The world is changing fast, especially when it comes to gender. Though transgender and nonbinary people have always existed, modern Western society is becoming much more accepting of the varied ways people express their gender identities – regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth.
And more and more people are discovering that traditional definitions of “male” and “female” don’t fit who they are, regardless of what their birth certificates say. They might identify as genderqueer, genderfluid, or nonbinary, and many use gender-neutral pronouns – “they/them” being the most common example, as opposed to “he/him” or “she/her”.
For their friends, relatives, and coworkers, this can be a challenge! We might sincerely want to honor the identities of the people close to us – but overcoming old habits is tricky, and a lifetime of learned definitions are easy to take for granted. It’s natural to worry about getting it wrong.
For guidance on how to get it right, we spoke to Stuart Getty – author of the widely-acclaimed book How to They/Them. An Oakland-based writer who grew up in Kentucky, identifies as genderqueer and uses they/them pronouns, Getty was working as a design consultant when they found themself becoming an informal ambassador to the world of gender-fluidity.
They’ve spoken on the topic at South by Southwest, created a series of short documentaries about nonbinary identity, and wrote their book when they realized the need for a friendly, shame-free exploration of a topic that’s very new to many.
“[I was] thinking about my parents in Kentucky, who are in their 70s and 80s,” Getty says. “I thought, ‘I want to write a book that my parents will think is funny, and enjoy and learn something from, that they’re going to give to all their friends’ – which they have. So it worked!”
We hope it works for you too! So without further ado, let’s get into some common questions – and answers – about why and how to they/them.
Definitions, because it helps to start with the basics.
Nonbinary identity touches on three key aspects of who we are as people, and it’s easy to get them mixed up – but not so hard when we know what the concepts mean.
Not sexuality – biological sex. This is what appears on your birth certificate; when you were born the doctor looked at you, saw a vulva or a penis, and wrote down “F” or “M”. Getty stresses that sex is primarily a medical definition, a description of a body, and a category based on reproductive function.
“I don't think there are any hospitals that are using an ‘other’ signifier,” they say. “And then we’re told that the sex we’re assigned at birth is our final resting place with gender. And we're also told that [gender] very much aligns with genitalia.”
For most people, that’s true – our gender does align with our genitalia. But for many, it doesn’t. So if gender isn’t sex, what is it?
Gender has to do with our sense of self. It refers to cultural, behavioral and psychological traits that are associated with one or the other sex – which might vary depending on our culture of origin.
“A lot of people say, for example, ‘I'm just a dude. So my gender is “dude”, right?’” says Getty. “And I say, ‘Yes!’ But unpack what that means. What have you been told? And what are the choices that you make?”
It’s not clear exactly where gender comes from – how much of it is due to nature, how much is nurture, and how much is tradition. But we do know that for many people, their gender and sex do not match.
If your gender matches your biological sex, we’d say you’re cisgender. If it doesn’t, we’d say you’re transgender.
And someone whose gender doesn’t fit the established categories of “woman” or “man” could say they are nonbinary, genderqueer, or genderfluid, and might use gender-neutral pronouns.
So what does all this have to do with…
Sexual orientation refers to who you want to have sex with. Any gender can have any sexual orientation – there are gay trans men, trans women who are lesbians, straight trans people, pansexual nonbinary people, and so on in a glorious rainbow.
Contrary to popular belief, our sexual orientation exists independent of our gender identity. But sexual orientation isn’t set in stone, any more than gender is.
Getty says that once they began defining themself as genderqueer, they found that their sexual orientation also became more fluid.
“Coming out as a lesbian when I was in college, that was about sexual orientation,” they say. “And I was also identifying as female – that was my gender identity, that matched what I was assigned at birth. [Later on] I learned about the concept of ‘they’, and using a different pronoun that allowed me to exist in a different space. And it was very entwined with sexuality too. Because I got more like, ‘oh my god, I like men!’ when I had been like, ‘oh, I'm a lesbian.’ So [identifying as genderqueer] opened up this interest, and my sexuality opened up as well.”
Overall, it’s important to remember that the genitalia and chromosomes we’re born with are one thing – but everything else is negotiable, depending on our deepest sense of who we are.
So what can you do to support your genderqueer, genderfluid or nonbinary friend, coworker or family member?
This will depend on them! Ask how you can best show up for them. And using their preferred pronouns is the bare minimum.
It can be confusing. You might think it’s linguistically awkward. You might have a hard time re-learning how to speak to them, if you’re used to thinking of them as “he” or “she”. But Getty emphasizes that everyone faces a learning curve – and nobody’s perfect.
“If cis hetero folks could be in queer culture, they would see how much we mess up ourselves, and then have to correct ourselves. We’re just human too. We also had the socialization of ‘he, she, and “they” is plural,’ and we're having to unlearn that. I [sometimes] mess up and say the wrong pronoun for people, and the wrong name. And I misgendered myself the other day. I was like ‘oh my,’ and then I just laughed.”
So accidentally getting someone’s pronouns wrong isn’t the end of the world. You won’t go to Ally Hell if you do. “If you mess up, just fix it quickly and keep moving,” Getty says. But there are ways to make the process of relearning easier on yourself and the nonbinary folk in your life.
Pro tip: get creative.
“We're gonna f*k up,” says Getty. “We all have these neural pathways, human brains that have been ingrained. Practice! You just start practicing. I tell a story in my book where someone’s kid came out as using they/them pronouns, and the parents got a new cat. They gave the cat they/them pronouns too, so they could practice for their kid. And then they got really good at it.”
We don’t necessarily recommend acquiring a new pet strictly for pronoun practice – but when it comes to retraining those neural pathways, whatever works, works!
Pro tip: advocate for them when they aren’t in the room.
“People in my work circles have had conversations with clients when I'm not even around,” Getty says. “They say ‘Stuart is a nonbinary individual, uses they/them pronouns, wonderful writer, we're so lucky to have them.’ Sticking up for me when I’m not there makes it really safe when I am in the room. Practice validation. Be that voice.”
Advocating for the nonbinary people in our lives when they’re not around helps ensure that they’ll feel safer when they are – and we’re also training our own brains to overcome that tricky ingrained programming. Win/win!
Pro tip: “they” gets easier.
“‘It's not grammatically correct!’ That’s the one [most common] question, and it usually comes from parents,” says Getty. “But before I was using ‘they’, it also felt kind of funny to me. ‘They is running down the street?’ No, no, that doesn't feel right.’
“But we already do that sometimes. ‘Oh, has the mail come? I don't know if they've dropped it off yet,’ when we don't know someone's gender. So there was already a concept within the English language for this.”
Many, many languages and cultures have singular, gender-neutral pronouns. If “they” feels tricky to English-speakers, it’s really because of the ways English is commonly spoken – not because gender-neutral pronouns are inherently weird or “incorrect”.
And language usage always changes. If you’re struggling, think about how fast you pick up new slang – which can also be grammatically awkward. Put “they/them/their/theirs/themself” in the same mental box that you put all new-to-you language you encounter, and you’ll get it in no time.
(By the way, “they are running down the street” is grammatically correct when you’re referring to someone who uses “they/them”. Language is malleable – and always has been.)
Pro tip: Soon there will be even more people using gender-neutral pronouns – so get ready!
“Now it's everywhere,” says Getty. “My workplace has added people’s pronouns to everything. And it's not going away. Gen Zs are even more into it than myself and other elder millennials. There are even more of them coming. They're just like, ‘You older folks with your labels are so boring and crusty.’”
You probably weren’t getting newsletters about CBD lube in your inbox ten years ago. And the new openness and acceptance surrounding sex, gender and identity is part of the same cultural trend. We’re learning that regardless of the messages we grew up with, it is okay to be ourselves, to own our experiences, and seek out what brings us joy.
And that’s a good thing for everyone!
Pro tip: Put your money where your mouth is.
The rights of gender-nonconforming people to exist in the world and live how they choose have become an ugly battle in the current political war. If we care for the transgender, genderqueer and nonbinary people in our lives, advocating for them on social and political stages is the most significant thing we can do for them – and for ourselves, as we learn to navigate a new landscape.
If you hear somebody being misgendered when they’re not around, speak up. Let your friends and family know that you won’t tolerate transphobic language or attitudes. Keep your gender-nonconforming friends, coworkers and family members in mind when you vote and donate. We’re all essential parts of the same human organism, and what hurts some of us, hurts all of us.
“To a total newbie, I'd say ‘follow your heart’,” Getty says. “I know, that sounds so dorky. But when you're trying to traverse the newness of something, being tender and open to the process can be really helpful.
“Keep trying new things so you can find your way. Don't be so afraid to mess up that you're not keeping your heart open. You don't know what you don't know until you've experimented and tried. So think – discovery!”
Buy How to They/Them wherever books are sold.
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