When I was a little kid, I insisted on wearing ball gowns and glass slippers everywhere (luckily for my mom, who couldn’t really afford actual ball gowns, I agreed that sun dresses and Mary Janes were close enough). My parents had tried hard to raise me as gender neutral as possible, but that didn’t stop me from demanding everything pink as soon as I was old enough to talk.
Years later, though, I started wearing cargo shorts and baseball jerseys every day. I took a picture of my dad to the hairdresser and said I wanted to look like that. I told everyone who would listen that I wanted to be a man when I grew up, and was confused and ashamed when my friend replied, “You want to be a man? Ew.”
Throughout middle school, high school, and part of college, I kept switching between these two extremes: I’d revel in my make-up kit some days, but on other days I hated my whole wardrobe, and even my own body, for their femininity. I stopped wanting to be a man a long time ago, but I’ve still never felt that I was wholly woman, either — I hung out mostly with women, but felt that there was an invisible barrier between their experiences and my own.
Finally, in college I made a friend who told me ve was non-binary, and ve was kind enough to explain to me that that meant ve was neither a man nor a woman. As I listened, I found that many of the feelings ve described were surprisingly similar to my own. (FYI: ve/ver/vis is a gender-neutral pronoun set preferred by some trans folks, including my friend.)
I began reading more, and discovered that although I always thought you had to pick one — man or woman — and stick with it, lots of space exists in-between, outside of, and including-but-not-limited-to the binary categories of man and woman.
Realizing that just because I’m not a man doesn’t mean I have to be a woman allowed me to explore gender and begin to live more authentically and joyfully than I ever had before.
I abandoned the binary and never looked back.If you or someone you know is questioning and exploring their gender identity, here are a few tips on how to help make that experience as validating and joyful as possible.
First, every experience of gender is valid.
I put this one first because it is arguably the most important, and sometimes the most difficult to really believe. Blogs about trans issues all over the internet frequently receive questions to the effect of, “Can I be trans if…?” The answer to these questions should always be yes. You can be trans if you only feel like another gender sometimes. You can be trans if you don’t want to change your name or wardrobe. You can be a girl and have a luxurious beard, or a boy who never leaves the house without flawlessly winged eyeliner. You can be agender (like me!) and have no gender at all but still rock the casbah in heels and lipstick.
If you (or someone you care about) is questioning gender, trust your (or their) instincts. You know your gender best — roll with it!
Words matter. Many trans people struggle with dysphoria, or extreme discomfort with being read as the wrong gender. Dysphoria contributes heavily to the high rates of anxiety and depression experienced by trans people, which makes sense: It sucks profoundly to go through life knowing something about yourself that other people just don’t see.
Dysphoria comes in many forms, but one very common source of dysphoria is the language used to describe a person.
Many (although by no means all) trans people choose different words and names to describe themselves to others. Some people choose different pronouns, and some choose names that more accurately reflect their gender than the name they were given at birth.
Using pronouns and other language to reflect who we really are makes moving through the world much more comfortable. When my friends refer to me using my correct pronouns, I feel like I’m being seen as who I really am. We all deserve to feel comfortable and seen, so one of the biggest ways to support a trans peer is to commit to referring to them correctly.
Coming out as trans or asking others to use different pronouns are acts of honesty and trust.
Respect is KEY. When I ask someone to refer to me as “they,” I’m being my most authentic self with that person.
Ignoring a person’s preferred pronouns tells them that you see them a certain way, regardless of who they really are. Not using their pronouns sends a clear message that you are more interested in your own convenience than in their identity, and that’s pretty invalidating.
It can be difficult to get into the habit of using new names or pronouns to refer to someone, and that’s ok as long as you’re making an effort. Practice makes perfect when it comes to language, so try practicing a friend’s pronouns in your head a few times until it comes more naturally. And if you make a mistake sometimes, politely correct yourself and move on. Saying something like, “Bryn forgot her — oops, sorry, I mean their — book” is perfect way to correct yourself without making a scene.
Gender is confusing — so it’s okay to be confused when you start exploring it.
What’s important is that we all put in the effort to better understand our peers and treat them with respect. These tips will hopefully be helpful place to start.
Also published on Medium.