My apologies ahead of time for this very long blog. Hang in there Dear Readers. There is a lesson here. And in case you want to punch me in the nose after the next paragraph, I think I redeem myself by the end. Growth and change prevail.
The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening; the smaller the doubt, the smaller the awakening. No doubt, no awakening. –C.C. Chang The Practice of Zen
Pronoun Girl and Pronoun Boy, as I began calling them, were very young. They couldn’t have been more than 23 years old, straight out of their undergrad programs, and they had enrolled in Antioch’s Master’s in Counseling program. This was their first quarter. They reeked of sincerity. And they bugged the shit out of me.
On the first day of what turned out to be a less than stellar class, we all introduced ourselves: names, track (couples and family therapy, art therapy, drama therapy, clinical mental health counseling), how long we’d been in the program, and something interesting about ourselves.
“Hi, my name is Pam. I’m in CMHC, this is my fifth quarter, and uhm, something interesting about me? Well, I write a haiku everyday.”
These morselets of information had ceased to be interesting to me after I’d used them in all of my classes the previous four terms, but as I looked around the classroom, I realized only a couple of folks had been in a class with me before. So, I didn’t work too hard to be more entertaining.
I smiled and nodded at the young woman sitting next to me. I had nothing more to add.
“Hi, my name is Mary* and I prefer the pronouns she and her,” she said.
What? I tried not to show my surprise. I kicked my friend and commuting buddy under the table. WTF? I wrote on a piece of notebook paper I subtly slid across the desk. Laurel just winked at me. Mary finished up her introduction and the young man sitting next to her introduced himself.
“Hi, my name is Benjamin* and I prefer the pronouns he and him.”
I was ready to bang my forehead on the table. Duh, I thought. He’s probably gay, but he’s definitely a he/him. I don’t understand, I whined inside my head while remaining properly therapist-ish and open in my demeanor, though I do believe I again kicked Laurel again under the table. And when the young woman on the other side of the classroom, she who had steel studs embedded in her face introduced herself as a member of the kink community, I turned to my friend and bulged my eyes out in disbelief.
I’d been going to classes at Antioch for a year at this point, and this was the first time anyone had introduced themselves in class by declaring their preferred pronouns and sexual proclivities. I didn’t get it. I missed the next few introductions as my mind whirled on these revelations. What was the point? Wasn’t it obvious she was a her and he was a him? And why did I need to know what this person preferred sexually? And if there was confusion, who would want to draw that sort of attention to themselves? Not I.
I thought back to other classes. In my gender class the previous summer, my second quarter at Antioch, a young woman had sat next to me and introduced herself. She told me she identified as queer, which surprised me given she was quite feminine and wearing a long flowing skirt, and what I would call “girly” shoes. My paradigm began to crumble.
This might be a good place to take a quick pause, Dear Reader. Something transformative had been happening in the culture but I was just getting wind of it. In my defense, I’d been busy raising kids and navigating the world as a once-divorced, lesbian, mother of two adopted children while figuring out how to work in the male-dominated IT field as well as for the Catholics and then within the oil industry. I had a complex long-term relationship that was sort of coming apart, a home to maintain, and just about a million other things to occupy space in my head. I had not been keeping up with what was happening at the forefront of (what used to be) lesbian and gay culture.
Yes, I’d recently had an essay published in an anthology entitled Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships, & Identity, but I hadn’t yet explored the meaning of the word queer. I thought of it in this context: 1980s AIDS activism, “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” I thought of queer as the reclamation of a previously derogatory word, a word that referred to gays and lesbians and bisexuals. A word still rooted in binary gender norms.
I started noticing in my classes that I was the only person who ever identified myself as a lesbian. And I want to point out two things here. One: I didn’t introduce myself as a lesbian unless I was commenting on something in class that made my sexual orientation relevant (i.e. speaking from experience). Two: men in my classes never referred to their sexual orientations. Ever. Not as queer or gay or straight or bi or pan. Occasionally we’d be asked to name our privileges when making statements (so very Antiochian), as in “I’m white, cis-gendered, middle-class . . . “
More and more women in my classes identified as queer, and this “new” label confounded me. I’d always seen myself as someone on the forefront of LGBTQ culture. I’d come out at 18 in 1981 (and then went back in for a couple of years). My first partner/wife and I had a commitment ceremony in 1988. We co-adopted two little girls in the early 1990s. We took our kids to Pride in Seattle. We were out, loud, and proud. We even had a custody battle, a first for lawyers in Whatcom County, I think, since no one seemed to know what to do with us in 1996. I was even a pioneer in online lesbian dating in 1999.
But, time marches on. Life happens while we’re busy making other plans. And other cliches, amiright?
Now this whole new culture had sprung up, seemingly fully formed. I started meeting pansexuals and omnisexuals in addition to queers. I went to AWP in LA a few weeks ago and where there used to be panels on Lesbian and Gay literature, they’d been replaced by Queer Voices panels. I learned at one such panel that if I identified myself as a lesbian, other queers would assume I was transphobic. What?
I wrestled with my identity. I questioned what I knew (or thought) to be true about myself. Am I queer? Clearly, I didn’t even fully understand the meaning of the word anymore. I’d been mis-gendered many times. People called me sir on a regular basis. Sometimes their confusion angered me. Sometimes it amused me.
I began to understand that I had grown up as gender non-comforming. Did that make me queer? I had only ever been attracted to other women, a quirk which I assumed made me a lesbian. How did being a lesbian make me transphobic? I thought of the show Transparent, the episode in which Moira finds herself a “man on the land” at a lesbian/separatist music festival. I had never thought of myself as a separatist. Men are fine. I just hadn’t wanted to sleep with any.
As a cisgendered person, I am certain I don’t fully comprehend what it means to be trans*. I am accepting of those who are, and I am committed to learning and growing in my acceptance. God only knows I’ve encountered enough discrimination and lack of understanding in my life. I don’t want to perpetuate the same horrors onto others, even if I don’t understand.
Last quarter, in Counseling Sexual Minorities class, I met at least two women who identified as pansexual. I’ve spent the time since then trying to figure out what that means, exactly. Both women are married to men. I don’t know (nor did I ask), if their identity was theoretical or experience-based. Meaning, are they simply open to other experiences or have they actually had them? A friend’s 13-year-old niece came out to her father as pansexual a couple of weeks ago. Surely her identity is only theoretical at this juncture. I don’t doubt that some young children know their bodies don’t match their biological gender, while others (like me) feel constrained by cultural gender norms.
Is queer an umbrella term that embraces all non-heterosexual, non-gender binary people? And under that umbrella, under that rainbow of theys/thems/shes/hes/nes/ves/zies is there not room for all of us?
I had another class with Pronoun Girl. My irritation with her sincerity subsided. Turns out, once I was able to sift through all of my issues, I could see she was an intelligent, warm, slightly insecure (aren’t we all), eager to learn, open, and accepting person. She continues to introduce herself and her preferred pronouns. I still do not.
Here’s the thing: IT DOESN’T MATTER. What matters is that we live as authentically as possible and that we allow others their right to do the same. Her right to proclaim her preferred pronouns in no way impinges on my right to not. I can puzzle on other people’s choices all I want, but IT DOESN’T MATTER what I think.
One final thought—by introducing myself via my preferred pronouns (which are she/her, btw), I open up a place of safety for someone else to declare theirs, and as a budding counselor/therapist, providing safety is the point.
*not their real names