The two of us are zipping down the busy freeway at about the average speed when all of a sudden I see a Porsche in my rear-view for a split second just before it dashes around us doing about a 100 mph or so.
My companion turns to me and says: “Wow, they are headed for trouble!”
“You saw two people in that?” I asked.
“I couldn’t tell – the windows were tinted,” they replied. “Maybe just the driver…”
Within all of us, even with our western societal gender biases, is the ability to quickly and naturally default to “they” when no observable clues exist to classify someone according to the binary-gender system. The “they” driver of the Porsche could have been anyone (assuming the Porsche was not pink, LOL.)
For a gender nonconforming person, whether gender variant, genderqueer, dual gender, or otherwise, preferring others to use the they|them|their set of pronouns is often most comfortable, as they may not see themselves as fixed on either end of the male or female gender spectrum, but rather somewhere mostly fixed or fluid in the middle, or even outside that spectrum altogether.
From early ages, most all of us (myself included) were taught to instantaneously and subconsciously use any and all clues about someone to narrow them down to a male or female. Clues can include names, physical body proportions, voice pitch, hair style, and clothing choices. Sometimes, we just cannot tell, though, and thus we have no choice but to default to using “they” until maybe we figure it out. I still recall my total confusion after talking to Robby/Robbie (??) for the first several times when we routinely found ourselves at one particular dance club. I could tell that Robby was inherently dual gender – identifying as both genders simultaneously, but it was not until one evening when Robby showed me an old photograph that I stopped feeling so perplexed.
But for a gender nonconforming person who does have one or more markers as to their probable sex assignment at birth, we often instinctively and mindlessly relate and refer to them using the pronouns typical for that one end of the gender spectrum. Herein lies the root of the awkward and uncomfortable situations that can ensue from interacting with the person who does not want to be classified by gender. They have gone to the trouble to choose a gender-ambiguous name, wear gender-ambiguous clothing, or perhaps either remove all gender-specific elements from their appearance or utilize blatantly conflicting feminine and masculine styles in equal proportions. They just want to be “they.”
For all of us who respect a person’s wish to be referred to by the they|them|their set of pronouns, it still can be a challenge to always be sensitive and mindful enough to get our phrasing correct. Slip-ups can happen, but the infrequent and unintentional variety often are overlooked. For others who refuse to respect a person’s wishes – either because it seems unimportant, or because it is just too hard to remember to do – remember that we all still have that “they” as our subconscious default when our minds are free of gender co-processing.
So how do we all work on getting our references for gender nonconforming persons correct?
For me, my experience with Robby helped me to develop a method. This method can be utilized in a quick, first-time meeting with success, but I feel that it is most successful when fine-tuned for a given person over the long term.
The method is simply to associate three specific, carefully chosen, adjectives with your view of the person’s core identity. The three adjectives should have no gender connotation nor be physically descriptive in any way. Focus on the unique attitudes and special behaviors of the individual.
Before I met Robby, I thought of them as “elusive” (like a fox), “spontaneous” (as in laughter), and “fickle” (frequently appearing with a new love interest.) I dropped “fickle” after a while because it does seem to me to have more of a slight female association – maybe, and I thought I could do better. “Magic” was a better replacement for “fickle” as Robby frequently seems to appear out of nowhere.
So “elusive”, “spontaneous” and “magic” are what I think of each time I see Robby, and I try to let all thoughts of gender melt away. After that, conversations with them seem to flow with ease.
You may discover your own methods for letting thoughts of (or even obsessions with) someone’s gender melt away. If so, feel free to share. Help keep all of us from heading for trouble.