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What We Say When We (Struggle to) Say They

The thing about “they” as a pronoun is that it is far from neutral, particularly when heard and used, or -- not heard or used -- by cisgendered people. It often becomes a pejorative stand-in for “different,” “weird,” “attention-seeking,” and “freak.” They is “other.” They is who we are against when we say “It’s us vs. them.” It often serves as another barrier, instead of the great neutralizer we had hoped for and desperately want.

They is another reinforcement of the binary, even as it struggles to be a rejection of it.

Before I go any further, let me assure you I’m not letting you off the hook because you just can’t get your mouth, heart and brain around seeing people as they are. You bet your ass that I’m not giving you permission to stop respecting people’s pronouns. I’m asking instead that you think about the falseness of the binary and the ways that all of our behaviors continue to support it, even as we attempt to subvert and expose its artifice.

We get all hung up because “he” and “she” are just as fully-loaded, assumption-supporting, and limiting, but they’re “normal.” We’ve been conditioned not to notice how stereotyping and erasing they are. I will not pretend that, as a person who experiences their gender as fluid, I am immune to this. It’s in our blood. It’s in the air. None of us is immune. Take a story from my son a few weeks ago. He says, “Dad, will you massage my leg right here? This bully kicked me in gym class.” So, I’m massaging and we’re talking, and I ask him to tell me what happened, and he says, “We were just playing kickball and then she…” The record skipped. The jukebox screeched. Wait. Hold up. This bully is a girl?!

I know nothing about this child who kicked my child except that her family and her culture have told her that “she” and “her” are real and valuable labels that likely “match” her reproductive anatomy. And yet, I am now struggling to understand how my son (a “he,” fercryinoutloud!) was bullied by this person. And what’s more? If he had said, “And then they crashed into me…” I would likely have asked, “They who?...You said a bully. Was it a boy or a girl who kicked you? Or are you telling me there’s more than one?”

We have taught our minds -- or maybe it’s more that we have bowed to the incredible efficiency of our brains which don’t want to spend a lot of metabolic energy truly perceiving our world in every moment -- to believe that we must know how to limit each other to make sense of each other.

We have got to slow down and consider this.

Just exactly what are we asking when we ask: “Is this a man or a woman? A boy or a girl?” What we really want to know is: “What assumptions can I make about this person?” “How can I skip over what’s true and get sorta close to what culture has told me is useful to know about this person?” “How can I distill this person’s reality to keep them small, in a box, in a category that my brain already understands and finds familiar?” We are asking for our own comfort rather than to fully see and find out more about this person’s basic humanity.

So, my friends. I have a hard ask. Do not forget the pronouns. In our current world, they’re important, but start asking yourself why you need to know a person’s gender to understand and connect with them. Are there assumptions you can start to notice and to which you can loosen your attachment? Start asking your cisgendered friends about their gender identity. They may not even think they have one, so be patient. What does it mean to be a “she?” How does it feel to think about all of the things that go with “he?” Do they all fit? Which ones feel wrong? Are there ones you find yourself riskily borrowing from “the other side?”

Noticing is the very first step. We cannot skip it. And we may spend a long time there before we’re ready to be in true solidarity, but this is how we all get closer to joy. Closer to ourselves.

1 Comment

Janet Neely
Janet Neely
Oct 17, 2021

Cal, you did it again. My mentor….these are things I have thought about: and here you go expressing them! I have recentlyas a Cigender ( an I even question Cigender for me because so much of me wanted to be male as I grew up- does this even really identify me, or am i more???). bisexual person, who does identify as “she/her” wondering WHY do i NEED to know a person’s birth gender assignment. I don’t. I am trying to meet each person where they are, to be present with them, and to hold space with them so that they and I can continue to grow and be our true and authentic self in a safe space. M…

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