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Let’s Talk About Pronouns

by theSKIN

• By theSKIN

We’ve all been conditioned to assume other people’s gender. How often do you look at someone and make a snap decision about whether to refer to them as he or she, based solely on appearance? If you were raised in a culture with gender roles (ahem, all of us), probably daily. I’m not trying to condemn anyone — it’s pretty much what’s going to happen in a culture that upholds and reinforces the gender binary. But guess what? There’s a lot more to gender identity than male or female, and anyone is capable of relearning what they’ve been taught. If you’re ready to think more critically about gender, good for you! Now it’s time to navigate a new language, with different terms, new expressions, and pronouns beyond he and she. To help, we talked with human rights activist Bethany C. Meyers about living outside the gender binary.


What does it mean to be nonbinary?


Nonbinary is a word that a lot of people are still wrapping their heads around right now, but essentially it means not living within the binary of male and female, and not identifying with either one of those genders. Every nonbinary person experiences their own identity in a different way, and it’s not really about how you look on the outside. 

Something that’s helpful for people who are just stepping into gender language is to understand there are multiple different segments to gender. To start, there’s gender assignment, which is the gender you’ve been given at birth. The doctor holds you up and looks between your legs and they decide if you are a boy or a girl, based solely on genitalia. That’s what you’re assigned, and that determines a lot of the ways in which you live your life, the way that you grow up, and the way that you’re perceived by the world.

Then there’s gender expression, which is how you personally express yourself: the way that you dress, if you have facial hair, body hair, long hair, short hair, all these different things that we interpret as male or female. 

Finally, there’s gender identity. If gender expression is how you outwardly express, then gender identity is how you feel. So that’s like if you feel inside that you are male or female, if you’re trans, if you’re nonbinary, whatever that may be. 

I think having those different layers to look at and to understand can help people puzzle-piece it together more easily. So in my case, I was assigned female at birth, I express myself through both feminine and masculine things, and I identify as nonbinary.


Are terms like non-binary, gender nonconforming, agender, and genderqueer interchangeable?


Nonbinary, gender nonconforming, gender fluid: all of those terms intersect with one another. Personally, I would have no problem being called any of those, but I think it is about the personal journey and what individual people feel comfortable with. I always encourage queer people to play with different words and play with different things and see what feels right for you. It’s all fluid! It doesn’t have to be one thing. As humans, we love it when it’s one thing. Our brains have a much easier time when we can put things in boxes, and I think that queerness in general really challenges that idea.

Right now, we’re creating a new language to describe all of this. There is definitely an awakening happening right now, both inside the queer scene and outside of the queer scene. We’re trying to find more ways to describe races, describe genders, describe the way we feel. I personally think what that’s going to lead to is a dismantling of all of it until we end up living in a world, where gender doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who you’re dating or who you’re sleeping with, or what’s in between your legs. It’s about love and what you feel. That’s my ultimate ideal and my ultimate goal, and I think that we are in the process of getting there.

“There are multiple segments to gender.


So, how do I know which pronouns to use?


As far as knowing how someone wants to be identified or what pronouns they want to use, the best thing you can possibly do is ask. Then whatever they say, adhere to it.

Oftentimes, when people feel so resistant to language it’s because it feels very distant because it’s new, and it’s something that you have to learn. You have to learn how to use they/them pronouns the same way that you have to learn to conjugate verbs in a foreign language. You have to practice. 


What if I make a mistake and misgender someone?


Several years ago, one of my friends wanted to start going by her middle name. We were all supportive, but there would be days when I would accidentally call her by her first name and she would be like, “it’s Middle Name,” and I’d be like, “Oh yeah of course.” I figured it out, and now I would never call her by her first name. I often think about that in regards to pronoun usage. As long as I was working on it and trying to use the right name, it was fine. What would have been offensive is if she said that she wanted to be called by her middle name and I said, “okay First Name” and completely ignored her wishes. There’s something that’s very, very different between those two sentiments. 

I wish more people knew we’re not that sensitive. At the end of the day, effort is everything. When people make the effort, you can tell that they care and that’s what really matters. We learn together, and we figure it out together.


How can I best support those who are nonbinary?


I think the best thing you can do is to simply be there: asking what that specific person needs, and then standing up for them. If you hear them being misgendered, just remind others that they go by other pronouns. Even on Instagram, my followers will comment to someone else that used “she” pronouns to refer to me, and say “just a reminder, it’s they” with a smiley face. They’re not cutting anyone down, but saying hey, just so you know. That’s so helpful because I don’t want to be the one to do that every single time. Those little things make a big difference and go a long way.

Interview courtesy of Bethany C. Meyers