What is all the fuss about?
There is a lot of noise in the world about queer pronouns, especially they/them, which a lot of people like Piers Morgan believe they have the right to mock and criticise their use. Why? To protect the meaningless institutionalization of the English language? Maybe. Then there are those who do not really mind the use of they/them pronouns, it is a bit of a shift in mindset and oral practice, but they respect them at the end of the day. Do not get me wrong, I like these people more than Piers!
Yet on how many issues of race, misogyny, bullying, xenophobia —you name it— have we heard the same reasoning: ‘I get it, it doesn’t really bother me, or affect me, but I respect what this person is talking about.’
Someone who has to overcome racist abuse everyday who speaks out would rightly say: ‘you have white privilege, you can try to acknowledge what I go through, but you will never understand what it is like to experience being perceived as different, always inferior, immediately because of the color of your skin. And what that does to you.’
I want to draw a similarity between racism and queer abuse here. Yes, our challenges are very different if we are Black, or white, but both Black people and Queer people go through emotions and experiences which others do not have to think about. From not being taught the correct history of your community in school to being perceived as a threat to the so-called ‘ideal’ population, a lack of healthcare, lack of work opportunities, lack of social support, to simply being stared at in public, both Black and Queer people have to overcome forms of exclusion.
The journey to changing pronouns.
It was not easy coming to grips with how important pronouns were for me. There was a time when they were different to the ones I use today, she/her to they/them, and the impact of the change has been immense in my life.
Changing my pronouns coincided, of course, with learning about ‘gender identity’ at university. Years ago, I identified as a female, woman. Today, I proudly identify with the trans- community under the label of non-binary.
That journey kicked off at McGill University which I attended at the young, optimistic, radical age of eighteen years old. I had come out as gay prior, in high school, and cut my hair short before moving to Montreal, Canada. My mum had come with me to help me set up for my first year in halls. We walked everywhere together: from the city centre to the riverfront, which had a brilliant ferris wheel looking out over the iconic Saint-Laurent.
On my first day in Montreal, we went to the dormitory. It was a ghost town, not a single student in sight, because everyone was away on a beach trip, which I had missed due to travel delays. A friendly warm face peeked around the entrance door, with a beaming smile. She was one of my floor supervisors. Her eyes locked on the suitcases at my side and with a hint of confusion asked, “are you moving in? You’re a bit late!” After dragging our bags inside, she showed me to my room.
There, I saw a sign with my legal name printed on it. A nervous flair shot through my stomach and my palms started to sweat—I was keenly aware that the name was very feminine, and I had quite masculine apparel.
She looked at the sign and then back at me and exclaimed anxiously, “oh sorry! They must have got the name wrong…” I interrupted her reassuringly, “no no that’s me! Don’t worry!” Though I was annoyed, slightly embarrassed, and then anxious. My mother chirped in behind me: “Yes yes that’s hers,” which did not help at all.
On our second day in Montreal, we went to eat breakfast in the old town. I was feeling excited about the day ahead. It was a new city, fresh chilly Canadian air, and a buzz of cars and chatter in the streets. We decided to sit down in a lovely little breakfast cafe which was vibrant with energy from every customer reading the early morning news.
At our table, the young waitor serving us peered down at my menu and asked, ‘what would you like to order sir?’
Although I felt a bit shy that they had asked me before my mother, my thoughts were immediately interrupted by her overly polite voice: ‘no no she’s not a sir, but um.. you see…’ The waitor started apologizing profusely. I turned towards them and reassured them not to worry about it. I then turned to my mother and grudgingly said, ‘leave the topic alone, it doesn’t matter to me.’
These encounters happened regularly as people continued to address me as either masculine or feminine, a decision I could not comprehend how they were making. My mother soon left to fly back home, classes started, and I was trying to get to know different people. I started to prefer the library over nightlife as I became too self-conscious over my body and social presentation.
Do not even get me started on the fear of homophobia and transphobia which is engrained in queer minds because of our constant dehumanization and disregard for our identities. Sound familiar?
It is hard for anyone to break out of the boxed world in which we live. “You are born male, female, or intersex, you must identify as this gender, present as so and behave as so.”
No wonder subconscious questions arise for Queer people! “Who do I like? Who do I want to be seen as, or with? How do I want to present myself in public? Isn’t that the men’s clothing section?” For me, at the start of university, encounters with other students who were not educated on the subject, at all, just made it very difficult to answer these questions.
At one point, I thought about identifying as a boy to make everyday life easier for myself, of course I did look like one in a way. But something was just not right about doing that. I did not act like a boy, or aspire to be anything close to what “a man ought to be.” Yet, I also felt odd about being perceived as a woman—I had been trying to push femininity away for most of my life.
Pronouns helped me grow, but Education came first.
The solution came midway through November. The university was holding its annual 1.01 Cisgender workshop in every student residency.
I saw the red notice sign in the entrance hall Cisgender 1.01 and I did not know what to expect. I had heard about some LGBTQ terminology before, but I had never really connected with some of the classic gender notions like “transgender”. I’d heard about it all, of course, but no one had ever sat me down and given me an unbiased explanation of it.
“Kids have access to queer knowledge.” Give me a break.
So, I entered the common room with my friends and sat on the couch. I tried to find the right balance between leaning forward and looking settled, as I was very intrigued by the topic. The workshop commenced and the facilitators asked everyone in the room to present themselves by name and pronouns. Of course, they were waiting for my turn. I said she/her.
The facilitators covered many topics, from presenting the importance of pronouns to asking people about whether or not they had ever found it uncomfortable walking into a public bathroom. It was a revelation.
For a moment, I felt like I had met two people who really understood me, even though I could barely comprehend myself what I was going through everyday.
By the end, I slowly, shyly, made my way around to them and thanked them for the talk. In the entrance hall, I went up to some of my friends and said ‘I think I’m genderfluid.’
The rest of that year was full of discovery. I realized that the she/her pronouns which I had been using since birth were holding me back. Not only did they confuse people when they heard the awkwardness in my voice as I introduced myself, they also impeded the comfort I could feel in my own body.
I decided to start practicing using they/them pronouns. It was clumsy, messy, and a whole new experience of learning I had embarked on. They felt great! When people got them wrong, it did not bother me too much because I knew I was confident in them. I had to stay confident in them. They helped me understand that I did not need everyone to make me feel whole and valued, I could do that myself with the support of friends.
A couple of months later, I changed my name. Not legally, that was a hassle, but just to try it out since the femininity of my former name made me uncomfortable. A few people picked it up straight away, and I felt increasingly more confident. Both the name and the pronouns helped me feel more at home in my identity. It brought peace of mind when I understood that I did not have to be categorically female or male. I enjoyed my new identity: A middleground while I was still figuring out who I was at the age of twenty. I was genuinely smiling a lot more.
It is not always easy and straightforward. It never was and never will be. People still misgender me by using the wrong pronouns to talk about me. It is a painful, uncomfortable experience.
Anxiety builds up in your body, your back stiffens, the hairs on the back of your neck tingle, and your palms cannot stop sweating. For many, saying ‘he, she, they’ can take approximately 3 seconds of their time. For the person receiving a misgendered address, those words can linger in their mind from half an hour to a whole day! It is a very complex feeling to navigate which only resilience helps.
Some people may label my experience as not that bad because I fit into the category of the trans- experience that can be described as “female person turned non-binary, or transgender, and they look quite boy-ish or androgynous.” Give me a break. Again, I had to go through emotions and experiences that others do not even have to even fathom.
We all have our own revelations with which we grow to become someone we really like. Others have a few more experiences to tie together. Yet how much better would we all feel if we made space to listen, understand, and value each other?
Learning is, truly, the only way we really help better our world, a space to which everyone belongs.