singular they

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.

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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.

Announcing the No Big Deal Campaign!

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

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*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.

 

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.

A new TIMP series! WE ARE THEY, Episode 1: Raising Avery

Since its birth five years ago, TIMP has been devoted to answering questions from gender-neutral pronoun users and allies, and sharing resources. Just like singular they is growing and becoming more common, TIMP is evolving. While I’ll continue to respond to new questions and direct askers to questions already answered, today I’m starting a new series of posts that will profile diverse folks who use singular they.

Each episode in the series WE ARE THEY will be based on an interview with someone who uses singular they, either because it’s their personal 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.

The first episode in WE ARE THEY features Helene, her partner Curtis, and Avery, their toddler. Helene sat down with Lee and shared how she and Curtis are raising Avery in a gender-open way, including using singular they as Avery’s pronoun.


WE ARE THEY, Episode 1. Raising Avery

Usually when a person uses singular they, it’s their own decision. As many of us know, this leads to a lot of hard work: coming out, answering questions, correcting other peoples’ mistakes, and sometimes literally fighting for our right to use our chosen pronoun. However, a small but growing number of (brand new) people are singular they users even before they have any awareness of gender at all, let alone of who they would like to be in the gender department. And it’s their parents who are doing this hard work, at least in the beginning.

“We wanted our child to be able to be who they are from the start.”

When they were getting ready to have Avery, Helene and Curtis made the decision to practice gender-open parenting. To the best of their ability, they would get out of the way and provide an open space for Avery to explore. “We wanted our child to be able to be who they are from the start,” Helene explains. “We just didn’t want to put any boundaries or constraints on them gender-wise so they can identify how they will, and play how they will, and dress how they want to. We just thought, why not let them do this from the beginning?” Helene is clear that this isn’t gender-neutral or ‘genderless’ parenting. “Avery has masculine expressions, feminine expressions, andro expressions and who-gives-a-shit expressions,” she says. Gender is very much a part of Avery’s world, but what that looks like depends on the day (and the weather).

Helene and Curtis’ own identities informed their choice to parent in a gender-open way. They both identify as queer, and Curtis as a transgender man. Helene and Curtis were initially puzzled by people – many queer, some transgender – who share their values but chose their baby’s names and pronouns the old fashioned way: based on external genitalia alone. “People say ‘oh, I’d be very supportive if my child was trans but we’re using this pronoun or assuming this gender and I’ll support them if they tell me differently.” Helene and Curtis feel that keeping gender open means not assigning a binary gender to Avery at all until Avery makes up their own mind. But Helene acknowledges that this decision might be less possible for other parents. “They might experience enough scrutiny on their parenting already as a same-sex couple, or perhaps they live in a place where even boys just playing with dolls is seen as transgressive. These real barriers may make some parents fearful, and we understand that.”

“It’s hard to dress a kid to not signify.”

For these parents, an important part of keeping gender open for Avery is the language they use to refer to them. As one of the world’s youngest singular they users (I’ll wager), Avery goes from bus to day care to park to home with Helene and Curtis trying their hardest to ensure that others use Avery’s pronoun. As an infant, Avery had ‘My Pronoun is They’ patches sewn onto their onesies, and it worked. Babies and toddlers are androgynous anyway, usually registering as male unless they have pink outfits, pierced ears, long hair, or bejewelled elastic bands around their little bald heads. As time goes on, Helene and Curtis try to select Avery’s clothing to help others correctly gender them, but “it’s hard to have Avery present in a way that doesn’t indicate gender. Whether it’s clothes or whether it’s Avery’s face or hair, or whether it’s society, people do gender Avery most of the time. Occasionally I’ll have someone ask if Avery is a boy or a girl but most of the time people just assume based on what they see.” Gender-open parenting involves presenting a child who is neither a girl nor a boy as neither, and as Helene observes, “it’s hard to dress a kid to not signify.” This raises an interesting (and impossible) question about singular they users: what do ‘we’ look like?

When a stranger mis-genders Avery (by using he or she instead of they), Helene usually makes the choice to correct them based on whether Avery will see them again. “If we’re walking down the street and someone says ‘what a pretty girl!’ and they keep walking, I don’t say ‘well, ACTUALLY…’ and stop them!” We laugh, agreeing that this might be a bit much. “But if I’m at my playground and I’m talking with another parent, and we’re getting into a more friendly conversation that’s more than hi/bye, I will say ‘yeah that’s my kid. Actually, we’re raising Avery gender-open so we’re using they and them as pronouns and we’re letting Avery decide.’” Without this intervention, Avery is generally called a mixed bag of pronouns, most of them gendered. Helene wonders if the mixed bag could be having the desired effect of gender openness. It’s certainly easier to accept the mixed bag, she says, but it doesn’t change the world, “which isn’t why we’re doing it, but it’s a good benefit.”

“‘I’m just going to say Avery.’”

A main event in many toddler lives is the shift from parental care to extended family or day care. I was eager to know how Helene and Curtis were managing this recent transition now that Helene has returned to work. They’ve experienced a lot of supportive energy from caregivers, as well as a willingness to learn and ask questions. “But even people who know we’re using they/them/their still use a gendered pronoun a lot.” Helene sometimes thinks this is because caregivers see what kind of genitals Avery has, which is something unique about young children who use singular they: that people will have this knowledge and think they know something as a result. She also attributes mis-gendering to a basic unfamiliarity with singular they, and doesn’t feel like it’s malicious. But resistance can take on a more active form: “some people say ‘I’m not going to use they or them. I’m just going to say Avery.’” Although her family’s pronoun usage has improved over time, Helene jokes that the family’s hard work – both remembering and reminding – might be in vain. By the time everyone gets the hang of singular they, Avery might have chosen a binary pronoun! But if Avery later decides to use a different one, will other caregivers be able to go with it? This is a bigger question, and certainly isn’t unique to gender and pronouns. Do we trust any child to make major life-changing decisions for themselves? And is consistency the best evidence that they’re right?

To my mind, the issues around assigning singular they to a baby aren’t always that different from other issues facing new parents. To illustrate, Helene’s cousin was anxious about making a mistake, and issued a heated declaration: “I don’t want a rule book for how to be with Avery!” But are gender choices any more of a ‘rule book’ than other choices? Helene feels they aren’t, because “with every child there is a sense of a rule book. We’re the parents and we get to decide, and for some people that might be about what the child eats or what toys they play with or what words they use.” For some parents, that means tuna only once a month. For Helene and Curtis, that means singular they.

“‘So have they decided yet?’”

While some things may not be unique about raising a child with singular they, other things certainly are. Helene and I spoke about how the ‘I’ll just use your name’ tactic may feel legitimate because adults presume that a child will choose another pronoun, whereas an adult user is thought to have arrived at their ‘true self.’ Each assumption is problematic in its own way. Bravely, Helene wonders whether her and Curtis’ usual response – that Avery will eventually decide who they are – somehow contributes to this problem. And others are eager to know if ‘eventually’ has arrived. “Even my ten year-old neighbour often asks me ‘so have they decided yet?’ Do they know yet? Do you know?’” When answering children, Helene keeps the question open. “With littler kids especially I say ‘I don’t know! Maybe they’re a girl, maybe they’re a boy, maybe they’re both or neither!’ With older people I just say ‘we don’t know, they haven’t told us yet.’ But I don’t often say ‘we don’t know and maybe they’ll use they for the rest of their life.’” As more parents choose this path, it remains to be seen how the yet/eventually narration of children’s singular they usage will affect broader understandings of why folks choose this pronoun.

“‘I just have the one.’”

While I was delighted to hear that, on the whole, Helene and Curtis have had a positive experience of gender-open parenting, it seems like pronouns remain a major hurdle. Sometimes singular they can be funny when it goes wrong. When talking to strangers on the phone, Helene is consistently called on to deny that she has twins. “Early on when I would book a doctor’s appointment, I might say ‘they have a cold’ and the receptionist would reply ‘oh, both of them?’ No. I just have the one.” Starting a phone call with a brief explanation has proven effective over time. Sometimes, though, singular they is just one hurdle too many. When facing things more stressful than the common cold, when their family needs support or access to resources – this is when singular they can become just too heavy to bear. “And at those points sometimes I would just pick a gendered pronoun. Because I couldn’t or didn’t want to deal and so I said ‘forget it – I’m just going to use whatever’ because I needed that help.” And sometimes pronouns just don’t seem to matter at all. “For passports and travel I just do the genitals because that’s already so complicated,” she says.

“It’s so different if a child asks for it themself.”

How about the issue of choice, of who chose this path for Avery? After all, Avery didn’t decide to use singular they, or to present as non-binary. “I’ll put my child in whatever they want to wear as long as it’s safe and appropriate for wherever we’re going,” Helene insists, but until Avery chooses their own gender and pronoun, Helene and Curtis don’t have recourse to the argument that they are defending Avery’s autonomy. “It’s so different if a child asks for it themself,” she says. This is what parents of self-identified queer or transgender children can fall back on when their decisions are challenged. But, as Helene says, “it’s my decision right now. I decide what Avery wears. Sometimes I offer Avery a choice, but Avery doesn’t care.” It seems like other kids don’t care either. Avery’s five year-old cousin routinely escorts Avery around to everyone else on the playground, announcing that “this is my cousin and they’re a they.” Helene offers an explanation for this after taking a moment to choose her words. “When kids aren’t being pushed into a box, they can treat gender in a way that’s not heavy.” Whether singular they is a burden on Avery seems to depend on the environment Avery’s adults create. And so far, it doesn’t seem to be a burden at all.

Still, Helene and I wonder out loud whether gender-open parenting and singular they usage will actually matter, in the end. We both grew up in open-minded families and, like almost everyone else, were raised with a binary pronoun and the assumption that we were cis-gender and heterosexual. For countless adult queer and/or transgender people, we are who we are now in spite of and not because of the context in which we grew up. We laugh, though, when Helene admits her worry that this logic will pan out for Avery, too. “Part of using they/them is allowing Avery to be who they are. And that actually does mean that even if who they are is a right-wing conservative I still have to find a way to respect who they are.” And that’s that.

Listening to Helene, I think about my own future as a parent who is a non-binary transgender person and singular they user, and who shares values with Helene and Curtis. Will my partner and I use singular they for our children as a contingency – until they make up their own minds? Do we need to do this, if our children will have always known about non-binary gender-ness simply because they’re mine? Would gender-open parenting push them ‘the other way,’ in the end? Do I care? I don’t know. And I feel better not knowing when I remember Helene’s wise words as we began winding down our long conversation. “I think people think you have to have everything figured out if you want to do this, but you don’t.”

“But I’m a they!” When your child wants to change their pronoun

Anonyomous asked:

Approximately two months ago, our kindergartner requested that we (their parents) use they/them. Extended family, teachers at school, family friends, etc, have all heard my spouse and I use “they/them” in this context repeatedly, but most have not voluntarily changed their own usage. Do we let these folks know that “they/them” is now the preferred mode, or is this something we should leave up to our child (who is somewhat shy about this issue, but definitely prefers gender-neutral pronouns)?

Hello Anonymous!

First, your child is so very lucky to have you: parents who are willing and able to listen to them, honour their choices, and help them to the best of your abilities.

In response to your question, in my view the decision about whether you should advise others or your child should is something that a) doesn’t have to be set in stone but can change depending on the situation or your/their needs, and b) needs to be an ongoing conversation in which your child makes the decision. It might be useful to talk to your child about how you can support them when they do tell other people. Would they like you to be there, to facilitate or to set up a formal conversation? Would they like you to tell another parent, but let them tell this parent’s child, who could be a new friend? All this is to say, Anonymous, that you have as many tools and options as there are situations in which the need to ‘come out’ will arise.

I’m going to suggest that you check out my posts on coming out as well as resistance, refusal and family. There is a bit of overlap among the tags, but there is a lot there. I also have some posts on practicing singular they that might be helpful for supportive folks who just seem to make mistakes, and one on explaining singular they to someone with little to no knowledge of gender diversity.

And just in case they would be helpful, I’m also going to point out Diane Ehrensaft’s book if you haven’t found it already and the Gender Creative Kids Canada website, as these might be useful.

In the next ten days, I’ll be posting a special post where I interviewed in-depth a parent who is using singular they for their child from birth. Stay tuned!

All the best, and hope this helps,

Lee

When mom says no: Parent refusal, continued

Anonymous asked:

Heyo love your blog by the way. So I asked my mother to use my preferred pronoun they/them, coming home from having my close group of friends use it for an entire semester, and she outright refused. Her reasoning was along the lines of: its too much work to change in her head, and when she talks about me to her friends, she doesn’t want to have to explain about this “whole new gender” as if I had made it up. What should I do?

Why thank you, Anonymous! 🙂

First of all, let me say that the college to home transition can be one of the most challenging moments in the life cycle of anyone on the queer or transgender (or politically radical) spectrum, whether gender-neutral pronoun user or no.

It’s tough for parents to send us off and then have us come back so very different than they remember (or fantasize). Quite often negative parent reactions to things like using your pronoun are about regaining control in a dynamic in which they have felt more or less in control until now.

My suggestion is that you take it down to brass tacks with your mother and tell her exactly what you do and do not need her to do: which friends and family members do you care about in terms of knowing your gender? How should she refer to you when you are at the grocery store and run into someone she knows? In my experience, most parents’ worries are about exactly these kinds of practical things and we can help by making our needs very practical. Of course, this is also a way to ‘call their bluff’ and get them to stop hiding behind the practical once their practical concerns have been addressed. At this point, I suggest cultivating another same-age adult in your life who you feel respected by and who might be able to be a safe person for your mother to talk to.

Failing that, you can always send her to TIMP! 🙂

Warmly, and write back if you need to,

Lee