teaching

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.

Advertisements

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.

On being a non-binary teacher

Anonymous asked:

Hello, I’m sorry if this is only vaguely related to the use of non-gendered pronouns but I’m in a spot of bother with regards to my general gender-based bewilderment. I am trying to train as a primary school teacher and have recently been increasing my preparatory teaching experience. I am somewhat androgynous and use the title Dr so children are intrigued to know if I am m/f. When they ask what I am, I can’t tell them, but know non-binary should be explained. How do I address this?

Hello Dr. Anonymous! (hehe)

First, congratulations on the Dr. situation! I often joke that getting my doctorate was primarily motivated by the gender-neutral title, which I sprinkle with gay abandon on all airline tickets, phone bills and the like.

I work in the field of teacher education, so your question is of great interest to me. In my life, it’s true to say that being a non-binary transgender person has diverted me away from K-12 classroom teaching and into higher education for equity and mental health reasons. There may have been pockets of acceptance around the time when I was thinking of entering a B.Ed. program but by and large K-12 schools have been and continue to be some of the most gender-normalizing places. This was my impetus for getting involved in teacher education practice and research on gender and sexual diversity: to open the doors for people like me to make choices other than the one I made out of concern for my own safety and well-being.

Of course, there are many queer and/or transgender teachers out there (including non-binary ones), and many are rocking it out as best as they can and having all kinds of wonderful impact in the lives of children and youth. However, to my knowledge, the greatest success and longevity in the career still come to those who benefit the most from homonormativity or gender normativity (e.g., a cis-gender woman monogamously married to another cis-gender woman, or a heterosexual transgender man, or people with children they can talk about). This doesn’t mean being a teacher isn’t hard for these folks (it is), just that it’s differently hard given that their life stories are often more intelligible to the wider world. (Intelligibility can, however, be its own curse and mental health risk if what you ‘pass’ as doesn’t match your identity.)

All this is to say that I hear you loud and clear. And I completely agree: non-binary should be explained to children. Full stop. Moreover, what should be explained to – and modelled for – children is that gender is an all-you-can-eat buffet. You shouldn’t have to be a boy or become a boy to do the things that you’d like to do, unless being a boy is something that you really, really want. Kids in a school with a lot of support for transitioning students (but that only recognize kids who desire a binary transition) and schools where the wonderful, life-giving possibility of binary transition is completely unthinkable – both may be at risk of shutting down many kids’ gender-diverse desires. Let us as teachers throw open the gender gates for every child by, for example, not setting up free-time as a choice between soccer and art, but between clay and painting. Let’s put out different kinds of toys on the carpet depending on the day so that sometimes everyone plays with trucks, and everyone with dolls. Let’s point out how gender is at work in a story about a two-parent, heterosexually-headed family and not just read the Sissy Duckling. And let’s do these things before and regardless of whether any transgender kid ever appears in our particular school or classroom.

Dr. Anonymous, when you say “I can’t tell them” I’d like to know more. I’m lucky to live in Ontario, Canada where we have protection from discrimination on the basis of gender expression and gender identity aka the professional and age-appropriate disclosure of one’s gender identity to a child who asks about it would likely be protected under the law. Someone telling you not to do this would be running afoul of that law. However, it sounds like you might not have any such protection to fall back on.

Even before these laws were passed, however, kids would consistently ask me the question “are you a boy or a girl?” and I would reply ‘neither,’ or ‘I haven’t decided yet today. Will you ask me again later?’ or something else that wasn’t necessarily true (I generally wake up feeling like a non-binary transgender person). The point wasn’t that it was true or false, but that it opened the gates and caused a lot of productive thinking/face-scrunching. It also meant that I didn’t always have to launch into a giant explanation of what ‘non-binary transgender person’ means. This is one route. Or, you could deflect with a question: “why do you need to know about this? What else would you like to know about me? What would it mean if I said I was a girl or a boy? How would that change how you think about me as a teacher? Why do people have to be one or the other?” In other words, this can become a teachable moment, to whatever extent you are comfortable.

Pronouns are another matter, and teaching remains a fairly conservative profession. If you feel comfortable and supported by your program, you could work with your practicum coordinator to find a school with a queer- and trans-positive culture where you could be out and have your preferred gender pronoun respected. Regardless of the law, there could be internal diversity and equity policies in your university that you could cite when arranging a meeting about this, and even a diversity officer whose support you could draw on. If you don’t feel supported in your program, your practice teaching placement could be difficult and require some tough choices. If you bond with your supervising teacher and want to enlist their support, you could access some of my other resources on coming out, particularly this one on explaining preferred pronouns to someone with little knowledge of gender diversity issues.

To close, I’ll say that the problem you are facing is real and that there is a whole constellation of lovely folks working on this, who I’m proud to call my colleagues and friends. The hope driving my academic teaching and research is that questions like yours will become unnecessary, and that the teaching profession can be a gender buffet some day.

Warmly, and write back anytime,

Lee

Gender is ridiculous: On messing up our own pronouns

Anonymous asked:

hi! i recently had big realisation regarding my gender & am slowly shifting to use ‘they’ with friends and some colleagues at work. everyone so far has been very accepting, but i am terrified that -i’m- going to slip up! this seems ridiculous cause ‘they’ just feels so right to me, but it’s also been over 20 years of being ‘she’ and i rarely use third person about myself. i don’t want to make a mistake and invalidate everyone’s opinions of me – is this a common concern?

Hello there Anonymous friend!

First of all, congratulations on making this social transition at work and asking for your needs to be met – this is very brave!

This is a very common concern, but we have to be willing to do our best and acknowledge the ridiculousness of gender when we – WE! – make a mistake due to many years of conditioning.

I was a guest in someone’s class last week and referred to myself as a Debbie Downer, which is a feminizing term that doesn’t fit with my identity at all, but is just so ingrained in North American Standard English. So, I laughed about it, commented on how unconscious these things are, and also commented on how hard is to find alternatives! Some members of the group even tried to help me come up with a gender-neutral version of this old chestnut, which was hilarious. In that particular situation, what was truly helpful and teachable was that gender and pronouns became the thing at-issue and the object of exasperation, not me and my needs around gender.

Gosh, sometimes I even misrecognize my own pronoun! Sometimes I arrive at a party, event, work, wherever and someone says of me “they just got here” and I exclaim “I came by myself!” and it’s hilarious because then I realize that, well, the person is just doing what I want!

So, slip-ups can be okay and even productive sometimes. Your concern is very valid, but a slip-up doesn’t have to invalidate the hard work you’ve been doing to be recognized. It can instead show how ridiculous and arbitrary our language is.

Hope this helps, and write back,

Lee