In a few weeks time I’ll be starting a new job in a university that I’ve never worked at before. This presents me with a uniquely queer dilemma: how do I ‘come out’ about my pronoun at work?
To give you a bit of background, I’m a genderqueer nonbinary person who uses the pronoun ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ or any of the others. I was born into the label ‘girl’ 34 years ago, but that doesn’t have much relevance to my life as an adult. I don’t aspire to any kind of womanhood or manhood so ‘she’ is really not a word that captures me—and neither is ‘he.’
My life is a mishmash of feminine and masculine experiences, but above all, experiences that are not really gendered at all. That’s why I prefer the pronoun ‘they,’ which is free from all the expectations and assumptions that come with gendered language. But how do I explain this to my new colleagues?
Scenario 1: I walk into the office on my first day and say ‘hi, please call me they—that’s my pronoun. I’m not a woman or a man. It’s very nice to meet you.’ That will set me up for some relaxed relationships at work for sure…..
Scenario 2: I don’t say anything about my gender until a few months later when everyone’s gotten to know me, then I announce that nobody in the office truly knows who I am—they’ve been using the wrong pronoun since day one. That’s bound to build trust among my colleagues…..
Either way, it’s going to be awkward. Anyone who’s had to come out as anything knows that it’s not a one-off event. You keep coming out most days of the week for the rest of your life. But it’s particularly hard to come out as nonbinary genderqueer because most people have no idea what that even means. So let me explain.
For me—and I have to emphasise that this is my own interpretation since other people understand it differently—queerness is the opposition to the Western social ordering principle of gender, and the building of alternative ways of being that are free from such gender norms. Contrary to common misconceptions, queerness is not primarily about sexuality but about gender. What’s more, it’s not really an identity but a structural critique of modern society and its violent and deadly hierarchies.
When we are born, or actually before we are born, we are put into one of two genders—boy or girl; boxes that tell us loosely who we are, how to act, and what to aspire to. Thanks to feminists’ struggles over the last 100 years these two boxes have been stretched and expanded, but they’re still definitely recognisable. The queer criticism of these boxes isn’t just that they’ve been too rigid historically, but that their contents—‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’—are inherently and irreparably harmful.
Sure, it’s unpleasant to be put in a box and told by everyone else who you should be, and ideally we would all choose our own individual identity without being dictated to by others. But humans are not islands. Our thoughts are made through language and the concepts and categories that come with it. Our innermost desires and tastes are created through interactions with other people, and in that sense we co-create each other.
In order to do this and live together we do need categories—maybe even some kind of boxes—but those categories should be flexible and varied, and there should definitely be more than two of them. When someone chooses to merge things from different categories together we should support them.
However, the important thing about the queer critique of gender is that hegemonic gender boxes are not just limiting and rigid; they are toxic and hurtful to us all.
Think about the traits that define the stereotype of an ‘ideal man’ in capitalist and white supremacist society. The masculine man is strong and competitive, knows everything, thinks rationally, acts aggressively when threatened, and likes to conquer both women and non-European cultures. These are tired old stereotypes, but they still affect and shape our worldviews.
The corresponding stereotype of traditional Western femininity is the opposite: hesitant, modest, unsure about how cars or science work, motivated by emotions, beautiful to look at, desperate to please all those around her, and wanting to be conquered by dashing men. Hats off to all those feminist activists who have fought to break down these nauseating clichés, and shame on all those post-feminists who deny that they still affect us.
Of course, it’s difficult to generalise about gender stereotypes because they vary depending on your class, racialisation, age and so on. The contents of those two boxes are different depending on who you are. But the hegemonic version of these stereotypes—the contents of the white, middle-class, working-age gender boxes—are something everyone in society must relate to, and against which they must be judged.
The point about these stereotypes is that they’re not random—they serve a specific function: masculinity is the embodiment of domination and femininity is the embodiment of subordination. In recent years, the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’ has been used to highlight the links between pressures on men to be strong and assertive, and the incidence of violent attacks, male suicide, domestic violence, rape and sexual assault. I’d add war, macho politics, profit-seeking and colonialism to that list.
In this binary model, femininity isn’t much better since it acts as the complement to masculinity: it is self-erasing and accommodating; it provides free domestic and emotional labour; and it supports, applauds and copes.
The queer critique of the binary gender system, then, is not only that it’s boring or constraining, but that it’s actively harmful. Many liberal feminists have campaigned for the right of women to jump out of the pink box and into the blue one; hence women can now become CEOs, wear suits and cut people’s Disability Living Allowances just as aggressively as any guy. To a queer, this is not the way out of the mess in which we find ourselves.
Rather than focusing on opening the two boxes to everyone, nonbinary queerness lets us create entirely new ways of being that reject and go beyond any hierarchical bundle of identities. Is it so difficult to imagine what that might look like in concrete terms? Thankfully there are already many real-life alternatives.
As a lecturer for example, I could orate in a booming voice like my masculine forbears or femininely defer to the brilliance of male authors and male students. Of course I do neither. Instead I try to talk to my students without dominating anyone and aim to facilitate their learning, like many lecturers do.
As a politician, British Prime Minister Theresa May has chosen to pursue policies based on aggressive competition, inequality and sanctioning state violence rather than daintily giggling her way through politics. But wouldn’t it be much more progressive to practice a different, non-hierarchical form of politics and economics altogether—rooted in participatory local governance, worker-owned co-operatives, alternatives to prison and publicly-funded social centres, schools and youth clubs?
There are a million alternatives to gender binaries in all areas of our lives. Nonbinary queers reject them in different ways: some believe in expanding gender stereotypes from within by parodying and stretching gendered attributes, while others believe in making them obsolete by embodying different and gender-free ways of being. The choice of tactic will depend on your background, culture, religion and relationship to your family.
Personally—as a white atheist city-dweller with no traditional family ties—I try to move beyond gendered expressions and identities as much as possible in my personality, life choices and language. That’s why I’m not a ‘he’ or a ‘she.’ Instead, out of all the non-gendered pronouns I could have chosen (and believe me there are plenty), I’ve gone with ‘they.’ That word isn’t so much about my identity as it is about my politics, worldview and entire personality. And that’s why what I say to my new colleagues at work is far from a trivial pursuit.
Maybe there’s a third scenario to add to the others I mentioned at the outset: print loads of copies of this article and give one to each of my new colleagues: everyone loves a preachy missionary who forces other people to read their stuff. That will make me popular at work.....
Or I could just play them this Madonna cover that I’ve made with my own words added. I hope you enjoy it. And please don’t forget to call me they.