Pronoun trouble: Navigating gendered language
I most frequently find kinship with bodies unlike mine. In this space between my body and theirs are shared ways of moving, shared language that describes us in archetypes, not individuals.
It is from this space that I have picked up the language I use to describe myself, from this space that I can draw comparison and not find myself lacking – not that I am not these men, but that I do not have to be. These three-letter words move from bodies unlike mine, to the mouths of my counterparts. The words become expectations of what we are to each other.
I am distant from the drive to shape my body further to match theirs, so distant from their experiences that even sharing a three-letter word may be too much of a transgression. In this way pronouns become intimate performances, parts of our own worldview that we stick to other people. The words we choose are shaped by our own experiences and our perception of gender and its relevance to our lives, and our environment responds in turn to these communications.
I find myself thinking about this often. In some ways, I am compelled to.
The desk across from my workstation bears a rainbow flag. These days everyone I work with wears a brightly coloured lanyard, and some even sport badges or stickers reading ALLY. Anne, She/Her, describes an artist we are working with as a queer woman. I wipe the memory of spit from my face as I quietly say that Sam uses they/them pronouns, and Anne goes, “Of course.”
It becomes known around the office that I am sensitive about that type of thing. A lesbian in her thirties says, “I thought she was like us,” and I am quiet for a second too long, having been reminded of a passage from Between the Boat and the Dock, describing the uneasy position between butch and man that mustn’t exist but does.
It is in a similarly uneasy position that I find myself, though I cannot be accused of being butch. Like many of my predecessors, I am permitted to mix freely in self-described queer spaces under the condition of not caring how I am introduced. This has suited me, as I have not inherited my siblings’ ease for labels along with their disregard for the categories contained within.
If you’ve been out for more than a decade, at some point you’ll realise that our communities at their healthiest are deeply intermixed. This isn’t a schoolyard response to a lack of mainstream acceptance, safety-in-numbers style, but rather a recognition of the many points at which our lives mirror each others’, despite our many differences in approach and terminology.
Gender has always been difficult within my circles, tied as it is to social roles that exclude us physically, mentally, emotionally, totally. Many of us confront these genders, making space within those that exist for ourselves or creating new words and phrases that describe our behaviours and how we are, and how we wish to be, perceived. And many of us don’t, either opting out or finding comfort within our assigned roles.
There is no correct choice within this system, only the best possible for each of us. Where our terminology clashes, as it should, there is room to express the differences in our experience.
Or to dismiss them.
And so I have come to think of gender as an argument that I must eventually have, but never quite yet. I have shied away from this for a long time, assured as I have been that I will have the time and that the Q still has room for me in the meanwhiles.
This doesn’t always feel like the case. I did not and still do not quite care to know what anyone thinks of my own gender or how it should shape the body that contains me, partly because the messages I get tell me that no matter what, I am wrong. From what I’ve been told, women don’t aspire to a testosterone-moulded body, don’t fuck like me, aren’t willing to put their comfort, health and safety at risk for the brief flash of warmth at being called “son”.
Except, sometimes, they do.
For this to make sense to you, you’ll want to place me within a physical context as well. As the child of an interracial relationship, I don’t look entirely like either my mother’s or father’s family, and seem to have landed in-between gendered characteristics, too.
I have grown into my father’s face, and his taste for slightly moth-eaten sports coats and loose-fitting jeans. My hands are broad, and so are my hips. This, matched to the slimness of my mother’s build and penchant for bright colours, seems to confuse people and makes them desperate to put a name to the way I make them feel.
I am sir-ed in a hoodie, ma’am-ed in a leather jacket, and it-ed in a skirt. Somehow, I prefer this minor imposition to the more frequent pause, the blank face and full body scan: what are you?
My type are often assumed to be infectious. As women we are rebellions, as men we are freaks. There is no possibility that we may exist freely as neither, or as both. There is, instead, immense pressure for us to declare ourselves so that we may be judged.
I refuse. Like my masc-of-centre peers, I was steeped in a peculiar brand of masculinity that prides itself in how far we can go to be perfectly ordinary. I have become competitive in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I am at once liked and disliked for the same things: my visibility, and my ambiguity.
I have grown much too used to positioning myself in this undesirable class, subversive enough to be interesting but smart enough to know my place. I am better than your boyfriend because I could never hope to be him. I am the Conservative’s Exception, the Tester Girlfriend, the Not Quite Boy, the he-she that should cut my hair and cross my legs and cover my tits and lower my voice and shave my face and smile.
I will not supplant your daughter, but I might ruin her. I might give her ideas.
More and more, we must qualify ourselves or risk being stuck between relative safety and being seen as we really are.
The next time Sam’s name comes up, I misgender them. I like to believe that in doing this, I have said, “this is not a safe space,” but I know that I have instead said, “I am not safe.” The casual nature of a pronoun belies the effort of will that draws us all to the same point, stripping away the hurt we have brought to each other and filling the uncomfortable silences like a drone. We then place the expectation of maintaining our illusory safe space on our trans siblings.
At a meeting where I am a relative newcomer, a friend of mine asks why her colleague didn’t bring up a particular topic. She has casually outed them in the process, and doesn’t seem to realise. All eyes slide to this colleague, whose lip twitches. I can’t look up, it does not feel safe.
Pronoun rounds have become popular in queer circles, to the same effect. When it’s time for me to announce my name and the pronouns I expect to hear, I never know what to say. You are not asking for my relationship to my body, but for yours. Is there a three-letter shorthand for this?
I mutter my name, and say that any pronouns are fine, thanks. This isn’t the truth: the truth is that, like Anne, She/Her, you will use the pronouns that suit your opinion of me. To say anything else is to open myself up to judgements and invasive questions that, even unvoiced, make themselves known. You will mutter among yourselves about what I do with my body, speculating when you don’t have a clear answer, and this speculation will become the new truth.
You will tell me that I do not have to work out how to name my identity in a particular time frame, but you will name that identity all the same, so sure that you could place bets on how quickly I will prove you right. I know this because you do it to my siblings and you make me your co-conspirator.
There is not time in 15 seconds to talk about queer transphobia, to explain how it feels to see barely concealed disgust in the faces of people who, you have come to realise, love you conditionally. There is not time to soften the condescension from a person who has mistaken their ability to relate to you for an ability to understand the factors at play in who you are out to and who you are not out to.
There is not time to talk about the relationship between perceived gender conformity and homophobia, and how this is still seen as a reasonable cost. Nor is there time to talk about the fact that every relationship I have had with my supposed queer family has suffered from the expectation that I fit into their box and not the other, depending on who I am talking to.
We cannot even keep ourselves safe. At some point, we will find ourselves alone with people who do not understand us. They even end up in our bodies.
A woman in her fifties once told me about her difficulty finding a physician who would manage her chronic health conditions without misgendering her, much less a healthcare team. The next day, she is back in hospital and now I am sitting with a friend in their twenties who tells me that their partner pressures them into sex acts that make them feel wrong-bodied.
This is the first time I have heard the word dysphoric in person, in this way. I am listening from outside of my own head, the person sitting in my body nodding and saying “Mm,” every so often, and it feels as if I am bearing witness to the something broken inside of myself spilling out of the wrong person. It feels as if I am being made to bear witness to every moment, every sigh and frown and touch that has made me feel broken.
The person sitting inside my body and using my voice says not to stay with someone who does not respect who you are. This feels like a cheap remark.
In my experience, there is no direct relationship between people who respect your pronouns and people who will respect your physical integrity, the lines of comfort you draw on your own body.
I did not even think to draw these boundaries, until I was taught that I could. When I first started to use he/him as a pronoun, I was met with resistance. I was introduced to my girlfriend at that time as “This is (name), she likes it when you call her a boy.”
If this was at all strange to her, she didn’t show it, telling our mutual friend to fuck off. Ours was a slow, strange courtship. She read me erotica, and this was the first time I’d seen bodies like mine represented, messy but alive. They spoke like me, but far less roughly.
Pronoun fluidity is a dying art, seemingly practised only among those of us who are not yet all the way out, those of us who get off on the smallest level of gender fuckery, or those of us whose identities remain in flux.
I was not in flux. I felt split in two: moving as I still do through this world as one gender, though I am more completely understood in the next and communicating myself through the aesthetics of a third. Despite my friends’ varying levels of acceptance, my girlfriend at the time made me feel like that was normal. Slowly, through shared language and perhaps something more, she brought me back into my body.
I hadn’t known until then that sex was supposed to feel good, having up until then chased a kind of bloodlust that jolts me out of any sense of self. If I have run into others like her, I have not recognised them. We parted after nearly two years.
My friend stayed with their partner only a few weeks. I run into them in a downstairs bar. I am looking for a fight, and they are looking to feel something. I offer to fuck them like a real boy. Their elbow connects with my eighth rib, and I laugh in their face. We are drunk and angry and both packing. Someone’s sleeve gets torn. Their cheek slams into the door frame, hard enough to draw blood. We are not numb. We are not here.
My sisters’ former partners transition, one after the other, and their most private lives are suddenly common knowledge. They were never really men or never really women, confused or deceitful, and every action they take is now somehow a sign.
The way my peers talk about these exes reminds me of the time I finally argued back to my first serious girlfriend. She’d called me a daytime drag act, those exact words, day-time drag act, because I had come home to her in a cheap polyester suit with a sock stuffed in the crotch. My lack of natural femininity and refusal to play straight annoyed her, and while I’d caved on many things, she hadn’t managed to stamp this one out. The signs were there – not mine, but for me – that I should have left earlier.
She snarled that if she had wanted to date men, she would be dating one. I argued that I’d never wanted to be a woman. She told me I didn’t have a choice.
My current girlfriend reminds me of her without meaning to, begging me to wear a dress and shaved legs to meet her family. I say nothing but we will have broken up by the end of the week.
I have been losing faith, and it takes my identity with it. The woman that I have been sleeping with does not know my name. Anne, She/Her, lists me as a Queer Woman Writer. I say nothing.
I have not seen Sam in a year and a half, and I misgender them too casually.
The pronoun circle reaches me, and I say, “Call me anything.”
I am not safe.
This article first appeared in Archer Magazine #13, the FIRST NATIONS issue. SUBSCRIBE TO ARCHER MAGAZINE