Step Right Up Ladies and Gents

step-right-upSome days I feel like I’ve accidentally stepped up to a carnival game called Guess What I Am. The odds are stacked against me. The game ranks secondary sex characteristics over gender expression and gender presentation. It ignores my intent. It doesn’t recognize the middle ground.

When asked “What are your preferred gender pronouns (PGPs)?” I usually stammer out “they”. I hate pronouns. Most people use feminine pronouns when they talk about me. It doesn’t feel right, but I don’t stop them. Three years into writing this blog, I remain pronoun challenged.

I am not comfortable with either he or she, or Sir or Ma’am, although Ma’am is the worst. I’m OK with they, Jamie, or nothing. “Nothing” is easy with honorifics and titles. On forms, I leave the title box blank. If I have to fill in something, I use Dr. or Prof. I haven’t seen Mx. on a form yet, and I’m not sure I’d use it. “Nothing” is difficult with pronouns.

I choose to wear masculine clothing, have a masculine haircut, and carry myself in a masculine manner, but I don’t use masculine pronouns. I conflate masculine pronouns with taking testosterone. I read as masculine, but not necessarily male. I like how I look. I don’t do anything to make it easy to read me as female. When I go out I get Sir’d and Ma’am’d and a combination of the two. I cringe when people apologize after calling me Sir.

delta-1958-whitney

Delta, painted by Frank Stella, 1958

Last week, Donna and I went to see the Frank Stella show at the Whitney Museum. Donna used a wheelchair provided by the museum. I pushed. We moved slowly through the show, tethered together. An intimate way to look. What struck me was not Stella’s painting, but his explanation of his work “What you see is what you see.”

Stella was one of the first painters to break away from Abstract Expressionism. Art critics called his work Minimalism, because critics like to label things. The Tate Modern defines Minimalism as “no attempt is made to represent an outside reality, the artist wants the viewer to respond only to what is in front of them. The medium (or material) from which it is made, and the form of the work is the reality.”

I want people to see what they see. Not to judge me by whether I “pass” as a man. I want them to stop trying to find the mark that identifies me as female. To let go of the one drop rule, the rule that says that my sex assigned at birth trumps everything else. I want them to see my reality. I am not someone who should be called Ma’am.

I know a handful of people who identify as either non-binary, genderqueer, or gender non-conforming. Some of them use he. Some of them use they. Some go by she. If you tried to line them up and guess their preferred pronouns, chances are you’d get them wrong. It doesn’t correlate with how masculine or how feminine they look. It correlates with their reality, and how willing they are to insist that other people respect it.

Notes: What you see is what you see is a precursor of What you see is what you get (WYSIWG). Or as the Dramatics sang it, Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get.

The U.K. is ahead of the U.S. in using gender neutral honorifics such as Mx., however, according to this article in Time, Mx. is slowly worming its way into American usage. Misconceptions about Mx., from the blog Spacious Perspicacious, is an excellent short analysis of the word.

16 thoughts on “Step Right Up Ladies and Gents

  1. Lesboi

    I’m still on the fence about pronouns too if that makes you feel any better. I feel like I should be pushing for male pronouns but I can’t do that yet for some reason. I usually just take what I get. Today it was 2 males to 1 female pronouns when I interacted with strangers. Some days it’s all female. I guess I’m going with the “What you see is what you see” attitude for now too and letting other people decide what I am since I’m still not so sure. I feel like a hybrid so there doesn’t seem to be a right pronoun for me. Testosterone or not I think we’re in similar head spaces about this. It’s funny that you see T as the tipping point and I see top surgery as the tipping point. If you had my T and I had your chest we’d probably both be asking for the male pronouns…or at least more comfortable doing so.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I think whatever we are “missing” is what we ascribe our hesitancy to use masculine pronouns to. Having a partner who is lesbian identified also complicates things since it isn’t “just us” it becomes something she has to do as well.
      What I find strange is that even though I am in an awkward middle phase, it feels pretty authentic – if I didn’t have to interact with the rest of the world (or use a restroom outside of my apartment) I think I’d be comfortable stopping right here.

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      1. Lesboi

        It’s really tough to be in the middle but if that feels authentic to you than that is what is right for you. Your discomfort is from society who insist on putting us into one of the two accepted boxes. While I feel like a hybrid being I think that is only because of my socialization as female and body structure that I’ve lived with for so long. When I strip all of that away and think of my inner truth it always leads me to the M box. I’m more uncomfortable in the middle than I ever was as a female perceived person. Since I don’t think I can or want to go backwards the only way to go is forward.

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  2. Fredrication

    In a way I’m happy to live in a society that’s not so divided into gender. Most toilets are gender neutral and since the 60s we no longer use “sir”, “mam” or other titles. The only time I hear how others perceive my gender is when they talk about me to someone else. Like “the woman over there”, “ask her” and “she’s first in line”. Since I don’t hear this so often I am brutally awakened from my illusion of being perceived as male whenever it’s said. And it hurts as hell.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I’m glad that English does not have gendered word endings the way Italian and Spanish do. because I would hate for every sentence to (mis)gender me. I’d much rather people respond to me recognizing my masculinity rather than my sex as assigned at birth.

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  3. The butch

    GQB and I had a long conversation about this Monday, after the Transcending Boundaries Conference was behind us. The entire event, there was a strong focus on pronouns–it was a gender conference afterall–and I found it rather trying. People wrote their PGPs on their nametags, usually unreadable because crappy handwriting, or, when asked to state their PGP at the beginning of a workshop, they would say it so fast, all run together, that I had no idea what they’d said. I am old, my hearing is imperfect, and I have a hard time understanding fast talk because of my stupid brain injury. I gave up and called everyone they.

    Being called “Ma’am” is the one thing that grates. I am female-bodied, I’ve given birth which kinda put the nail in the gender dysphoria coffin, and in the four decades of having breasts, I finally got used to them after the kid was born. I wear my flannel shirts/boxers/jeans/boots and revel in the feeling my masculine armor gives me on top of this female body. Pronouns seem like a small thing to me, but to others they are A Big Deal, GQB pointed out. If I don’t respect their pronoun choices, I’m not respecting them as people, she tells me. At this point, I’m rolling my eyes but I will listen to her and try to learn.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I am hoping that all those holier-than-thou 21 year olds will keep blazing the way for “they” pronouns. I find it easy to keep track of pronouns once I know someone (I know under one dozen people who use they), but a conference would be a problem for me too.

      Ma’am always feels a little condescending to me (Donna says that nothing bothers her more than someone calling her young lady since she is completely gray-haired) and seems to distance me from the person I’m talking to. Since most people don’t use my pronouns when talking to me – or in front of me – it doesn’t bother me as much. It took me years to realize that I liked referring to myself as Donna’s partner because it was gender neutral.

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  4. anexactinglife

    I am adept at completely avoiding the use of pronouns, which, after all, are mostly used to refer to people who are not there. When I am refering to someone who is in the same room, but not part of the conversation, I usually try to draw them into the exchange and then I can use “you.” (I think it’s not cool to refer to people behind their backs when they are nearby!) I am fine with he, she, they, and ze (as preferred) but I recently got tripped up by vae/vaer (apparently a Tumblr thing?)

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It took me a while to get used to they, and I still trip up on it because sometimes I am consciously translating “she to they” in my head – on some level I must not quite fully accept that person’s gender (which is wrong – I should accept it right away – but it takes me a little while). I’m not crazy about ze, it buzzes on my tongue.

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  5. Hart

    I suck at sticking up for the right pronouns for myself, but will happily point it out for other transpeople when people are discussing them when they are not present. I think it has to do with the feeling that I am somehow infringing on another person’s perceptions of me, and who am I to do such a thing? Fortunately those who know me are pretty good about remembering to call me he/him, the rest, well, how are they supposed to know unless I tell them. And to me that’s a very personal disclosure. I was pretty shocked to see a mandatory prefix box for a transgender ezine I submitted some work to. I happily used Mx. If only because it reminds me of the superman villain Mister Mxyzptlk.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I really prefer blanks to Mr., Ms., or Mx. – and most forms allow me to leave the honorifics box blank – but some forms insist that you fill it in – and on general principle I refuse to use Ms. even though my gender marker is F. That ezine probably just has a lazy webmaster.
      There used to be a store in my neighborhood called mxyplyzyk (pronounced Mix-E-Plix-Ick) and people who were looking for it would ask “where is the store with the name with no vowels”.

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  6. Raye

    I also find it really difficult to stick up for my pronoun (they/them). And I’ve only been out a few months! It’s a combination of not wanting to make people feel awkward or bad, not feeling extreme dysphoria when I hear she (it just sounds weird and doesn’t fit, sometimes I don’t even realize people are talking about me), and sometimes not feeling I have the “right” to demand it of people. I wish people would just see my reality too!

    Also, that painting is just beautiful. Something about it really pulls me in, the colors, the mood of it. Reading the title made me look back at it and immediately see a river delta. Which is kind of like this gender stuff- people look at you and see what they want, then when you say your reality, maybe (hopefully) they look again and see what you want them to see.

    Anyway, I really related to this post and enjoyed reading all the comments.

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  7. freedomfromyself

    I really like your last line: “It correlates with their reality, and how willing they are to insist that other people respect it.” One could spend so much of their own life teaching others how to treat them but that would be completely exhausting. I was asked whether I was “A boy or a girl” just about every day growing up. It still happens but my reaction to it has completely changed. As a child the adults around me generally tensed up when I was misgendered which was embarassing for me and led to feelings of shame being associated with it. Education myself and being around others who are proud to own whatever they are has changed me for the better. I’m 28 now, and I didn’t miss a beat when a coworker asked me if I was a boy or a girl. I looked him in the eye, gave him a bit of a smile and said calmly, “I’m a little of both”. I get a weird sense of enjoyment out of toying with people’s bigoted and 2-dimensional ideas of gender expression.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I remember that feeling when I was a kid of being pleased when an adult assumed I was a boy, but also afraid of the backlash from my parents who were embarrassed to explain that I was a girl. Up to when I was 7 or 8 they’d say I was a tomboy, but as I got older they got increasingly uncomfortable with it, although they never succeeded at getting me to change.

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