Tuesday, September 6, 2016


An interesting strip on gender identity and being referred to by a gender that one doesn't identify with. While reading it, I thought about the changes that have taken place over my lifetime.

When I was young, the idea that pronouns never changed was just sort of a given. If someone was a "he," they were always a "he." And this has always been my experience. While I have met a number of transgender people, all of them that I know by name transitioned long before I met them. I never knew them as another gender, and so I never had to keep in mind the idea that they were one thing once, but a different thing now. I'm fairly certain that if someone I knew transitioned, unless I was able to separate their new self into a completely different mental person, it would take me forever to get it right.

And then there's the phenomenon of cross-dressing. Some of the transgender women I've encountered have looked pretty much like men in women's clothing. And I've known men who cross-dressed but didn't see themselves a female - they were still "him," even when wearing a dress, and would become incensed if you got it wrong.

For me, "they/them" in the singular is used for "a person whose sex/gender I do not and/or cannot know, as the neuter 'it' is considered an insult." Accordingly, its use for a transgender person as an individual is odd, especially if they visibly present as one sex or the other. Because as new as the idea that people could change genders is to some of us (I was in my 30s the first time I met a person who turned out to be transgender), the idea that someone would pick the plural to be a non-binary (or neuter) singular is newer.

Honorifics and other descriptors are different from pronouns in that way. We, to a certain degree expect them to change. With women, they change with marital status, but for everyone, they change as a result of career moves. Accordingly, people gain and lose them regularly, and we are trained when coming up to expect that. I attended a military academy for high school, and the military is a rich source of changing honorifics as people are promoted. It was also a Catholic school, and so there were transitions from Brother to Father and Father to Abbot, and we came to be ready for such things. But again, as I noted before, their pronouns never changed.

You can view this as making an excuse for lacking the respect to get things right. And I understand that. It's easy to trot out the reasons why we don't do something and say they're the reasons why we can't do it, when they're really the reasons why we won't do it. I like to think that I would get people's identities right. But I suspect that I won't. In the end, I spend enough time thinking about my own identity to really understand the importance that some people place on theirs. And that's always the kicker. Treating something with the same level of importance that someone else treats it is always harder than it seems that it should be.

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