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:
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:
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.