On Being Told that My Gender-Neutral Pronouns Are a Choice
I wonder if I’ll choose my casket when I die. Or my burial outfit, or the guest list at my funeral. I wonder if I’ll get to say how my body will appear to all those people that I loved (and maybe some I didn’t). I wonder if I’ll choose what songs they play when I go in the dirt, and whether I’ll be buried at all. In that final surrendering of life, will I still cling to a desperate and futile attempt at control?
Excuse my morbidity. I’ve had death on my mind recently, thinking about all those trans and nonbinary people who want to, try to, and manage to kill themselves. According to one study, “41 percent of trans or gender nonconforming people surveyed have attempted suicide” — compared with 4.6 of the overall U.S. population (and between 10 and 20 percent for lesbian, gay, or bisexual respondents).*
This statistic should surprise me. And I suppose it does, a little, but mostly it affirms something I already know: Being trans, or nonbinary, or gender nonconforming, or genderqueer, or agender, or genderfluid, or “other,” is really fucking sad and hard.
It hurts to be called “sir” by the man in the T station, or the woman at the front desk of the Y. It hurts to walk into the men’s locker room, to take off my clothes next to sweaty old talkative men and younger, muscled biotech researchers. It hurts to be called “man” on the way out of the locker room — a word said out of instinct, not even well-intentioned but unintentioned. It hurts to walk down towards the exercise equipment and have no fucking idea what I want to do with my body. It hurts to constantly see my own flesh as a project to be adjusted, perfected, reformed. It hurts to squat silently between two large men, lifting half what they do but convincing myself that “I’m not a man anyway, so I can’t really compare myself to them.” It hurts to stand on an elliptical for thirty minutes, insecure about not doing “real exercise” even though I really just want cardio. And it hurts to need, frequently, the endorphins of exercise, while every gym I’ve been to has made me painfully and endlessly aware of the gender binary.
It hurts to choose “Other” as my gender on a form, and it hurts more when I’m not even allowed to claim that. It hurts to read articles that insist “transgender is a mental illness,” that — because black people have a lower suicide rate than trans people — “the transgender suicide rate isn’t due to discrimination.”** It hurts to fit into that frustrating stereotype of an easily-triggered Millennial with a made-up identity. But I did make my gender, in a way. Because there’s no space for us in society, queer people are crafting our own identities all the time. It’s scary to feel deeply and utterly alone, to know that, queerness is inherently isolating because it arises spontaneously, is not built into families and communities like racial or religious identities. The isolation of queerness can so easily lead someone to conclude that they are the problem, that the world would be better without them.
But trans, nonbinary, agender, and queer people aren’t the problem. To quote Fr. Dan Berrigan, “The poor tell us who we are, the prophets tell us who we could be, so we hide the poor, and kill the prophets.” In this case, queer people are both poor and prophetic. Poor because we are deprived of the social recognition and love they need to stay alive. Prophetic because we feel a love for themselves and others that is so raw and real it disrupts our social order.
I try not to think about how much would have to change for trans and nonbinary people to be safe and affirmed in our world. How long it would take to convince enough people that actually, gender isn’t a binary, and one’s behavior is not determined by how their body falls into one of two broad categories. How long for teachers and coaches to stop excusing violence and aggression in boys, and demanding docility and obedience from girls. How long for men to be open and vulnerable about their emotions, to stop seeing women as existing for their genital pleasure. How long for white gay men to understand that they don’t get to oppress other people just because they (gay white men) like to fuck each other. How long for mainstream media to stop glorifying and normalizing the violence of powerful men, those politicians and soldiers and billionaires that monopolize our screens. How long for people to ask why every single mass shooter is a man. How long for men to stop validating their masculinity by exploiting classes of workers, by systemically killing and enslaving black and brown people, by sexually assaulting women, children, and other men, by evaluating their sons on how well they play sports.
All that change will take a while, a hell of a lot more time than I’ll live. And yet, while I live, I won’t put up for the violence that’s thrust upon my fleshy mass of cells. I’ll feel, like a million daily paper cuts**, all of the ways other people try trap me into a gender which must constantly justify its own existence through violence. Through the taunts of “gay” and “bitch” and “pussy” and “fag” on the playground. Through the sports practices and finance classes that tell men they exist, in body and mind, to beat other people — to win. Through the stiff-lipped think-tank reports that insist it’s a Fiscally Sound decision to bomb and kill thousands of people. Through the well-thought-out memorandums that accuse fossil fuel divestment of being an empty symbolic gesture, while tiny numbers in a mobile banking app symbolize the tight-fisted accumulation a power which, ultimately, means the constant exercise of force. The power for other people to make you coffee, clean your shirts, suck your dick. The power to have men with guns remove other people from Your Property (or your country). The power to attend an elite university, to land an executive job, to run for public office. The power to sit at an oversize desk with your brain running through Logical Arguments while the entire world burns and towns flood with the blood of climate refugees.
Give me none of the oppressive power, ever. None of the force people use to prove they are Men. Rather, give me life. Give me plants, and love, and light; give me the sacred and gender-free moon; give me Jesus and Mary and the queer-as-fuck Holy Spirit.
I don’t think I care very much what I wear at my funeral. But I do care what I wear when I live. It matters to bear a pronoun that matches the person I am. I didn’t choose to be genderqueer. I didn’t choose to stare straight into a mirror, and know with all my being that a man is not staring back. I wouldn’t choose the isolation and loneliness I feel every time I walk into the Gap and feel forced towards the men’s section. I would never choose to wake up each day and be overwhelmed by the senseless violence of fragile men, to be caught up in that same label that wants to dehumanize me to make me Big and Strong and Tough. Because the secret is that violence, aggression, and self-reliance are actually forms of obedience.
I didn’t choose the call, but I chose to listen. I chose to wear my pain on my sleeve — or my name tag — instead of holding it in my gut. I chose to be honest instead of delusional, open instead of suffocated. I chose to try self-love instead of self-hate. I chose, in Allen Ginsberg’s words, to “put my queer shoulder to the wheel.”
So I guess you could call that a choice.
*n.b. Accoding to the survey, the suicide rate is 54% for mixed-race people (like me)
**This form a Federalist article which I don’t care to link here. It’s the first Google result that came up when I searched “transgender suicide rate.”