Hey readers! First, I want to say Happy Holidays to everyone. I hope that this season finds you happy and healthy. Best wishes for the New Year.
Okay, on to the post.
I saw something today that made me reflect upon just how challenging ideas about gender can be. So challenging that even those of us who must constantly confront and process gender norms, even we still get it wrong sometimes. Goodness knows I have spent a lot of space here talking about how cisgender people often get it wrong. I figured it was only fair to discuss all the ways that trans, gender nonconforming, or just even gender conscious can still mess up, too.
I was browsing my Facebook feed this morning and came across an article that a trans friend of mine posted, titled “6 Reasons Your Discomfort with They/Them Pronouns Reveals Unchecked Cis Privilege” . I opened the link, curious as to how the author would articulate cis privilege. But as I read, I realized that this article was not just talking about cis privilege– it was also talking about just how deeply engrained our cultural ideas of gender truly are.
What I mean is that sometimes I screw up they/them pronouns, too. Which is ridiculous because I like they/them a lot, I advocate for its use, and generally I consider myself to be pretty progressive on the gender stuff. BUT– yes, even I occasionally misgender someone whose pronouns are they/them.
For those of you who have not known someone whose pronouns are they/them, the basic idea is this: some folks don’t really identify with or feel that they belong to either binary gender (male/female) and so they refer to themselves with gender-neutral “they” and “them” in place of she/he and her/him. While gender-neutral language is nothing new, the they/them movement has come a long way of late. Mental Floss magazine recently did a cool piece on the Washington Post’s addition of “they” to their usage. The article also discusses the long history of the usage of “them,” which it turns out we have been doing for hundreds of years.
Anyway. Some folks have they/them pronouns and it’s not really that controversial when you really think about it. I mean, we live in a country where a musician changed his name to a symbol, a basketball player changed his name to Metta Worldpeace, and Puff Daddy/Puffy/P.Diddy/Diddy/Sean Combs calls himself something different every 18 months and that is all fine. So why is it so hard for people to agree to and get used to calling someone they/them?
Because gender shit runs deep, y’all. For those folks who refuse to even consider or attempt to call someone they/them, that’s unchecked cis privilege and that person needs to read that article above, stat.
But for those of us who know, respect, and understand that nonbinary people exist, who try to fight the status quo, and who feel like total assholes when they misgender someone, when we can’t get they/them right? You realize just how very, very, very deep al the conditioning we receive really goes.
I have a friend who uses they/them pronouns, and I have misgendered them twice. This person identifies as nonbinary and sometimes my brain can’t process that fast enough to overcome instinct and conditioning. When I see them wearing skinny jeans, eye makeup, or long earrings, my socialization takes over and my mouth says “her” before my brain remembers “them.” And not only do I feel terrible for messing up and not honoring their identity, I also realize how deep sexism runs and I feel ashamed.
Really? Me? A person who lived their whole life pre-transition in a state that very much went against gender norms? When I see someone’s clothing or makeup choice and assign that a gender, even though I know that there are really no rules about gender and appearance, I get angry.
I get angry because I realize how much socialization can control a person. I get angry because there are so many people whose gendered ideas run so deep that they will never be able to strip them away even as much as those of us who are conscious and try are able to do.
But, realizing that gendered socialization runs deep also gives me a good deal of empathy. I have empathy for folks like Caitlyn Jenner, who has repeatedly said things that are narrow-minded and cissexist, even as she has become a part of that marginalized group herself. She is a person who has been put into the spotlight and has been asked to speak about things that are incredibly nuanced and complicated, but with very little experience with actually confronting or trying to defeat sexism. Her white, straight, rich, male life that she led pre-transition was with her for far longer than her life experience as a trans woman. She can’t automatically undo all of that because she’s trans.
I am here to admit that yes, even I fuck this up, too, so maybe we can all just have empathy for one another and to talk honestly about how hard all this is, rather than acting like it’s something we could just fix if everyone tried. It is going to take so much more than trying to undo all this nonsense that has been engrained in us. We all need to try, but we also need to talk and acknowledge that we are not perfect and commiserate about how challenging all this can be.
Be excellent to each other.