STORY BY: SAMANTHA NEOU
PHOTOS BY: GIOVANNI CARDENAS
Take a class and split it down the middle. Everyone on the right side is going to be called Bob. Everyone on the left side is going to be called Jane. It doesn’t matter if that isn’t your name. Someone else determined that for you based on where you were in the room. This is who you are now. When you’re called on, you have to respond. You can’t say what your “real name” is because it doesn’t matter.
That’s one of the ways Dr. Shae Miller from CSULB’s Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies department teaches her students how harmful it is to misgender someone, to categorize people based on what we perceive as their gender.
For many of us, making assumptions about people we don’t know is a natural occurrence. We believe these assumptions to be true without questioning how we arrived at them. How someone looks, acts and speaks are a few factors that we use to categorize the people we meet. One of the most common forms of stereotyping that many of us are guilty of is gender-based labeling. I didn’t realize how damaging this profiling could be until recently.
I met Jess Kung three years ago through a student media organization at CSULB, where we were volunteers. During the first few months of our friendship, I noticed myself struggling with how to reference Jess in conversations with others. He or she? Him or her? I couldn’t tell.
As the weeks passed, I began to wonder why I was so preoccupied with Jess’ gender when it shouldn’t matter. Not to say that the gender Jess identified with didn’t matter, but more specifically, I was challenging my need to place Jess in a category. It had no impact on what I had known and admired about Jess. So I started concerning myself more with who Jess was.
One day after our conversation began to die down, Jess finally clarified what I had been hung up on for months.
“I use they/them/their pronouns by the way,” they said.
It was casual, not confrontational. I tried to comprehend it, but it wasn’t getting through to me. I had never heard of anyone identifying themselves outside of male or female.
Admittedly, I never did any research. I just concentrated on making a conscious and constant effort to use Jess’ preferred pronouns.
It took me a solid year – a year of accidentally interchanging gender neutral pronouns such as they/them and masculine pronouns such as he/him. I felt guilty for not being able to easily respect Jess’ request. It would take me two more years to be more cognizant of gender as a social construct and gender nonconforming people's experiences.
Gender and sex are commonly used as synonymous and interchangeable terms, when in reality they are completely different. Sex refers to our biological reproductive organs while gender encompasses the social roles ascribed to a person based on their sex as well as how a person defines their own gender expression and identity. Some ways that people express their genders are through their behavior, appearance and interests.
Genderqueer is one of the many gender identities that describes people who don’t identify as male or female and view masculinity and femininity as a spectrum they fall in between, or even outside of.
Transgender is a term for people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Non-binary is an umbrella term for all genders that aren’t female/male or woman/man. It can be used to describe a person’s gender expression or presentation, and someone who is transgender does not have to identify as non-binary or vice versa. They can be binary.
Cisgender is a term used to describe those whose gender identity correlates with the sex they were assigned at birth.
The gender binary is considered the societal norm. Many of us who are cisgender are unfamiliar with gender neutral pronouns because we have been entrapped in the gender binary all of our lives. Trans Student Educational Resources defines the gender binary as “a system of viewing gender as consisting solely of two, opposite categories, termed ‘male and female,’ in which no other possibilities for gender or anatomy are believed to exist.”
From the moment we are born, it is determined for us - by parents, doctors, societal expectations – how we will live the rest of our lives based on our genitalia. Shae says it’s important to understand these gender norms as something coercive as opposed to something that’s innate.
For instance, Shae identifies as genderqueer.
“I’m not going to say gender doesn’t exist, but our understanding of it, the way we think about it, what it means, in this particular context, and how it’s applied to specific bodies, those are all patterned choices,” Shae said. “They’re not things that are written in stone or even in biology.”
This binary system is restrictive because it doesn’t acknowledge that there can be more than the two genders. For history major Sammi Lanthier, choosing between the male and female presenting body didn’t feel right.
“I discovered that even switching out one gender for the other still felt like a costume,” Sammi said. “That’s when I kind of discovered this idea of non-binary, which for me, is existing in the in-between. Not really being male or female. And that really felt a lot more comfortable for me.”
Sammi would go on to push for they/them/their pronouns, maintaining an outspoken attitude about it while correcting others who constantly misgender them. Still, it can get frustrating when they have to educate people who don’t understand what being non-binary and using they/them/their means. It’s good to know that gender neutral pronouns don’t consist of just they/them/their but ze, hir and more.
“It just gets really annoying to explain my identity,” Sammi said. “I don’t necessarily feel like that’s my place.”
Jess identifies as non-binary and trans-masculine. Jess admits to struggling with asking people to use their preferred pronouns, because they feel uncomfortable bringing it up casually in conversation.
“Once you ask that, you’re basically asking them to challenge their own assumptions about gender,” they said. “If they’re going to accept using those pronouns, they have to think about their perceptions of gender somewhat.”
Jess doesn’t want to be defined by their queerness so they resort to hiding. This is an all too common experience.
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 86 percent of non-binary respondents said the main reason for not telling others their identity is because most people don’t understand so they do not try to explain it. Eighty-two percent said it is easier to not say anything. Sixty-three percent said most people dismiss it as not being a real identity. Forty-three percent said they might face violence.
The survey also said that “nearly half (48 percent) of all respondents in the sample reported being denied equal treatment, verbally harassed, and/or physically attacked in the past year because of being transgender.”
This erasure of gender nonconforming people is horrific because it can often lead to violence, which isn’t strictly physical acts, but mental harm too. While misgendering someone can be a genuine mistake, it can also turn into harassment and abuse if it persists, and is derogatory.
It truly pains Jess to be misgendered as she/her because then they can’t avoid gender dysphoria, which is when a person feels intense distress and discomfort over their assigned gender at birth. Their fear of being misgendered with he/him pronouns is linked to being “found out.”
“And that’s probably more dangerous,” Jess said. “That whole trick narrative. Like, not even necessarily in a way that faces violence, even though that’s not off the table.”
Dr. Benny LeMaster, another lecturer in the WGSS department, also uses ‘they’ pronouns. They believe it’s crucial to focus on how not using the correct pronoun or dismissing its importance perpetuates the invisibility of gender nonconforming people.
“It’s not about having to,” Benny said. “It’s about whether you want to be decent or not. Someone can say ‘I don’t want to change this.’ Well, don’t. That just means you’re being inconsiderate.”
They know the egregious effects of being misgendered consistently day in and day out, having worked with suicidal trans and gender nonconforming people. Benny says this is why we’re changing the pronouns.
“I’m a transperson who’s non-binary and I make mistakes all the time,” they said. “It’s not what’s the wrong pronoun; the question is, how can I find peace with being wrong? Say the wrong pronoun? Get over yourself. Correct yourself and move on.”
It becomes problematic when someone who has wronged another gets defensive, instead of learning from the mistake. It leaves the misgendered person to take care of themselves and you, which isn’t their responsibility.
“That paints the trans person as bad, but they’re the ones that need the support ultimately,” Benny said. “This is what makes it very complicated, a lot of egos going against egos in a lot of ways.”
At the end of the day, they agree it’s about changing your language in order to acknowledge another person who’s hurting instead of being bogged down by terms or grammar.
Understandably, many find it difficult to integrate into their everyday lives.
Neil Hultgren is an associate professor of English at CSULB who believes that the English language can accommodate those changes.
“There may be mild – and this is probably because it’s ingrained – grammatical annoyance sometimes when students use ‘they’ as a singular in their paper,” he said. “But I’ve come to accept over the years that that’s a good or okay thing. I think the language needs to change on that front.”
He recommends staying with the verb form which sounds plural. ‘They are’ rather than ‘they is.’
“But even though ‘they’ traditionally has designated multiple people, I think using it in this case to offer gender neutral language is really important,” Hultgren said. “Because I don’t think people should have to choose between a binary gender system when they want to designate themselves.”
Sammi Lanthier agrees and just wants to see an effort.
“As long as you’re actually trying to understand or being respectful about it, I feel like accidentally misgendering someone a few times when you’re learning is okay,” they said.
Jess also understands how tough it is, but most importantly wants people to acknowledge their presence.
“You can’t measure how many trans people are in America,” they said. “But you have to realize… that they’re there. We’re here.”