From the beginning of our socialization process, or the process in which we are made to become who and what we identify as individuals, there is a particular enforcement of a gender dichotomy that can be instilled in us from each major institution of our upbringing. From the time we enter the world as infants, girls are dressed in pink clothing and inversely, boys are dressed in blue. Young girls get kitchen sets and baby dolls to play with, while boys are given toy soldiers and racecars. Gender norms and gender roles are instilled in us through many types of establishments, both social and cultural. Some examples are in the realms of education, religion, peer groups and familial establishments, all of which regulate society’s normative values and processes. This is no accident, as it has been ingrained that a woman’s disposition should be docile and nurturing, conditioning them for their gender role of homemakers, while men are to be aggressive and fearless, grooming them for their future as breadwinners. Such stereotypes only perpetuate the idea of heteronormativity, or the standard of sexual orientation or gender orientation set by society’s institutions.
Not to be confused with the biological determination of sex, gender pertains to an individual’s sense of self perception and their role in society. When a baby is born, the child is declared either male, female or intersex. Consequently, a gender is assigned as well, which almost always corresponds to the given sex of a newborn. So what happens when people don’t necessarily fit into these predisposed set of standardized gender identities? Gender identity and gender expression as we know it are on a spectrum, meaning the construct is not necessarily black or white, or this or that. One’s own gender can mean something completely different than that of someone else’s who identifies in the same way, meaning what the notion of a “woman” is to one person, may be completely different in the eyes of someone else. We know this because who or what a woman should be or act like has changed throughout history, and the same can be said for men.
People who fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum describe themselves as nonbinary, or in many other ways, such as gender neutral, gender fluid, genderqueer, agender, multigender and more. An individual’s gender identity may not correlate to their assigned sex at birth, as gender is not in relation to the reproductive system, but more so to the brain and its respective functions and experiences. People who do not categorize themselves within the gender binary sometimes prefer to use different pronouns other than the normative she/her and he/him dichotomy. Most commonly used are they/them pronouns (which is now well established as a grammatically correct singular pronoun), but other gender neutral pronouns exist as well such as ze/hir/hirs (pronounced “zee, here, heres”) and ey/em/eir (pronounced “ay, em, air”), among others. There is even alternative language to use in place of the traditional Ms., Mrs. and Mr. titles. “Mx.” (pronounced “mix”) has been adopted to respectfully address people who are gender neutral. It’s quite simple to act with attentiveness and to address someone accordingly, as to deliberately misgender someone is a form of discrimination and can lead to the further stigmatization of people who identity as gender nonbinary.
To learn more about the ever-diversifying scope of the notion of gender, I decided to ask a few questions to my friend, Colleen, who identifies as gender nonconforming.
A: “Gender pronouns are important because they are articulations of how folks identify and are one of the ways people can share their identity with you and people around them. When someone shares their pronouns with you they are sharing a part of their personal identity, while asking you to respect it.”
A: “Respecting the chosen pronouns of someone shows them that you respect and value their identity. Obviously, when making a pronoun change with people you have known for a long time it is expected, at least in my experience, that some people will mistake or slip up when referring to you. But, the fact that folks in my life make genuine efforts to alter their language to respect my identity and refer to me in a way that makes me comfortable is incredibly validating and shows that they care about my wellbeing.”
A: I use they/them pronouns because I have never really felt comfortable with she/her pronouns. When I first “discovered” they/them [pronouns] and started using them I felt an innate level of comfort that I had never felt before and didn’t really know existed.”
A: “Cis people can make others more comfortable sharing their pronouns by making simple gestures like sharing their own pronouns and respecting the pronouns of others. This is just my experience and I hold incredible privilege in the fact that I am straight passing, but I cannot overstate the level of comfort I feel as a queer person (who is still very much figuring out their identity) when those around me share their pronouns openly. It makes those people identifiable as folks who I can trust will respect my identity.”
Colleen lays everything out as being quite simple. In Colleen’s view, it is important to respect people and their respective pronoun choices to promote inclusivity and openness. By doing this, cis gendered allies, or people whose gender corresponds with the one they were given at birth and support gender equality and diversity, can help create a safe space for people who choose to challenge heteronormative standards. As allies, there are a few things we can do to make our society a safer, a more accepting place for everyone, despite having to live in a world with predetermined social constructions and continuous gender socialization processes. We should first understand the means of truly discovering one’s own identity as a human being can sometimes be a confusing time for people. With this in mind, it is not our job to give labels to someone by identifying them how we think they should be identified. It’s wrong and intrusive to think we know more about someone’s core identity than they do. In order to be a more accepting society, we can take measures to make shared spaces more inclusive. A simple method of doing this would include introducing yourself with your own personal pronouns, or listing your pronouns on a social media profile with the aim of making others feel comfortable in doing the same. Instead of speaking to a large group in a dichotomous context (ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls), try using language that is less restrictive, like speaking to a crowd and addressing them as everyone. Being an ally is to take measures to ensure people are made to feel welcomed, while making the world a better place for everyone to live in, regardless of gender expression or identity.
Like my friend Colleen said, validation can go a long way and can make someone feel more comfortable being their true self in all spaces.