My White Nonbinary Life: Why “they,” “he” and “she” are all fine with me — and why that’s intentional.
[Feel free to have Google page open so you can look up any new words or phrases to you.]
I’m trans and non-binary, and my favorite pronouns are they, them, and theirs. What does that mean? Instead of saying “he facilitated a workshop” or “she made a beautiful website,” I feel more seen and safe when people say “they facilitated a workshop” or “I went to their website, and I want to know more about them.”
But in actuality, I use all pronouns. He/she/they/ze/hir/zir are all fine. Why? It’s not because “it doesn’t really matter to me,” like I hear many cisgender people say when we are in circles and do a pronoun round, or “I feel like both a man and a woman as well as non-binary,” like I’ve heard cisgender people assume about me, or anything like that. In fact, people in many women-only spaces and men-only spaces have been very violent to me.
I use all pronouns because I strive to hold complexity for the privilege I walk around with in this world as a white person, and to be compassionate to all people in a very intentional way. I’m white, and my people have a history of policing people of other races’ language in very violent ways. My people have a legacy of enacting cultural genocide and actual genocide on the Indigenous people on this land through forced boarding schools, beating Black people for learning to read and write when we enslaved them, discriminating against Black people for speaking African American Vernacular English, and I have many close friends of Color who were beaten and bullied by white teachers when they were in school and not speaking “correctly” or writing the “right” way. In addition to the complexity around race, having there be a “right” way of speaking is also triggering for all people coming from poverty and lower classes, and with many different types of neurodivergence.
So in my body, it doesn’t feel like misgendering when a Person of Color (POC), disabled person, neurodivergent person, or another person dealing with significant marginalization misgenders me. And while it does feel like misgendering when a cisgender, white middle class person uses “he” or “she” with me, I can hold that complexity — it’s worth being able to have the ability to build deeper relationships with people I want to be fighting for liberation alongside. When I show up in mixed spaces where Black or Indigenous liberation is the focus (may this always be the case), or teach about transgender competency in spaces with both POC and white people, I often get feedback from POC that they felt like they could actually relate to and interact with me because I showed flexibility around my pronouns. POC hold so much complexity for the white people they have to interact with each day— it is the least I can do to stretch myself and offer complexity as well, and it has resulted in much deeper relationships in my daily life and in the liberation work I do. I’m so grateful for that.
And while it’s tiring, I can also hold complexity for cisgender white people making mistakes — I know that liberation involves a learning curve, and I don’t want to be a part of a culture that requires everyone to be perfect in order to be in relationship with them. And if that cisgender white person is doing liberation work and deeply caring about people more marginalized than themselves, it barely registers as misgendering to me.
For my nonbinary body, using the correct pronouns with me is important because my body reads it as an offering of love and humanity. Using they/them pronouns with me is shorthand for “Your needs around your body are important” and “I care about your well-being, your survival and thriving.” However in my experience, it’s usually white supremacy culture (linked in the paragraph above) that keeps people from treating me as fully human, saturating my body with microaggressions and their feelings about gender non-conformity, so if people are already surviving oppression in their own way, or are working to undo it, we usually are able to connect and relate on a level of humanity so deeply that my “correct” pronouns become irrelevant.
I want to stress this here — my willingness to hold complexity for other people misgendering me is very different than Laverne Cox’s accurate statement that misgendering a trans person is an act of violence. While my views and Ms. Cox’s views may seem inherently in opposition to each other, they are actually one in the same. Laverne Cox is talking about her being in public spaces, walking down the street for example, and a transphobic person calls her “he,” “male,” or many other transphobic slurs, and this clocking of her as a trans person puts her in immediate danger of physical violence from any other transphobic person in the same area who may have not realized otherwise that she was trans. This is what Laverne Cox means (that, and even if there’s no physical violence that results, the stress response on our bodies as we try to stay safe has intense repercussions on our mental and physical health). The violence against trans people, especially Black trans women, is real, and the intentional misgendering of a person to cause emotional harm and put them in danger of physical violence is violent. I am speaking about my own experience as a white nonbinary person and the need for me to hold more complexity for people to make mistakes, misgender me, or even be triggered by my demand that they use unfamiliar pronouns with me, as it comes off as white entitlement.
Given all of that information, I also want to add more complexity by explaining a bit more about how pronouns affect my body:
When a stranger uses “they” with me — my chest opens up, my breath is deep and relaxed. My body opens up to connection with this other person — they have had enough exposure to trans people and non-binary people that they think it’s responsible to use gender neutral pronouns with me. They may even use “they” with all new people in their life, just in case, and may even be considerate enough to introduce their pronouns to me, and to ask for mine. My body instantly feels safer — it won’t be totally relaxed, but my body knows that this person is not likely to intentionally try to hurt me physically or verbally if they know about “they” pronouns and use them.
When a stranger uses “he,” it feels okay, but I often spend some time confused and wondering who they are talking about. It slows me down. And I feel somewhat seen, but my survival instincts kick into play and my body wants to overperform “maleness” (whatever that means — though that’s an entirely different piece of writing) to make sure I don’t put myself in danger of harassment or beating by being overly femme. I deepen my voice, cover my chest up so that people don’t see breasts. If I want to further the cause of non-binary visibility, I have to concentrate hard to maintain my gender expression so that I’m not trying to hard to fit into this stranger’s box that may keep me safe in the moment, but ultimately is not serving me or any other non-binary person in this world.
When a stranger uses “she,” I feel like someone is squeezing my stomach or punching it, depending on my resilience that day. My survival instincts go into hyperdrive. I raise my voice an octave and giggle and am more submissive. I usually cannot think clearly, and have to get out of that situation as quickly as possible in case they notice my beard hair or if they make me laugh — my laugh is deep now and has given me away before, resulting in violence.
Neither of these gender expressions are wrong — what I do when a stranger says “she” or “he” is not bad in and of itself — many forms of gender expression are perfect as they are, on whatever bodies they are on. The reason why it’s an issue for me is that it’s a survival instinct — it’s accompanied by sweating, heart racing, and my pre-frontal cortex shutting down because survival is more important than any conversation topic we may be talking about. So if I’m about to show up to facilitate a workshop and I arrive without the critical thinking part of my brain working because I’m worried about my safety — well, that’s a problem. It’s a problem I deal with every day (not just because of pronouns, but the many other things we trans people need to do to navigate our lives safely daily).
This is not an invitation for all cisgender people to start dismissing the pronouns of all trans and non-binary people because of my personal philosophy for my own body and my own work. This is just about me (though I really do hope that more white trans and non-binary people can start to hold more complexity about the privilege we hold in mixed spaces and that harm we may cause by demanding our correct pronouns be used). Respecting people’s pronouns is one start to being more trans-inclusive, though honestly it’s a pretty small and insignificant step compared to making sure we all have access to healthcare, economic stability, non-oppressive work and community, and care for the many other intersections that our community faces. I often say that pronouns and safe bathrooms are the “gay marriage” of trans activism — they are both so endlessly important, but don’t come close to solving the issues affecting our most marginalized family members. Let’s start with doing work to make sure Black, Indigenous, and POC trans women aren’t getting killed and are thriving.
If I wanted to be fully seen every time someone does a pronoun round in a class or workshop, I would read out this whole piece every time. Since I can’t, “they/them are favorites, he/she are also fine — and I mean that” is going to have to work for now.