It took me a while, but now I appreciate why some individuals want to be referred to as “they”. Thanks to sensitive tutelage by younger family members and their friends, I realize that these individuals experience themselves as living within a polymorphous embrace of orientations. The free flow of their identities across osmotic thresholds is not expressed by the unitary “norms” that language uses to denote traditional categories of sexuality, gender, and identity.
Hence the use of “they” and corresponding terms like transgender, nonbinary, agender, gender-expansive, gender-fluid, and pansexual that now expand our perception of individuals’ self-understanding well beyond gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer. Distinctive, to be sure, but almost certainly a garden of earthy delights for some. I rather imagine that my own mother may not have been strictly inhibited by standard boundaries.
Patti and I have intermittent encounters with a person we admire who prefers “they”. We have great affection for them, and we welcome every opportunity to honor their preference when referring to them (even though eighty-five years of linguistic habits prompt the occasional slip-up). After all, (and as noted in my bio sketch on this blog) my favorite definition of love is “to yearn for the fulfillment of another person on their own terms.” And “…on their own terms” has never been more appropriate than when referring to the actual language that defines a person’s deepest self-identity.
But here’s what I don’t understand. Increasingly, I see that the signature blocks of straight individuals whose gender self-identity is more (shall we say) “traditional” are now adding a new line to their name tags or signature blocks. Right up there beside name, address, and phone number is (she/her/hers) or (he, him, his).
If I were a person for whom “they/them/theirs” were my truest terms, I can readily imagine making that known. It can be a kind of “news” to others. So I welcome being told how best to refer to them.
But I’m just not sure why the other approximately 98% of individuals not identifying as “they” are inclined either to assert, or perhaps to disclaim any confusion about, their own self-understandings.
I’ve long experienced a similar perplexity when seeing a big yellow placard on the rear window of an automobile declaring “Baby on board”. I absolutely understand how precious that news is to the operator of that vehicle, having been unjustly ticketed by the California Highway Patrol for “unsafe changing of lanes” on Highway 101 in Marin County on March 17, 1965, while driving Patti and our newborn infant daughter Shannon home from the maternity ward. My cargo was both precious and fragile. I’d never, ever driven so carefully in my life. But the officer issued the citation based on his seeing another driver’s brake lights come on as I moved over in front of him. That trivial injustice still irks me fifty-six years later.
So yes, “Baby on board”. I really do get it when someone wants to be sure that others understand their special situation. But despite my genuine appreciation for what it means to the loving person who puts up a “Baby on board” placard, I can’t imagine that I would ever correspondingly put a sign on my car that says “No baby on board”. Why would I do that?
And that’s why I don’t quite get it when others feel constrained to denote their own un-noteworthy orientation. Perhaps this is a gesture of solidarity to express appreciation for those with a more distinctive orientation and to immerse the “news” necessary to respecting them within a massive universality of others’ less important gender information. And I suppose that over time the parenthetical pronouns may gradually disappear from those address blocks as silently as they appeared. Or maybe some universalization of language will emerge to make all orientation-distinctions either irrelevant or unremarkable or both.
But I just don’t feel a need to take part in this one. For me, it’s a little like the immediate reaction here in the tri-state area after 9/11. Suddenly most automobiles were flying American flags from small plastic flagpoles attached to the side windows. I realized they were expressing a surge of patriotic solidarity, but I couldn’t help wondering how, and when, and why those who installed them on their cars would decide to remove them from their cars. Surely that removal wouldn’t mean they had become less devoted to America, would it?
Maybe my taking a pass on this one means I’m more of a curmudgeon than I am willing to admit. Or maybe it just means that those who love me have some more work to do to bring me around. I guess we’ll find out in due course.
"Due course" came right away. When I'm groping around in terra incognita I sometimes turn to loved ones for their perspectives on what I have written. So, before hitting the "Publish" button I passed a draft of this piece by my wife, a daughter, and a granddaughter. Listening to their three responses was akin to beholding a turnpike cut through a hillside exposing blended yet contrasting layers of rock, where the differentiated lateral strata reflect the eras in which they were laid down atop one another. The freshest layer was articulated by our granddaughter with such clarity that I asked her permission to append it to this post. Her words:
"Cisgender people (like you and I) include their pronouns in email signatures, instagram bios, etc, to normalize the sharing of pronouns so that anyone who is transgender or nonbinary and feels the need to specify their pronouns doesn't feel alienated or abnormal in this practice. Not only is it a good way to show allyship and prevent any feelings of discomfort or isolation someone may have in specifying, but sharing pronouns is just good practice; not everyone who appears to be cisgender/gender-conforming uses the pronouns you think they do! It's a helpful way to avoid slip-ups and accidental misgendering."
"At [her all-women's college], there are plenty of students who you might automatically perceive as using she/her pronouns, but if you ask them they might specify differently; on campus it's become a practice to go around in different social settings where you don't know everyone and say your name, pronouns, what class year you are in, etc. Even if everyone specifies using she/her, it's a good way to know how to refer to everyone without causing any accidental distress or discomfort."
"Some other points in the piece where I found issues concern the conflation of gender identity and sexual orientation. I've attached a little graphic that we were fond of in GSA that describes the difference between gender identity, gender expression, sex, and sexual orientation."
So there you have it. I certainly understand from her straightforward description of her social milieu how thoughtful and natural it would be participate in creating a new norm where all feel understood and safe.
And I suddenly realize that I (and my peers) now take for granted that different people have different needs when dining, and so we all routinely ask in advance about guests' gluten avoidance or vegetarian preferences. At our own Thanksgiving table we had a polyglot melange of gluten-fighters, vegetarians, lactose avoiders, pescatarians, and vegans. It took but a few years to make such awareness nearly universal in society at large. And all are now routinely accommodated in the natural course of events.
At the same time, I realize that several generations of musical styles have come and gone without my noticing, that I don't recognize more than one percent of the "celebrities" featured in People Magazine, and that some favorite garments in my closet are older than every single one of my adult grandchildren. I'm going to stick with the '70s singer-songwriters, don't care if I ever hear/see/know today's beautiful entertainers, and will wear that fraying tweed sports coat until the day I die.
And so I'm kind of betwixt and between. Most of my interactions are with lifelong friends exceptionally well known to each other who need no introduction or re-introduction. But I also have recently taken up a new sport in which I make several new acquaintances every week--almost invariably senior citizens like myself. At this moment, I still struggle to imagine introducing myself by saying, "Hi. I'm Eliot. He. Him. His."
I don't know. Maybe adoption of pronoun-annunciation will array itself generationally, like the strata on a rock cut. Or perhaps it'll become natural and universal almost overnight. Anything's possible, I guess. For the moment, I'm just glad to have grandchildren shining light down new pathways for me to consider.