Trigger warning: gender dysphoria, descriptions of misgendering
I thought I was prepared. I really, really did. I knew what it was like to have your identity invalidated—being bisexual, I’ve been told for years that I’m just confused. But coming out as nonbinary was a whole new breed of shitshow: one without the glitter and rainbows I’ve used to make my sexual orientation as palatable as possible to those around me.
College is an adjustment for anyone, but there was a solid month my first year when I went to bed nauseous, tossing and turning and hating myself for something I’ve never had control over, filled with more shame than I’d had when I realized I’m bisexual. In a way, things were easier when I was younger. Before I knew there were options other than “girl” and “boy,” I simply discounted any painful gender feelings I had. I’d never felt particularly masculine, so of course I couldn’t be transgender, right? I clearly only wanted a flatter chest for convenience’s sake. Still, this couldn’t explain the guilt I felt the few times I’d double up on sports bras and sneak a look in the mirror. I’m convinced my dysphoria, especially the social dysphoria that comes with knowing you’re being perceived as something that’s in direct conflict with your identity, at least partially contributed to my depression. The older I became, the more my family’s expectations that I perform traditional femininity caused a physical ache in me.
I’ve settled upon demigirl to describe my gender, a nonbinary identity meaning partially girl, partially something else. My something else is, well, something else entirely—simply nonbinary in and of itself. As time goes on I feel more and more comfortable shedding layers of womanhood, so I don’t rule out the possibility that I may one day feel no connection to it. But for now, I’m a mix of the two, and that’s finally alright with me.
Though I consider my gender to be very personal, pronouns pose a public problem. I started using singular they pronouns (they/them/theirs) exclusively towards the end of last semester, but it’s only just beginning to catch on. I was completely unable to sleep the night before the first day of classes due to anxiety about introductions. Could I give my correct pronouns? Would professors hold it against me? Would other students comment? I’d naively assumed that everyone would introduce themselves with their pronouns, maybe even at professor’s request, but in all six of the classes I sat in on during the add/drop period, not a single other person did so. In fact, the one time pronouns came up was a disaster.
In a class I took with another nonbinary student, the professor referred to them using she pronouns. One of their friends corrected the professor with a meaningful look and a whispered “they,” a strategy that would have been immediately understood by anyone with a shred of knowledge about nonbinary genders and could have saved the student in question lots of stress and embarrassment. Instead, the professor was terribly confused and asked aloud if he’d done something wrong. Needless to say, I’d allowed myself to be misgendered in his class because it was simply too exhausting to ruminate over the potential academic and emotional consequences of explaining my gender during office hours.
In the end, I only introduced myself with my pronouns in one class, when I had been the first one in order around the room. It was the last class in which I’d have the opportunity to do so, and I only took the chance because being continuously misgendered in the other five was supremely distressing and distracted me from really focusing in class. I optimistically started a count of how many days I could go without being referred to as “she,” and the highest it’s reached all month is two.
If you think pronouns aren’t that big of a deal, especially for nonbinary people, think again. Being misgendered feels like someone uprooting your very existence, at least in my experience. If you are a cisgender woman, please just imagine someone referring to you as “he” on a daily basis. Sometimes you’ll correct them, and you’ll somehow end up being the one who apologizes as you’re told you really look like a “he.” I present in a very feminine way because I cannot risk being outed to my family, and I’m aware that most view my style of dress as connecting me to womanhood. I’ll never fault anyone for using she pronouns with me if I believe they truly haven’t been informed that I use they pronouns, but I am sick and tired of being told how difficult it is for people to remember I am not a woman.
With all due respect, that is not my problem.
As a community, we need to normalize including pronouns in introductions. This goes for cisgender people more so than anyone else: by offering your pronouns, you give me and other nonbinary students confirmation that you are aware of the importance of using someone’s correct pronouns and will not invalidate our identities. This doesn’t mean there won’t be situations where I’ll still feel unsafe disclosing my pronouns to others; in the classroom situation I mentioned above, my heart dropped and I immediately knew that even if all of my peers included pronouns in their introductions I would still be uneasy saying I don’t use “she.” But you’ll be signaling that it’s safe for us to be ourselves around you, and that is a basic sign of respect and support that we don’t experience very often.
Human beings like to think that everything can be broken up into these neat boxes, circles to fill in on demographic forms without an “other” option. It turns out that, for many of us, life is more complex than that. I urge my cisgender Wellesley peers to be thoughtful and deliberate in their words and actions regarding all transgender people, but especially nonbinary students at Wellesley. Work towards creating an accepting future. Use your place of privilege to make our days a little bit easier. In the end, we all just want to be who we are.
From September 2015 Issue