Unwritten On The Body

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As someone who is transfeminine as well as someone who spends most of her free time reading, writing, critiquing, and analyzing poetry, I think almost constantly about the language of the human body. In a way, we are all poems, probably more Gertrude Stein than Robert Frost; we are chock full of tropes and contradictions, prone to being read in unexpected ways, and alarmingly beautiful in our uniqueness. As with the meaning of written text, our bodies float somewhere between the author (ourselves) and the reader (those we encounter).

To paraphrase Roland Barthes, the author is oh so very dead. If they weren’t — if my intention were all that mattered — I would always be read as I intended. However, neither the meaning of a poem nor the meaning of my body are free from misinterpretation or ambiguity. This is especially due to my transition status; I started taking estrogen and androgen blockers in the Spring of 2012, and now find myself in what I had heard others describe as “the awkward androgynous stage of transfeminine transition”. I balked, at first, upon hearing that description; after all, I hold only a fairly weak binary identification. Why, I wondered, do androgynous phases of transition get associated with awkwardness and with discomfort?

I would soon find out.

I was at my favorite bar — one with pinball (seven tables, seven!, all in good condition) — with a friend, late at night, which is clearly the best time for furiously swearing at overly-sensitive tilt sensors. There was a Marine sitting at the bar who, when I asked the bartender for another round, pointed at me and chortled,”I thought that was a girl!” I glanced at my friend, and left into the night, as quick as coughing.

In this situation, I ran into a problem that befalls many trans* women and transfeminine people I know: our voices speak over our bodies, and estrogen does nothing to a voice tempered by decades of endogenous testosterone. Projected in front of my breasts, my hips, my earrings, and my newly-lasered face, my voice is deafening.

The next week, I’m walking home alone in Brooklyn, late at night, and a man swivels into my path. “Hey, babe, that’s some hair. … Wait. Are you a boy or a girl?” My eyes widen and my feet hit the pavement harder and harder and I try not to seem like I heard him, or like I’m trying to put as much distance between us as possible, but I am. I hear him say to his friend, “Was that a boy or a girl?”, and his voice is tense and hoarse. My gait suddenly feels plastic and illegible. His voice follows me, repeating, “Are you a boy or a girl?”, more urgent each time, and it’s suddenly all too much, and I collapse into my door and I run up the stairs and I find my bed and my sleep is as harried as my body.

He could not read me. This upset him. I did not speak, then.

There are times when I do speak. I’ve been making a habit of asking the pronouns of everyone I meet in a queer/trans*-friendly environment. In the process, I have flustered and bewildered a whole lot of cis people. Sometimes, people take it personally. One cis man replied to my query about his pronouns by saying, “Are you asking me that because I look feminine?”

“No,” I replied, “I’m asking you that because you’re a person”.

That is all it takes: remember that you are speaking to, seeing, hearing, and reading people/poems that are by nature inscrutable, or at least prone to misinterpretation.

This applies not just to pronouns and gender, but to bodies, and parts of bodies. I have played Adam with my own transient body, and seen my face, which has baffled society for months (and decades to come) rotate through a dizzying number of configurations. So much of transmisogynistic discourse rotates around pre/non-op transfeminine folk and trans* women’s genitals, like some recalcitrant Freudian gyre.

I have been asked, not once but so, so many times, upon saying that I am not a he but a she: “But you have a penis, though, don’t you?”

Only according to my doctor.

While I recommend never asking what’s in someone’s pants unless you’re about to get in them, I’d like to suggest a few useful guidelines for pronoun checks, so that if we can’t make the streets feel safe, we can at least make each other feel safe:

Assume Nothing

You do not know how people identify. The way people present themselves at any given moment may or may not have anything to do with their mental notions of embodiment or presentation. I frequently dress in boymode because I don’t want to deal with street harassment. This doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly using male pronouns.

Practice Makes Perfect

Whenever you meet someone new, and if you feel like you are in an environment where it would be safe to do so, ask their pronouns! Along those lines:

If You Ask Anyone, Ask Everyone

Lest you find yourself only asking those who you read as trans* — and, remember, we’re all fuzzy little confusing poems.

Show Yours First

This can help people to not feel like you’re interrogating them. I personally have had this happen — someone said “Hey, what are your pronouns?” and I’ve said “She,” and they’ve gone “Oh, okay,” and walked away, cis curiosity sated. It needs to be a two-way street.

Check In On People

Ask your friends, “Hey, are you still using ze/hir/she/he/punquin as your pronouns?” I mean, not every day? But, still, check in. Furthermore:

Respect Change

Some people are genderfluid, or for whatever reason, change their pronouns more frequently than once in a great while. That doesn’t make their identities any more or less valid. We’re all works-in-progress.

Learn How To Correct People

If you want to be subtle but firm about it, say something about the misgendered person, but using the proper pronouns, perhaps vocally emphasized. I’d only do this if you know for sure that the person you are speaking about is comfortable with everyone using their preferred pronouns. A lot of people who change their pronouns are only partially out.

Person A: “Didn’t Jamie say that she loves kittens?”
Person B: “Yes, Jamie said that THEY love kittens.”

Above All Else, Don’t Trust Yourself

Don’t trust your eyes; some books are closed.
Don’t trust your ears; some voices are muted.
Know that gender is a language, and we all speak in dialect.


About the author: Kennedy Nadler is a queer trans person living in Brooklyn. She writes poems on planks of wood, on strange paper, and on skin. She’s getting over an embarrassing hobby of watching too many rap battles on youtube, and has now moved on to the only slightly less embarrassing hobby of pinball.

Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

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40 Comments

      • Thumb up 1

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        I don’t know if it’s pointless but it will probably get you interactions similar to the one she described with the feminine guy.

        At least in queer spaces, it probably won’t go over too badly. I wouldn’t mind.

      • Thumb up 5

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        If somebody is offended by it, oh well. I have seen this happen–a friend of mine asked a queer girl about her pronoun preference and she got SUPER offended. I still don’t understand why. It’s nice to be given the option to be something other than what people read you as, in my opinion.

        • Thumb up 8

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          Markia: I agree! Options are awesome. Though I think (and this is speaking from some of my own experience) folks who are offended/angered by being asked this are steeped in our culture’s heavy reliance on and deference to binary code.

          I have often been confused as being male (I identify as female, though a fairly androgynous female), and growing up got called “he” and “boy” pretty often. These days I get continue to get called “sir” now and then.

          I used to haaaaaaate it when it happened. It made me almost physically recoil, and I would either lash out at the person or just collapse inside of myself and run away from it.

          Over time I’ve grown to realize that my discomfort had a lot more to do with my own journey toward accepting who all I was – which includes some serious androgyny, and a pretty even mix of stereotypically “masculine” and “feminine” attributes, along with some very genderqueer ones (which I didn’t even know was an option until fairly recently, and how awesome to have options!).

          My anger was also legitimate toward a society that trains so many of us to fall into expecting everyone to fit into that binary code and certain expectations of gender presentation. But I couldn’t even start to deal with that until I’d figured out my own shit first.

          I suspect that a lot of people – cisgendered and not – have simply never really been presented with the beautiful, colorful spectrum of options, and told that it’s OK to identify as they so choose. And when they’re confronted with someone challenging those deeply ingrained ideas about gender, the almost natural reaction is to lash out. Because it can be confusing and scary at first! And so many of us are lost.

          So, like Kennedy so eloquently noted, we’re all fuzzy little poems. We’ve all got shit, y’know? I’m not saying it’s incumbent upon us all of us to turn every one of these situations into a teaching moment (that gets exhausting, I know) – but I feel like we can all do more to give each other some breathing space, and options. :)

        • Thumb up 3

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          I’d like to try to explain why some trans people I’ve known get offended by being asked for their pronoun. Imagine if no one accepted you as the gender you knew yourself to be. You went through years of being misgendered, getting looks, “microaggressions” (and even out and out nastiness) and ironic/sarcastic tones of voice even when they called you by the right pronoun. So often when people corrected themselves, they did it with an uncomfortable cough and looking as if they’re taking a poop while they’re saying your pronoun. And the thing is, endlessly correcting people didn’t really make you feel any better about it, just more hopeless and even ugly. And people do it even when it seems it should be perfectly obvious by the way you’re presenting.

          Now you’re at some more progressive group and a well-intentioned person just asked you your preferred pronoun. You look around you and notice it’s only people who “don’t pass” (or are viewed as a “Pat” from SNL) who are getting asked this. It seems obvious to you how you identify by the way you’re presenting yet the queer person asked you anyway. So you read that as a statement of… “I know you’re being queer/polite/progressive and you’re just saying I don’t look the way I feel inside.” And even though the person respects the pronoun you tell them, it doesn’t feel like a positive because the overwhelming numbers of queer people never get asked their pronoun. (and I’m not saying a non-binary person should feel at all good about that… it’s just a fact). Add to this that you read endless columns of similarly well-intentioned queer people who advise “if you’re not sure, ask someone their pronoun” as though this is going to validate that person’s identity with a respectful social interaction.

          Before saying “I would be fine being asked my pronoun” ask yourself how much animus and disbelief have I had to go through myself just to be recognized as the gender I know myself to be? Is the reason this doesn’t feel like a loaded question because I haven’t had to deal with pain about my gender identity in past? (and I’m NOT suggesting that non-trans people don’t go through pain about their genders… of course they do). Some people will think nothing of being asked their pronoun (because, honestly, it doesn’t feel like a loaded question), others will have emotions surrounding it (either painful or positive) and others will feel it’s basically a act of dismissal. One is not more right or wrong than the other, it just is.

        • Thumb up 1

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          ginapdx: Yeah this is also a really good point.

          Honestly, I’m so unsure of how to approach this without being a rude asshole that I basically just try really hard never to use gendered pronouns with/about someone until I’ve heard them say something about themselves, in their own time, that lays it out for me.

          It’s an excuse to force myself to think of more interesting/creative ways to refer to the people around me. I don’t always succeed, but it’s the only thing I’ve been able to think of doing to help with this.

          Mostly it seems to result in me calling a lot of people “darlin’” – because I’m part Southern, and that’s how we do.

      • Thumb up 17

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        By ‘everyone’, I don’t mean EVERYONE everyone. When I go to a bar and order a drink, I don’t say, “Hey, can I get a whiskey and your pronouns?”

        What I mean by ‘everyone’ is ‘everyone with whom you will have an ongoing relationship’, basically.

        And what I ESPECIALLY mean by ‘everyone’ is ‘not exclusively people that look trans* to you’.

        • Thumb up 15

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          This piece was amazingly written. If I were a bartender and you asked for whiskey with a side of pronouns I WOULD DELIVER.

        • Thumb up 3

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          I teach at a university and I ask all of my students at the beginning of every semester to write their preferred pronouns, names, etc on a notecard (other stuff, as well). I get a LOT of bank looks and it is a great opportunity to highlight to the that it is simply dangerous to assume, especially when I am trying to build an environment where they can be a little intellectually risky.

          I also try to get people to do it at department meetings, though that is less successful. Fuck it, I say ask everyone everyone.

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          How do you balance that with the need for safety and secrecy that some students have? Do you explain the point of the exercise for students unfamiliar with the terminology?

          I’d be really scared if a professor asked me to do that so I’m wondering what you’ve done to make that safe.

      • Thumb up 4

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        I would have a problem with someone asking me my pronouns. From age 7 to 12, I really wanted to be read as a boy and had an easy time accomplishing that, but before that and since then, I’ve never been misgendered.
        So with that disclosure out of the way, I think my issue with asking everyone their pronouns lies in intention. Any time I’ve been asked my pronouns, the person didn’t really care all that much, they were just trying to make a point, that point being to show how accepting they were (versus everyone else.)
        In addition, the only problem I’ve ever had correctly pronouning someone was with butch women. I don’t use gendered words until they do. It’s not that hard to do. With people who use gender neutral pronouns, they’ve always made it VERY clear from the get go (“Hi, I’m Kayden, and I use zie/zir pronouns.”).
        I don’t know. I guess I don’t tend to use a lot of gendered words (or I use the same normally gendered words, like bro, for absolutely everyone).

  1. Thumb up 7

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    Huh, I never thought about it before but I think I’d be really uncomfortable being asked what my pronouns are. I guess I’m not super comfortable being female, but I have no desire to identify as male or genderqueer or trans-anything (though I absolutely respect those who do–this is just a personal thing). I’m just me. I’d feel oddly strange saying “call me she and her”, but I don’t want any other pronouns either. I guess I like that I’m just read as female and I don’t have to make any decisions about it, which is a particular privilege I hadn’t realized before.

    Made me think. :)

    • Thumb up 2

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      Yeah…

      Before meetings in a discussion group I belonged to, we would go around and state our preferred pronouns every single time. And every single time I would tense up more and more as the circle got closer and closer, freak out, eek something out (usually “I don’t have one” or “I don’t care what you call me” or “Whatever you feel” or *tersely* “she”), freak out about whatever I said (is it offensive to not have a pronoun? Do trans* people here think I’m not taking this pronoun thing seriously? Do I REALLY not have one? Are people going to be confused when they’re talking to me now? UGH I said /she/!), etc. I guess a brief moment of discomfort is outweighed by the fact that a person who may not be normally referred to by the correct pronoun is now going to feel comfortable for the next two hours and/or even for the next month (as we hung out outside of the meetings often as well).

      Still, I can’t see myself asking everyone what their pronouns are. It really does freak me out to get asked that question myself, and I’m not in the habit of asking people things I don’t want to get asked myself. Maybe this is selfish…I don’t know…

      • Thumb up 0

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        That’s actually a reason that I’m not a fan of doing it in obligatory ways in group settings out loud – having people write it down is a way to provide a check in without putting anyone n the spot (or outing people!)

        In an established group setting, though, IME, that can become less awkward, though certainly not for everyone.

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          Agree with Krista… it’s kind of like having gum in class, if you have gum then everyone should have gum. Just understand that, even if everyone is going to be asked their pronoun prefs, it will continue to be a far more loaded question for some people than it is for others. If you get 10 cis women in a row saying “she”, and then you’re a trans woman saying “she” you’re still likely to feel hecka nervous no matter how gender variant (or not) you look. And if everyone assumed you’re a she and yet you ID as a “he” or a “ze” you might still have a lot of insecurity about how well you fit your image of that pronoun and that you’re being judged on that (which you usually are).

          It doesn’t mean the question shouldn’t be asked, just understand it will have much more emotional charge for some than for others. Imagine going to a ritzy private school as a tween and being the only kid you know who’s there on a “poor kid’s” scholarship.

  2. Thumb up 4

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    I liked this piece! I was only asked my pronouns once and it was several years before I had any idea that gender is complicated. A group of people (none of whom came out as anything but straight and cis) was introducing themselves in a circle, and the person who started it just said, “Let’s go around and say our names and pronoun preferences.” Several people expressed confusion, but everyone complied and it was nice.

  3. Thumb up 8

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    At a team meeting on my first day of work we introduced ourselves by name, favorite condiment, and preferred pronouns. It was a simple ice breaker, but I was absolutely floored and elated! It was the first time I had ever been asked and even though I got a bit flustered, I felt like what we were doing was important. We were consciously acknowledging that variation exists and creating a standard for respect.

    Working with a young at risk population I’ve found that when in doubt go by preferred first name whether that be given, chosen, alias, or street. (sometimes a “what do you go by?”, will yield both a name and pronouns. Score!) Avoid pronouns, especially if you are in a large group setting, if you aren’t sure. I agree that checking in and respecting change are super important as well. I’m learning to be conscious of social ques, people may use different pronouns depending on the setting or their perceived level of safety.

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    I’m a firm believer in both actively displaying your personal pronouns and also asking for other peoples. I’ve been involved with Outright Vermont, the local queer youth organization for several years and that’s one of the big things that they drill into everyone involved with the organization in any form. Introductions are “hi, (my name is) and I use/prefer/go by (these pronouns)” and it very quickly just becomes natural to do. I attended Camp Outright last August and it was a phenomenal week where no one’s gender was assumed and we all actively shared our identities which has become the norm for me.

  5. Thumb up 2

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    This is an incredibly moving and beautifully written piece. Thank you for helping me to understand more about my incredible trans child. She moves through life with insight, grace and a depth of love and understanding that I am grateful to witness. <3

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