Graphic by Angela Z. CW: potential NBphobia, transphobia, references to dysphoria and body dysmorphia
Over the past few years, the transgender community has become increasingly visible, allowing a broader audience to hear about our issues. Non-binary, genderqueer, and other gender non-conforming (GNC) identities have shared this spotlight, bringing with them an essential perspective within the LGBTQ+ experience.
In queer spaces, it’s become general courtesy to ask what pronouns people use or use “they/them” until requested otherwise. At face value, this is a good habit to pick up, as it avoids misgendering and is incredibly validating for many non-binary folks— myself included. Though we should encourage more people to adopt gender-neutral language, we also need to discuss how some people in our community might react negatively to gender-neutral pronouns becoming “the norm.”
A few months ago, a few members of the trans community on Twitter delivered a critique of gender-neutral language and “hyper woke spaces,” in which people introduce themselves with their preferred pronouns and ask people’s pronouns when unsure what to assume. Other queer folks and their allies were vehemently offended by this comment, accusing critics of “enbyphobia” – hatred against non-binary (NB/enby) folks – and increasing tensions between existing factions in the online trans community. Lots of people still feel the effects of this incident, and it highlights something important: as a community, we need to have an active discussion about queer-friendly language.
For me – a non-binary person – it’s incredibly validating when I hear people refer to me by “they/them” pronouns, even more so when I don’t have to tell people. Even though I use he/him as well and present masculine, I still have a very positive connection to gender-neutral language. Others, however, have a very different reaction.
“They/them is not much better than he/him” for my friend Sofia Rowe, a trans woman I’ve had the pleasure of knowing since middle school. Sofia’s been out for almost a year and has been medically transitioning for most of that time.
One huge influence on our reactions to “they/them” is that we have different goals; while I see neutral language as considerate, she sees it as potentially insulting.
“It does kinda feel like they’re clocking me,” she says, describing the feeling of being referred to with gender-neutral pronouns. “Being referred to by they/them doesn’t carry the male weight,” she says, “But [non-binary] is still pretty much like a gender I don’t identify with.”
Sofia wants to be assumed female at first glance, not androgynous. With the severe dysphoria she faces on a daily basis, it’s understandable why being a “they” isn’t as validating as being a “she” to strangers for her.
While this is a perspective I’ve heard from a lot of binary trans people, it’s not universal. Christopher Ikonomou, a member of our graphics team at OutWrite, has an unusual approach to pronouns I wasn’t initially expecting. “I’m fine with being referred to by they/them,” he says, “There’s no real dysphoria, it’s just disconnection.” Christopher is one of the few people I’ve met who uses neopronouns – specifically xe/xem – alongside he/him. He described an attraction to the “look” of xe/xem, how the “otherworldliness” was a huge aspect of what initially attracted him to those particular pronouns.
“Xe/xem I use when I feel more safe,” Christopher says, “I might tell people as I become more comfortable with them over time.”
In a lot of ways, these pronouns seem like an extension of Christopher, and sitting down and talking with him about his connection with them helped me get a better understanding of who he is as a person. Using multiple sets of pronouns is something I’ve seen many non-binary folks do – usually they/them coupled with he/him or she/her – sometimes with one or the other reserved for close friends or family. A reason I do this with he/him pronouns is that I feel a sense of connection to the gender I was socialized into being, despite my rejection of any binary identity. The way in which I associate “he/him” with my initial gender assignment is fairly common, though not all nonbinary people feel the same way.
“Gender doesn’t equal pronouns” for Jasper – one of our developmental editors at OutWrite – who identifies as genderfluid in addition to being nonbinary. For them, pronouns are a means to assert personal autonomy; “I don’t have agency over the way I look physically, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have control over how people refer to me,” Jasper says, “Most people are going to default to a certain thing and I hate that.” This outlook on their pronouns influences their emphasis on detaching pronouns from gender. Jasper’s dysphoria is, as they describe it, created by society rather than internalized feelings of insecurity. “I kind of like myself, I would like my body parts more if not for society gendering them.” In a sense, Jasper, like many nonbinary people, is trying to express themselves within the confines of a “binary world” where certain behaviors, physical traits, habits, and nearly everything we do is associated with one of two little tiny boxes labeled “men” or “women.”
While Jasper seems to associate their gender and presentation with a relentless self-confidence, Cami – another developmental editor at OutWrite – describes their identity through the lens of constant anxiety. In high school, Cami struggled against an impulse to keep from “going against the grain,” a factor that still influences the way they present physically. “Being anxious about random things affects the way I present,” Cami says, a sentiment I’ve heard from other nonbinary people before. For me, these perspectives are reflections of emotions I’ve felt regarding my gender (or lack thereof); while it sometimes feels empowering to be a “genderless shapeshifter” who exists beyond the binary, it’s also been a source of self-doubt, second-guessing, and insecurity, a feeling I experienced much more often when I first began exploring the abyss that is my gender identity. They/them pronouns, it seems, can encompass the positive aspects of the nonbinary experience – the excitement of rebelling against the gender binary, for example – while also allowing room for humility and self-reflection about how we really feel about ourselves as individual members of the queer community. This is a reason I and many others love they/them: the inclusivity and diverse range of experiences they represent. Yet, as we’ve seen, that sentiment isn’t always shared by some binary trans people.
As I navigate the trans community on campus and beyond, I’m reminded that our experiences differ greatly and aren’t served well by any one-size-fits-all solution. While I and everyone I interviewed generally default to “they/them” when we don’t know a person’s preferred pronouns, we’re all living examples of how that isn’t necessarily the one quick fix to avoid misgendering anyone. As members of a diverse community, validation isn’t easy, and we need to continue having this discussion about what we can do better. Language pertaining to the queer community is changing, and we have to make sure it moves forward at no one’s expense; to do that, we need to be honest about how gender-neutral language potentially harms people and be open to changing our behaviors. I invite you, the reader, to consider a few questions.
- Do you default to a certain set of pronouns for people you don’t know? Why?
- How and why do you react when people default to “they/them” instead of “she/her” or “he/him”?
- What would you rather have people do?
If we as a community take more time to engage with these questions and answer them honestly to ourselves and others, we’ll be making queer spaces – and maybe environments that aren’t explicitly queer-focused – safer for everyone and more responsive to the needs of individual members of our community.