we met on equal footing in his private life. However, I choose to believe that people usually don’t suck, even if only because refusal takes more energy than just going with it.

That said, I have long accepted that being me requires my close people in my life to do some extra work. And many of my close people have particular needs that require extra work from me as well. However, the kind of extra work that I need takes on a bit more visibility and attention sometimes. At moments when you are already tired, or already nervous, they-ing your partner to a stranger or mere acquaintance can be a coming out that you might just have no energy for. Or, it might actually put you at a disadvantage in some workplaces.

I strongly believe that owning up to this humanness and walking beside your partner as a co-conspirator and comrade is your best strategy. Long term, you are far more likely to break up because you keep a lofty standard that burns you out and makes you resent your partner, than if you are real about the ways in which the world does and does not facilitate well-being for people who use gender-neutral pronouns (and our loved ones). Don’t let real societal barriers manifest in your relationship as a refusal of those barriers. Be real with each other, talk about when/where you need to do the work and when/where your partner really just doesn’t have to know or care (like far away from anyone they would ever know), and ensure that you always have external, non-judgmental supports who are not each other.

And lastly, I asked my partner if it does get easier: yes!

My very best to you both, and write back some time,

Lee

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:

Screen Shot 2017-04-26 at 5.41.25 PM

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.

Lee’s remarks from the launch of the No Big Deal Campaign

Welcome! Thank you for coming here today to help us launch the No Big Deal Campaign, at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, located on the territories of Anishinaabe and Onkwehonwe peoples.

My name is Dr. Lee Airton. I’m a sessional lecturer in the Master of Teaching Program here at OISE. I’m also a non-binary transgender person and the creator of the NBD Campaign. Since 2012, I’ve been using singular they as my personal gender pronoun.

The NBD Campaign happened because, in the recent controversy around gender-neutral pronouns, I didn’t recognize the everyday life of being a gender-neutral pronoun user. In the fog of a highly polarized debate, absent were the many people – my co-workers here at OISE, colleagues across Canada, the people at the climbing gym or the store or the barbershop or on my block – people who use my pronoun despite, perhaps, not knowing much about transgender politics. Despite not knowing much about my life story. They use it, it works for me, and we get by. This is something that I hear from other gender-neutral pronoun users both in conversation and on my blog: that it doesn’t always matter that someone shares my politics, as long as they’re willing to use my pronoun.

In dire warnings that a pronoun error would be a disaster or even a hate crime, I didn’t recognize the times when people I know have made a good-faith mistake with my pronoun, when I’ve reminded them, and when we’ve moved on together in the knowledge that our connection isn’t founded on a promise of perfection that can be really hard to live up to.

Because I’m not perfect either. When someone I know undergoes a change in how they move through the world – be it a name, nickname, married name, relationship status, health status, whathaveyou – sometimes I make a mistake. I get it wrong or I say the wrong thing. When someone I know changes their pronoun, it takes a little extra effort.

I’ll speak for a moment about what ‘NBD’ means to me, personally.

My pronoun is a very big deal, to me. It’s taken me a long time to find it. I was a kid when strangers first used a pronoun to tell me who I was, and what I was allowed to do. They thought they knew something about me just because they suddenly heard other people refer to me with a word. And that word would take away my freedom of choice: to decide how I’d spend my recess, how I got to play, with what and with whom. It took away my freedom to spend my time and energy on play rather than passing as the boy that I didn’t want to be either.

Today, when people use my pronoun – singular they – this makes an incredible, palpable difference to my well-being. I’ve noticed over time that it allows me to be a kinder, gentler person who isn’t always on guard against the gendered expectations buried in so much of our everyday language and practices. It saves me precious time and energy that I can spend on being a better listener, teacher, ally, co-worker; a better partner, sibling, kid, untie, friend, and even stranger.

My pronoun is a big deal to me. But as an educator, I know that it doesn’t have to be a big deal to others in order for them to just use it. You can do this little thing for me without fully understanding why I need it, or what it means, at least not yet. Maybe we’ll become friends and you’ll find out.

This is the spirit in which I created the NBD Campaign.

This is a Campaign about action, not just awareness. If NBD raises peoples’ awareness of gender-neutral pronouns, that’s a happy side effect. But for me, posting the badge is a sign that someone is willing to take action. Reading the infographics is a sign that someone is willing to put time and energy into learning how to advocate for my right to have my chosen pronoun respected.

The Campaign won’t convince people who are staunchly opposed to respecting gender-neutral pronoun users. It’s also not aimed primarly at people like me who are actively doing the political work of advocating and educating around transgender rights. Rather, its main audience is the majority who fall somewhere in-between: people who are willing to do this thing and do their best. To let you know that a space with them in it is one where people like me stand a chance of being, staying and staying well enough to come back some time.

In this climate, it’s a really big deal to me to see visible signs that people who aren’t caught up in the polarized debate are willing to do this thing. For example, I know willingness exists in spades right here at OISE, where I work. But this doesn’t mean that other gender-neutral pronoun users know. And now, hopefully, they will.

If the NBD Campaign is successful, it’ll be because people whose pronoun isn’t obvious to the eye, the ear or the brain get to walk around and see these real signs of peoples’ willingness to do this thing that’s a big deal to us, but not necessarily a big deal to them.

This is what NBD means to me. Please use our grafitti wall to show us what NBD means to you, and consider stepping into the photo booth to show your support on social media alongside a gynormous version of the badge.

Our beautiful badge, designed by Cai Sepulis, has been available and circulating online for the past couple of days. I made the badge because I’ve been receiving countless private expressions of support from friends and colleagues in the past few weeks, and I wanted to create a way for other people to feel that support, too, if they were not.

Today I’m proud to share with you the other component of the Campaign: the infographics.

Each infographic takes on one argument that has emerged as a seemingly legitimate reason for refusing to use someone’s gender-neutral pronoun. But each argument is actually illegitimate, and these show precisely why. If you display our badge, you might get some questions or some push back and the infographics are designed to help you out. Each segment offers an instant counter-argument and a longer explanation, informed by experts in linguistics, philosophy and law. You might find some more fitting or useful than others, which is why they are available separately on nbdcampaign.ca.

In fact, all of the NBD campaign materials are available for you, in many formats, to use however you like in support of everyone’s chosen pronoun. Make bags, make coasters, make posters, make postcards, make buttons, make T-shirts. Take this thing and run with it! Just please include the Campaign’s URL so people can find out more.

I’ll close by saying that the NBD Campaign is just one tool in a whole toolbox. It can’t do all the things, or meet all the needs, and it isn’t designed to do so. I’m really excited to see and support a variety of other responses to this climate.

Announcing the No Big Deal Campaign!

My pronoun is a big deal. Using it shouldn’t be.

nbcbadgerev2

*SHARE ME!*

Hello TIMP readers! In case you aren’t aware, there has been a fairly large kerfuffle about gender-neutral pronouns in Canada (I say more about this here). I’ve been doing many things in response to this kerfuffle including talking to the media (listed in my CV if you’re interested) and working with a bunch of organizations and the award-winning graphic designer Cai Sepulis to launch an educational social media campaign. Here’s more from the campaign website:

The NBD Campaign is a positive and affirming response to the current conflict around gender-neutral pronouns like singular they/them and ze/hir (instead of she/her or he/him). Using someone’s preferred gender pronoun is an easy way to show your support for everyone’s right to live safely and well in their gender identity. It can make a world of difference when the correct pronoun is used, and when others begin to catch their own mistakes, say sorry, and just move on. Another way to support users is to indicate your own pronoun preference (whether you are transgender or no, as we all have a preference). Some people do this on their Twitter or Facebook profiles, and others do this in their email signatures. Of course, posting the NBD badge or infographics is another way to create a more supportive space around you for people who use gender-neutral pronouns. Especially now in this challenging climate, gender-neutral pronoun users need to feel and hear that their identities will be respected.

The infographics answer common arguments against using someone’s gender-neutral pronoun and will be released at the launch on December 1st (in Toronto). The badge has already been released on social media. All campaign materials are free and available for all to use in support of GNP users and usage. Make buttons, bags, coasters and whatever else you desire, then share it with us on Twitter or Instagram using #nbdcampaign.

Wish us luck – this thing is already flying around Facebook!

Warmly,

Lee

Lee interviewed about singular they and the pronoun ‘battle’ in Canada

If you’ve ever wondered what I sound like when I’m talking about gender-neutral pronoun issues and not just when I’m writing about them, voila! Last week I was interviewed by David Crowe for his long-running weekly podcast radio show The Infectious Myth. It was a charmingly informal conversation, and hopefully provided some answers and soundbites for anyone involved in challenging pronoun conversations, whether in Canada or elsewhere.

Let me know your thoughts, TIMP readers!

Lee

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.

 

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.