Celebrating Those in Between: How to Wrap your Head around Gender Neutrality

Originally published in the program guide for First Event 2014. 

Recently, shifts in cultural awareness of transgender identities has lead to both a rise in the popularity and acceptance of transgender identities that are “in-between” or “non-binary.” This, in turn, has brought to the forefront of trans*[1] politics a whole new host of etiquette rituals, terms, identities, perspectives, challenges, and questions. Traditional concepts of “transsexual” or “transgender” identities center around the idea that a person may have been “born in the wrong body” and would like to transition from one gender and/or sex to the other either socially or medically. However, people who identify as “non-binary” or “gender-non-conforming”[2] challenge this traditional concept by self-identifying as in-between, outside, or otherwise not connected with the male/female or man/woman gender binary that we have in the United States. Non-binary identities are numerous and complex and it would be impossible to name them all, but the most common ones include “genderqueer/genderfuck,” “agender,” “bigender,” “intergender,” “androgyne/androgynous,” and “gender-non-conforming/GNC,” but there are hundreds more. For some people, understanding these identities that are just coming into the public light can be challenging, so in this article I’d like to take a second to address some of the most common questions/challenges that people have when interacting with non-binary folks for the first time.

First, let’s tackle pronouns: pronouns have always been a tricky subject in the trans* community, but gradually the etiquette has become to call someone by whatever pronoun best fits the way they are physically presenting at the moment. This tactic, however, leaves non-binary people in the lurch in a big way. If you think about it, how can you ever really tell what gender someone identifies with until you ask? Clothes, we all know, are very deceiving and guessing based on body parts just defeats the purpose of identifying as trans*. So how do you know what to say? It’s simple really…just ask! It’s becoming more and more common and even expected for people to politely ask for the pronoun preferences of anyone else they may meet, whether that person looks like they might be trans* or not. Asking politely puts everyone on equal ground and since gender identity is mental, asking is really the only way to know for sure if you’ve got it right. Requesting pronoun preferences also gives non-binary people the ability to use a gender-neutral pronoun like they, ze, ey, ne, ve, yo, per, hus, or thousands of other variations[3]. Gender-neutral pronouns are popular and often non-binary people elect to use them, however, you may also hear someone request that you choose the pronoun, that you use no pronoun, or that you mix it up. Whatever the answer, it’s always okay to make sure you’ve got it right. If you’re new to gender-neutral pronouns, politely asking how to pronounce them or use them in a sentence is never a bad idea!

 Going along with the idea of gender-neutral pronouns, there are also a few other things you need to think about when going gender-neutral. For example: gendered terminology. If you know someone identifies as non-binary or would like you to use gender-neutral pronouns, then it’s a good idea to also use gender-neutral terminology and terms of address for them too! Calling someone “sweetie,” “darling,” “dude,” “man,” “boy,” “girl/gal,” or other gendered terms might not be the wisest plan and it can make some non-binary folks feel awkward. Similarly, addressing groups as “you guys” or “ladies and gentlemen” can be equally as alienating for non-binary people. You may want to consider adding terms like “buddy,” “pal,” or “friend” to your vocabulary and addressing large groups with phrases like “ladies, gentlemen, and all those in-between,” “y’all,” or “my esteemed friends/colleagues/guests/etc.” In addition, you might want to give some thought to how you would address a non-binary person formally since things like “Ms.” or “Mr.” don’t always work. “Mx.” is the gender-neutral equivalent for these honorifics and is an abbreviation for “Mixter” which is pronounced like “Mister” but with an “x” (ie: “Mix-ter”), but some other ones are “M,” “Misc,” “Pr,” “Msr,” “Mre,” “Ser,” or “Est.”

The biggest thing to remember, really, is that non-binary people are people too. They have hopes and dreams and fears just like everyone else and no matter what they look like, identify as, or ask to be called, they are still just as worthy of our respect as anyone else in this world. So, when you find yourself meeting someone non-binary for maybe the first time, be gentle. Sometimes it’s okay to ask questions about how they identify or why they identify that way, but sometimes it’s not and it’s always important to both ask your questions politely and respectfully and to do your level best to comply with the answers you receive. Gender-neutrality can be hard in the beginning and confusing to wrap one’s brain around, but getting it right is important and can make a huge difference in someone else’s life. Remember the first time someone used the right name/pronouns for you? The joy is the same no matter which trans* identity we’re talking about.

Congratulations! You just learned the basics about gender-neutrality! Is your brain spinning yet? Don’t worry- that’s normal! 

[1] For the purposes of this article, “transgender” will denote the identity category whereby someone identifies as the opposite gender as their body is typically associated with and “trans*” will denote the umbrella term that encompasses all gender-related identities.

[2] From here on out, we will use the term “non-binary” as a catch-all to talk about these identities simply because it is the least politically-charged and relates to nearly all other terms easily.

[3] If this list seems overwhelming, don’t worry! The vast majority of people in New England will use ze/hir/hir/hirs or they/them/their/theirs. 

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