we are they

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.

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.”