Casting My Binary Safety Net
I introduced he/they pronouns into my daily interactions about three weeks ago. It was a spur of the moment decision at the top of the first day of my sophomore year of college. We were doing group introductions in my philosophy class. Earlier that day, in my rudimentary level Spanish course, I had made the choice to go exclusively by he/him pronouns.
I hadn’t particularly wanted to, but I knew that attempting to implement an obscure or highly contested gender-neutral pronoun in a language I (and the rest of my classmates) could barely speak would not go over well. So, I became Oak (he/him) in Spanish class.
In my philosophy course that afternoon, I had a similar realization. I needed a pre-approved back-up option for students and upper middle-aged professors to fall back on in case my usage of they/them wasn’t respected or understood. I needed a Binary Safety Net.
What was worse: being called she/her, a label I have actively and tirelessly disavowed ever since I came out as transmasculine nonbinary last year, or being called he/him, a label that I have little personal ties to and can make into whatever I want? I knew that a “she/her slip-up” by a professor, student, or coworker would send me tailspinning into a bout of gender dysphoria. I hoped that sprinkling a few “he/him”s into my identity wouldn’t pull it apart.
I eventually came to a compromise with myself: using they/he or he/they depending on the situation. For me personally, I view the pronoun I have placed in front as the preferential option — which is why I make any distinction between the two.
I introduced myself as Oak (he/him) in Spanish, Oak (he/they) in philosophy, Oak (they/them) in Racism & White Supremacy, and Oak (they/he) in Dance Techniques.
Let me break that down for you.
In my Spanish class, it’s easier to avoid gender neutrality entirely by only using he/him. I do not want to step on any cultural toes by inserting a gender-neutral ending onto Spanish words. It is not my culture nor my language to “fix”, and I do not appreciate the linguistic imperialism I have seen in the media surrounding this discourse. Using exclusively masculine pronouns in that class is a way to ensure that I am gendered in a way that I can live with while simultaneously avoiding making waves in a language and culture that I am new to.
In philosophy, I am primarily catering to my older professor’s limited gender literacy abilities by using he/they. Philosophy is not known for being a particularly progressive field, and I understand that my professor has likely taught very few genderqueer students. Giving him a way out through the inclusion of binary pronouns that he is already comfortable with is an easy fix. If he is going to misgender me, I at least want to be misgendered in a way that doesn’t make me want to cough up my dining hall pasta.
In Racism & White Supremacy (side note: what a course to be taking right now!), the Binary Safety Net is not needed. Our professor is as progressive and trans-friendly as they come. She requires students to put their pronouns by their name during our class Zoom meetings. I don’t ever worry about her messing up, and I am also not the only genderqueer person in that class. There are at least three of us!
In Dance Techniques, I am giving my classmates the Binary Safety Net by using they/he. My dance class attire usually consists of a muscle tee that is cut low enough to reveal my binder and a pair of joggers. I call it my Fuckboi Fit. I share this to help you understand my need for the Binary Safety Net in this class. In theory, I shouldn’t need it. My instructor is very trans-inclusive, and my classmates know me (and my preferred pronouns) fairly well.
But, I’m concerned that the binder will subconsciously throw them off. Generally, knowing that a person has breasts gets them tossed back into the she/her gender box no matter what they do. I hope that by providing a binary pronoun option, my classmates will have more correct answers to choose from. If I say that you can call me two out of the three commonly accepted pronouns (they and he), I hope that is a clear sign highlighted, underlined, and written in sparkly gel pen saying, “Don’t you dare call me she.”
In sum, my pronouns change based on how likely I think it is that others will respect them. They/them is still my preference, and I have made that clear to my friends and to those whom I have multiple classes with and have noticed my pronouns shifting.
Making he/him pronouns a safe binary option for those who refuse to or can’t wrap their heads around they/them pronouns gives me (and them) a Binary Safety Net to fall back on. If I am going to be misgendered by an outdated system, I can at least rig the system to work in my favor. He/him pronouns aren’t something I’m used to yet, but I at least know that they don’t hurt my heart the way she/her pronouns do.
Until I pass as genderqueer or male to the general public, casting my Binary Safety Net out to those who need it is definitely my best bet.