In Praise of Fluidity: Yes, You Can Keep Changing Your Pronouns
by Sassafras Lowrey
Feel like you have identities that grow and shift all the time? That’s natural and completely ok! We are all constantly growing and changing all the time, but unfortunately, sometimes people get very caught up in trying to police or control other people’s identities. Musician Demi Lavato has been making news in the last week for publicly saying that currently she/her pronouns feel like an accurate way to talk about her again. Last year Lovato came out as nonbinary and updated pronouns on Instagram to “they/them.” Most currently Lovato says she/her pronouns feel closely aligned to her current sense of feminine agender. Lovato lists both “they/them” and “she/her” as pronouns on Instagram. Lovato’s discussion of shifting pronouns has resulted in a lot of assumptions and conversations online.
Some people have inappropriately decided that this means that she isn’t really nonbinary which is completely inappropriate. The only person who knows how they identify is the individual. Whatever pronouns someone chooses to use, to share publicly, or to utilize on any given day doesn’t say anything about how that person identifies. You can’t tell someone’s gender identity based on how they look, dress, or even what their pronouns are. There is nothing wrong or strange with shifting your identity or pronouns, even multiple times.
When I first came out as genderqueer, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a queer cultural experience that valued fluidity and exploration. The queer youth center where I spent a lot of time had a white board by the front door that was updated daily. There were three columns with shaky lines (we couldn’t do anything straight) dividing them. The categories were:
All of us checked it daily to make sure that we were fully representing who we felt like we were that day on the board. We also checked it, so we knew how to refer to our friends old and new. In some ways I think the new version of this public identity declaration are the ways that we can list our pronouns in our social media bios as a means of sharing who we are with people we interact with. It can feel scary and overwhelming to share who you are with your friends, especially if it involves telling people your pronouns or names might have changed. It can feel especially scary to then share if in the future you learn something more about your identity and maybe something you felt in the past has changed. Changing pronouns, and identities is a normal part of growing and learning more about who you are. We are all constantly growing, changing, evolving, and learning more about our own identities. You aren’t the same person as you were a year ago and you’ll be a different person in the future than you are today.
As you explore and embrace your identities there are probably going to be people who will be pressuring you to clarify who you are and how you identify. Try not to take these criticisms to heart or dissuade you from exploring your own gender identity or expression. Playing with gender and exploring your identities doesn’t mean that you must be looking for permanent identity. It’s perfectly ok to not know how you will identify or express your gender in the future. If anyone is difficult or rude about your identities, it’s ok to advocate for yourself, your pronouns, and how you identify today. The most supportive friends will be with you and respect the fluidity of your identity no matter how many times it might change. Sometimes people who feel insecure or uncomfortable about their own identities- even if they are part of the LGBTQ+ community- can be the most critical of other people’s identities. As much as possible, try to surround yourself with supportive friends and allies who will be enthusiastic supporters of you, all of you.
Part of being yourself is to give yourself the time and space to self-explore, to try on identities including your pronouns. There is absolutely nothing wrong with shifting your pronouns as you are exploring who you are. It’s ok to not have all the answers, to explore, and experiment. Not only is it ok, but it’s also a whole lot of fun to play with your identities and explore who you are. This might look like shifting your gender presentation or trying on different pronouns. If you’re looking for resources for how to be more open and explorative community, Auntie Kate Bornstein is a queer and trans author, performer, and theorist responsible for the book My Gender Workbook and it is a fantastic interactive resource for exploring a playful relationship with your gender and other identities you might be exploring.
Gender is a fluid spectrum. When someone tells you what pronouns they utilize, those should always be respected. Respecting someone’s identity means honoring who someone tells you they are, including their pronouns- even if the pronouns they use are new to you. It’s always okay to ask how to use those pronouns properly, but it’s not okay to disrespect someone’s identity by not using those pronouns no matter how many times their pronouns might change. A shift in the name or pronouns someone uses- even if they change multiple times- doesn’t mean that their gender identity isn’t valid or real. You don’t have to understand someone’s identity, but you do have to respect when they tell you what it is. We’re all always growing and changing which is part of the joy and beauty of living a queer life.
About the Author:
Sassafras Lowrey’s novels and nonfiction books have been honored by organizations ranging from the American Library Association to the Lambda Literary Foundation and the Dog Writers Association of America. Sassafras’ work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Sassafras has taught queer writing courses and workshops at LitReactor, the NYC Center For Fiction and at colleges, conferences, and LGBTQ youth centers across the country. www.SassafrasLowrey.com