“We’ll try really hard, but we might get it wrong.” Last week, my parents arrived in London to watch my drag show. I’ve been out of the closet as a homosexual and as a drag queen for 14 and seven years respectively, and my parents, even though it took some time, have become incredibly well versed and engaged in what it means for me and my friends to be queer.
This time, however, I had entered the closet once again — around seven months ago I decided to openly change my pronoun to they/them/their, and couldn’t find the words to tell Mum and Dad. It required little thought and I’d known for about four years that being they fit me as perfectly as cheese fits on toast. I had spent a long while secretly anxious about being a burden to those around me, confusing people too much, worrying whether it would put me in the line of more violence; but when I told my friends it was like telling them I’d topped up the milk in the fridge, or bought more detergent — welcomed, needed, not a big deal.
With my parents, however, I felt 12 again — like I had a secret that would be blown wide open and cause my family dismay; I felt like I couldn’t ask any more of these two people who have been through the big queer ringer in learning to understand me; I felt selfish. But after a week of misgendering – through nobody’s fault – over Christmas, I launched it at them over breakfast a few weeks later.
“I go by a they pronoun now and I really want you to both try to observe that.” A pause, followed by a few questions, and while it’s not our job to be the educator, my mum pushed me out of her vagina and my dad once scooped my poo out of the plughole in the bath when I was 8, so I thought they’d earned a few par-for-the-course questions. Eventually they said, “We’ll try really hard, but we might get it wrong.”
Gender fluidity is not a millennial fad; neither is violence towards non-binary people. In 2017, GLAAD released a study which found that 12% of young people in the United States identify as transgender or non-binary, and just last week Stonewall UK published a report revealing that 31% of non-binary people have experienced a hate crime linked to their gender identity in the last 12 months.
The latter is horrifying but true. So many people have faced severe abuse for appearing in a way that seems at odds with their perceived gender, whether or not they use a non-binary pronoun (some people use ‘ze’ or ‘qui’ or ‘hir’ or anything they want). But we have existed for millennia — with different presentations of non-binary genders proffering different names and different levels of societal respect across cultures, across history. So why is it now so complicated to get on board with the change of a word, when we all get excited about a brand new iPhone, or easily adopt contemporary slang like ‘fleek’ or ‘Kardashian’?
“'But it's a plural' comes up a lot,” Dani Singer, a performer, support worker and housecoat collector explains. “Despite lots of everyday examples of when it isn't. Sometimes I think people see it as a rejection of gender, or being 'gender neutral', when that is very much not the case. It's just that a commonly used pronoun doesn't exist for what my gender is – I definitely have one!”
Amrou Al-Kadhi, writer and drag queen adds: “The comment I get most often is, ‘Well, you still look like a man for most of the time, so why aren't you he?’ It annoys me, because my external body doesn't always match with what I feel inside – I mean, around four nights a week I'm in drag, and often feel more myself in drag than I do out of drag. So these things really are fluid – often how people are externally presenting is because of how we've been socialised, so essentially, don't take what you see as fact.”
So why does it matter that people get our pronouns right? Firstly it’s about respect; about people deeming you worthy enough to try and understand you. When you’re misgendered, or somebody purposefully disregards your preferred pronoun, it hurts; it jars with your notion of yourself — a self that is so hard to maintain when people won’t even call you something you asked to be called. When somebody does try, it feels like people see you. “It feels like a warm bath,” says Amrou. “It makes me feel relaxed, and less anxious in a social space. It makes me feel like I'm being heard, and that someone sees me not for being a ‘man’ but for being Amrou.”
“I guess, simply, I have never been he or she; this is not a choice, it is who I am,” my friend Joseph explains. “I am not a man or a woman, and the ‘they’ pronoun is the simplest way to differentiate that. When someone uses ‘they’ it demonstrates a respect and recognition of an integral aspect of my being. I have struggled throughout my life with serious mental health conditions/body dysmorphia, and understanding myself more by coming to terms with my identity has certainly eased many of these issues. I’m not oblivious, and am very much aware that not everyone has heard of non-binary, let alone met a non-binary person. Each time I get misgendered with a male pronoun isn’t easy. However, I use the opportunity to speak in a productive way about what that means. I’m not saying that I’m an educator in any way, or that most of the time I don’t want to just let it slide [rather] than have a discussion questioning who I am, but it’s important to open up these conversations in a non-aggressive way.”
“We’ll try hard, but we might get it wrong.” Start by trying, then failing, then apologising, and moving on. “Sometimes it's not the end of the world,” Dani concludes. “For instance, I have a relatively new friend who I know is trying really hard, but hasn't known anyone who uses 'they' before, and slips up sometimes. I don't mind that at all, because it does take some getting used to – I misgendered myself for months in my own head before I got used to it!”
Once you’ve got the pronoun, think about what that means — we are still us, still people with multifaceted experiences way beyond our gender. We are everywhere, we have been everywhere, and will continue to be everywhere; it’s just language that hasn’t quite caught up.