I Came Out to My Students…

and nothing happened. I teach college composition and the 22 eighteen-year-olds didn’t challenge me when I asked everyone to go around the room and say their name, their proposed major and their pronouns. “I’ll model,” I said. “Hello! My name is ____. I studied ____ in undergrad. I use they/them pronouns. If I were a woman I might use she/her and if I were a man I might use he/him.”

A number of my students were confused on providing their pronouns, but that’s to be expected. It’s still a relatively new concept and even when I used to identify as a woman, I would still get students who were confused. But even a few weeks into the semester, no one has challenged me, or laughed, or asked invasive questions. Sure, I have to remind people not to call me a Miss or a Ma’am, but I know they mean it out of respect.

I almost didn’t come out. I almost convinced myself that being an authority figure at the front of the room would be difficult enough when I look younger than I am (and I’m pretty young) and when I outwardly present as female. Why add another layer of stress when it was already a struggle to be taken seriously?

But I’m a graduate student in addition to being an instructor and I thought back to a class I took last semester where a brilliant professor would reference her female partner and how safe and comforting that knowledge was to me as a queer student. She made queerness accepted and normalized with such a simple turn of her speech.

And so, when I want to back away and hide myself behind my female presentation, I remember how I felt in my professor’s class and I choose vulnerability instead. I owe my students that same level of safety.


The Curse of Southern Politeness

In the northeast, and specifically quaint New England, Ma’am and Sir, are foreign words. They’re ancient relics of language better preserved in nineteenth century books or said upon the stage in period dress than words you would ever hear trailing at the end of someone’s sentence. “Have a good day, Ma’am”, or “How are you today, Sir?” is simply not in our vernacular.

My best guess is because we don’t have the time to waste the words or the energy. Especially as–if you’ve ever walked into a retail store in suburban Connecticut or suburban New York–no one asks you how you are because, frankly they don’t care. I’m generalizing and playing into stereotypes that Northerners are rude and too rushed to care about the people around them. But, to a certain extent, this is true.

I was raised in New England, completed my undergrad in Georgia and continue to drive up and down the east coast periodically to visit family. In the north, the friendliest cashier at Dunkin Donuts or the most cheerful barista at Starbucks, might wish you a great day. But they will never call you “sir” or “ma’am”. Too many words.

Again, I’m joking. Mostly. But on my most recent road trip up north, I noticed such a difference in how I interacted with retail workers, or servers at a restaurant, or cashiers based on likely I was to be called “ma’am”. Often, when my mother and I traveled together, we would be told, “I hope you ladies have a nice day” and I wanted to politely inform them, “I’m not a lady, but thank you.” I never corrected them. It didn’t seem worth the effort to justify my existence to someone I would never see again.

Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, it was almost inevitable to be gendered. Somewhere in Maryland, it stopped and I felt more like a person again.

My mother is from New York and all my life I knew “ma’am” to be an insult. Not because it was gendered, but because to be a “ma’am” is to be an old lady. “Ma’am” holds gender and age observations of a person all rolled into one. And so while I still get mistaken for a first-year in college, I also get called “ma’am” rather than “miss”. Apparently I not only appear to be a woman, but a married woman? A woman who is no longer a maiden (read virgin)? There are sexual connotations to the word as well, especially as ma’am is also derived from madame which could just as easily mean owner of a brothel as it could mean respected woman.

I understand that “ma’am” and “sir” are the rules of propriety in the south, but “ma’am” is an under-examined piece of language that perpetuates much more than the gender binary. Yes, it might be polite in some circles (and some states), but we can be more considerate with our words and work toward a politeness that is more inclusive.

As much as the north might still need to learn how to slow down and be less rude, here are a few things you can learn from how we do it in the north. Instead of “Ma’am” (or “sir”) try these:

  • “Have a great day!”
  • “Thank you for your time/service/business etc!”
  • “Please.”
  • “Thank you.”

The trend? It’s the same words you would ordinarily say, but without the gendered language. Suddenly, you’re not assuming anyone’s gender based on cis normative perceptions of appearance, which makes the world a little safer for trans and non-binary people.

In Praise of Gender Euphoria

At an academic conference last month, a staff member saw me standing by the information table and asked her fellow staff member, “Is this person being helped?” This is gender euphoria.

I told my mother I think I’m non-binary and she made sure to later sign my birthday card: You are the most phenomenal human being. This is gender euphoria.

A friend who doesn’t know yet I’m non-binary has been calling me his favorite human for years. This is gender euphoria.

At airport security or in line at the grocery store, I occasionally get ‘sir’ and even this is gender euphoria, if only because I’m not being read as female.*

For months now, I was concerned that because I am lucky enough not to experience dysphoria, that I couldn’t be non-binary. But I’ve been starting that list above (and hope to add more entries!) and have found that the moments I feel most comfortable with my body and my style and the way I’m perceived in the world is when I am a person and not fixed to womanhood.

This is just a short post to trust euphoria. Trust what feels good and makes you whole.

*I am still conflicted on these interactions. If only because I am still afraid that rather than embracing my gender, I am running from femininity. It’s the same way I have insisted for years when men hold the door open for me or attempt chivalry to “treat me like a person and not a woman”. But what does that say about how I perceive women? I’m afraid of my own internalized misogyny.

Ask Me About My Pronouns

I’ve started to wear an Ask Me About My Pronouns button. I’m not officially out as non-binary, haven’t officially asked anyone to use they/them pronouns for me, but I’m experimenting. I want people to ask. I want my friends to ask about my pronouns.

One friend did ask for my pronouns today. “Remind me again what your pronouns are?” Casual. Beautiful.

“I’m not sure just yet. I’m in the process of figuring that out,” I responded.

My friend’s friend–a graduate student in Women Gender and Sexuality Studies–scoffed and laughed at me. He said that until I was sure about my pronouns I shouldn’t wear the button. Remember, this is a graduate student in Women Gender and Sexuality Studies, who’s laughing at me.

I told him I wouldn’t take the button off. My friend sided with me. Casual. Beautiful. He said it’s okay if gender feels in flux. That doesn’t mean his friend’s reaction wasn’t invalidating. I’m in constant debates with a different friend who believes that if someone is offended, it’s their fault for not having a thick enough skin. I’m a writer; I have a damn thick skin. Except that when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, well suddenly I’m paper, torn right open. It’s vulnerable. You’re placing your subjectivity–something only you can vouch to be true–on display for public debate. It’s vulnerable.

I’ve been out as asexual for ten years. Out as homo-romantic (not sure what the new term would be as I’m not a woman), for five. But coming out as non-binary is more visible. It’s a spoken reality of how I am understood and described. As an asexual person not in a relationship, I can skirt invisibly in hetero spaces.

The more I think about it (and I think about it a lot) the more I think I am nonbinary. And yet, I’m still framing my gender in terms of  I think, rather than the definitive I am.

Ask me about my pronouns. Please. Ask. I want to give an honest answer, but I might need to work myself up that level of courage to be that visible.

Running from Femininity?

I didn’t start to question my gender until I was writing a creative nonfiction essay on Dragon Ball Z. I’m a writer before anything else and I knew that Dragon Ball Z shaped my perceptions of heroism, as well as what it meant to be a woman. I spoke to my older brother over the phone when I was initially conceptualizing this idea and though we rarely talk now (and never about queerness), he agreed that DBZ shaped his understanding of what it means to be a man.

Notice any women in the main cast?

This creative nonfiction essay seemed initially simple: DBZ taught me internalized misogyny. I learned womanhood from its absence and learned to abhor femininity because I understood it to be the antithesis of heroism. The women of DBZ are not the heroes. They were the shrill screaming mothers (Chi Chi), the hysterical girls (Videl), the sexy ladies who are also shrill and hysterical (Bulma, especially in Dragon Ball, the prequel series). Why would I ever want to grow up into one of them?

This was especially true because my older brother was my greatest influence as a child. I would do anything to be his friend and playmate and strive to be his equal. We would play Dragon Ball Z in our backyard and spend hours training where we ran around the yard (or the basement when the weather turned cold) punching and kicking each other. I was his sparring partner and he was as close to the heroism of DBZ as I could imagine. And best of all, I wasn’t a girl when we sparred; I was a warrior. I was his partner and I understood that I was the exception to the rule. Our games of training did double duty: he trained me to not be feminine. If I were to be too feminine, too girly, I would be out. As a child, long before DBZ wormed into my brother’s muscles, my only bargaining power when we argued was that if he didn’t treat me right, I would show him. I would become girly and then who would he play with?

And so it’s difficult now, in questioning my gender as an adult, to know whether all I’m really questioning is ingrained misogyny.

Is the issue that I don’t want to be a woman, or that I’m not a woman and never was?

This blog is a place to find out. I want to get used to they/their pronouns in a place where I can explore and determine what I’m feeling.

Do you experience (or have you experienced) anything similar? Are you also questioning your gender? Let me know in the comments so we can talk further.