An Update on Pronouns

I generally don’t talk about the specifics of my personal life all that much on this blog, mostly because I think my actual life is pretty uninteresting. I mean, I’m obviously very free with my opinions on the media that I consume, but there’s a difference between knowing I had a lot of feelings about The Woman in Gold and knowing how many dates I’ve been on in LA, and with whom. I think I’m kind of a boring person, and I also put a pretty high value on privacy, at least as far as bloggers go. But this is one of those times where I need to step out from behind my veil of passwords and address something explicitly:

I’m trans. Specifically nonbinary, more specifically agender. They/them/theirs is the only correct set of pronouns to use when referring to me in the third person. This is not optional. If you see people getting this wrong, please correct them. Do this with kindness, at least until they display explicit and entrenched transphobia — not everyone reads everything on the internet, and I haven’t exactly been fully open about this in the past.

It frustrates me that a post like this is necessary. I think it inadvertently furthers the notion that this is a Plot Twist, a Major Reveal; that being trans overwhelms and subsumes all other aspects of my identity. It isn’t, and it doesn’t, at least not for me. Being trans is a background feature of my existence, like having a favorite color. I am so many things — a composer, a bassoonist, a lover of puns — before I am trans, and in my ideal world I’d be able to just put the correct pronouns in my various bios, trust the rest of the world to gender me correctly, and move on with my life of depleting the world’s reserves of meter changes, perhaps filing a correction notice here or there as I would if someone misspelled my name or the title of my latest work.

Of course, in my ideal world, we wouldn’t force gender onto babies, assume that certain body types correlate with certain genders, trust the State to be a more reliable arbiter of people’s identities than the people themselves, demand some people be medically sterilized before correcting their driver’s licenses, or any of the other fucked up things that happen under the current gender paradigm, so here we are.

I am not a man. I am not a boy, a guy, a dude, a bro, or anything else like that. (I recognize that some people use some of these terms without feeling any gender implications. I don’t. Please don’t use any of them to refer to me.) I’m also not a woman, girl, or gal. I’m a nonbinary person, an enby. (It’s true that I feel less disaffinity for words traditionally construed as feminine than for their masculine counterparts, and if, for whatever reason, you happen to be writing about me in a language like French that’s considerably more gender–inflected than English, the feminine forms are preferred, but it’s a little like being forced to choose whether the Moon orbits Venus or Neptune. Sure, Venus is more like Earth than Neptune is, but saying the Moon orbits Venus is still pretty blatantly incorrect. If being referred to as male feels like my body being abraded by coarse sandpaper, being referred to as female is like being coated in refrigerated silly putty — unpleasant, sure, but less likely to result in blood.)

As far as I’m concerned this has always been true. Even when I didn’t have the language to fully articulate it, I was never a man. So if you’re referring to any past version of me, you should still use they/them/theirs exclusively.

Again, I don’t want to make a big deal out of this. Nothing about me is changing. If you enjoy the way I play Bach, the way I put chords together, the way I write, if I have added humor or kindness or insight to your life — none of that is going away. In practical terms, what this means is that sometimes I like to arrange the few yards of fabric that cover my corporeal form into one, swishy tube as opposed to a tube that branches into two other tubes, and also sometimes I like to put some colored powders on a few square inches of my face. I’m really not kidding when I say that I feel like my relationship with gender (the abstract quality, at least, if not necessarily the way gendered spaces are construed in the contemporary United States) is simple and kind of boring — my relationship with tonality is way more fraught and intricate, and something I’m much more interested in talking about. This post isn’t a course correction, it’s an elaborate errata notice.

In a similar vein, I find conversations about my gender identity kind of exhausting. This Robot Hugs comic does a good job of conveying the experience — there are so many things I care about more than gender, and being stuck constantly explaining Trans 101 is very much Not My Jam. To that end, unless you are also trans or gender questioning, please don’t initiate a conversation about this with me, no matter how close we are. See the start of this post re:privacy: I value it a lot, and even if I wanted to divulge intimate details of my inner experiences of living in the world at the drop of a hat, I definitely don’t have the time or energy to do so. If you’re trans or gender questioning, I’m happy to band together or offer what perspective I can, but if you’re cis (i.e. if you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth), I’m not interested in walking you thru either the basics of being trans or the specifics of my personal experiences. I have great faith in your ability to use Google. I repeat, this goes no matter how close we are otherwise. If you care about me, please let me set the boundaries that I feel comfortable with. You already know everything you need to to gender me correctly: Use they/them pronouns and avoid gendered terminology. It’s that simple.

Answers To Questions I Anticipate In Response To This Post 

How do you feel about [potentially gendered term X]?

This is the one exception to the “don’t ask about my gender if you’re cis” thing: If you need to know how I feel about a specific potentially gendered term, please ask instead of assuming. I can’t possibly list every possible potentially gendered term and how I feel about being applied to me, so if you’re unsure about a specific one, just ask, and I’ll give you a thumbs up or thumbs down.

I’m not used to using “they” to refer to a single person; how can I practice?

There’s an app for that! (It’s even a web app, so no downloading required.)

I’m not sure I understand what being agender means, can you elaborate?

Here’s the thing: In addition to reading literally hundreds of articles and social media posts, my understanding of my gender has been shaped by countless private conversations with other trans people. Even if I still had all of those links sitting in a folder somewhere (which I don’t), dumping all of them on you with elaborate commentary is . . . probably not helpful. As I said above, I don’t really want to get into an elaborate discussion of my inner experiences of gender with you unless you’re also trans or gender questioning. The short version is that I feel the most connection to the label “agender” (you can argue over whether this counts as having a gender or not, in the same way that you can argue over whether “bald” is a hairstyle — I honestly don’t care) — I’m neither a man nor a woman, and I want people to use they/them/theirs pronouns to refer to me. That really is all you need to know. If you really want to get into the gender thicket, I highly recommend Googling and reading what other trans people have written about their experiences. You could do worse than starting with Jacob Tobia and Darkmatter on Facebook.

I have another nonbinary friend who likes being called this thing that you really don’t like?

So there’s this exciting thing where different trans people are actually different people, and have different preferences. Refer to your friend the way they want to be referred to, and refer to me as I want to be referred to, even if those are very different ways.

Are you going to start taking hormones/having surgeries?

Read the bit about privacy again. What I do with my body is my concern and my concern only.

Isn’t singular they grammatically incorrect?

I guarantee you have used singular they to refer to someone with an unknown or irrelevant gender multiple times this past week. I guarantee it. Even when people set out to avoid singular they, they often wind up using it inadvertently. This is as you would expect, because singular they is a natural part of the English language and has been in constant use for over six hundred years.

In constant use? Yes. Singular they has been continuously attested in use by the most widely respected English authors since the late 1300s, before Modern English even existed. There are Victorian prescriptivist grammarians (hardly paragons of gender progressivism) who argue that singular they is acceptable. We get along just fine treating “you” as semantically singular but grammatically plural. Arguments about logicality fall apart with the gentlest of probings. If you want to go up against 600+ years of uninterrupted usage, the consensus of linguists across the Anglosphere, and feminist critiques of sexist language, come at me. I will fight you.

More broadly, tho, it doesn’t matter. Grammar is not a thinking, feeling thing. Using a newfangled grammatical construction will not cause pain or suffering to the English language. Using incorrect pronouns for a trans person does cause suffering. Refusing to use a certain pronoun because you think it’s ungrammatical is tantamount to saying that you care more about following an arbitrary (and largely ad-hoc) set of rules than you do about treating actual human beings with dignity and respect. Is that really your position?

How can I help support you/trans people more generally?

I’m honestly doing pretty well at this point, but there’s so much work to be done to make the world safe for trans people. To that end: Push back against transphobia wherever you see it. Don’t equate genitals with gender, and don’t assume that clothes correlate with either. Let people know that constructions like “s/he” erase certain trans identities, and encourage people to use “they” instead. Turn up to fight bathroom bills and other legislation that criminalizes trans existence. Don’t watch shows or movies that cast cis men in the roles of trans women, or cis women in the roles of trans men. The conversations that change people’s minds on issues like this take time and energy — don’t put the burden of doing that kind of work exclusively on trans people who are already trying to survive a deeply transphobic world; carry some of that load. If you have the financial means, support trans activists and organizations. (I stand by all the recommendations I made here, but there are plenty of others.)

Most importantly: Listen to trans people. Amplify our voices. We are the experts on our lives and on the kinds of support we need. For different trans people and communities, that support will be different at different times. If trans people tell you that what you are doing is not helpful and ask you to stop, believe us. We’re not making it up. These are the basic guidelines of working to be an ally to any marginalized group. Take a step back. Listen. Learn. Understand that it’s not about you. Find things that are asked for and that you can do, and do them, without expecting praise.

Regular posts will continue on Monday as expected.