Today’s guest blogger explores the meaning – both literally and emotionally – of finding your way through the profusion of labels and why they matter.
I have long identified as queer. I discovered I was bisexual nearly 20 years ago. At first, the label “queer” didn’t seem to fit. I didn’t look or act or feel like the folks decked out in rainbows dancing on floats in Pride parades. Over time, as I met queer people who were more like me, I came to embrace the label. Later, I would find out that was only part of my journey.
You may have heard that “queer” is a slur, and that the “correct” term is LGBT (or some version of LGBT that adds other letters). Although some people may still view “queer” negatively, for many of us who are queer it is not a slur.1 Whatever the roots of the word, however it may have been used in the past, many of us have embraced it, reclaiming it from those who tried to use it to harm us. I use it because it encompasses all aspects of living outside the expectations of sexuality and gender. The queer umbrella is large and we can all fit under it, whether we’re gay, bisexual, intersex (having both male and female anatomy), asexual (having no sexual attraction to people), some other orientation or identity, or combinations of these. We are diverse, and the letters LGBT are simply not enough to reflect all our identities.
I figured out when I was in my twenties that I was bisexual. In January of 2020, I began seriously questioning my gender. I say “seriously” because I had always been a bit “off,” liking and doing things that girls weren’t supposed to like, disliking and avoiding things girls were supposed to enjoy.
A first step for many people who are questioning gender is using different pronouns. Some people feel they have simply been on the wrong side of the binary—people who have been living as male but wonder if perhaps they are female, for example. They may simply switch from “he” to “she,” or vice versa.
But many of us feel that neither male nor female correctly describes us. Some folks think they’re sometimes one, sometimes the other. Some folks feel they’re somewhere in between the two. Some folks feel they’re entirely outside of that binary, having a completely different gender, or no gender at all.
While the term “trans” (or, more formally, “transgender”) is almost always applied to people who transition from one side of the gender binary to the other (male to female or female to male), it can also apply to people who abandon the binary entirely. Folks who exist outside of the binary genders of male and female are known as nonbinary. Many nonbinary people, though not all, self-identify as trans because they do not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. By contrast, people who are cis are those who feel the gender they were assigned at birth does fit. The term cis arose as a complement2 to the term trans. It has long been used to describe molecules with certain atoms on the same side of their axis. Trans describes molecules with those atoms on opposite sides of their axis.
To better explore my feelings about my gender, I decided to stop using she/her pronouns. I didn’t want to use he/him either. They/them seemed the simplest, because everyone already knows how to use them. Despite what many people think, the use of “they” to refer to one person date back to 1375.3 It’s so old it predates modern English. Whether you know it or not, you already know how to use “they” this way: “This person needs to speak with you.” “Oh, do you know what they want?”
I first started using they/them pronouns in some online spaces where I was completely anonymous and no one had any information about me other than what I gave them. It was a good way to have a sort of “trial run,” where the stakes were low and I could see how things felt. After about a year and a half of using they/them in these spaces, I started using they/them in other parts of my life as well — with friends, family, and colleagues. It hasn’t always gone smoothly, but it’s been worth it to leave behind an identity that didn’t fit.
I am still relatively new to my exploration of gender, and I still don’t know exactly where I fall. I can say for certain I am not a man, but that’s where my certainty stops. Generally, I also don’t want to be thought of as a woman. Most of the time, I’d really rather gender were not a thing at all.
So it’s tough for me to empathize with a lot of other nonbinary people, or nonbinary characters in film and TV. These people are often very confident about their gender (or lack thereof), radiating a certainty that I have never felt. At my most confident, I just want my gender to be ignored. Does that make me nonbinary? Does that make me something else? I still don’t know.
And that uncertainty, I think, is a major part of the queer experience for a lot of people. Yes, there are plenty of people who feel different from a very young age and realize their queerness before adolescence. But that’s not the only way to discover an identity. The median age that people realize that they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual is 17-18,4 and 11 percent of all queer people were 20 or older when they first felt they might not be straight.5 Six percent of queer adults say they’re still not sure of their orientation or gender.6 It’s possible these people are only just beginning to question their orientation or gender, but it’s possible they’ve simply learned to live with the uncertainty. Not all questions have definite answers.
I really think it would help so many people if more of these stories were heard. People fear questioning their orientation or gender, partly because many people assume the answer is a foregone conclusion. People assume that, if you were really straight, if you were really cis (not trans), you’d know. You wouldn’t have any doubts. But a question isn’t a question if only one answer is possible.
I know that, for me personally, finding out my experience is not unique has been very validating. Recently, the character Jim played by Vico Ortiz on the HBO Max show Our Flag Means Death7 stood out to me. (Spoilers ahead! Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the show but think you might want to watch it without knowing what happens.) Jim begins the series hiding out in disguise as a man with a large nose and a beard. Very soon, it is revealed that they are not that man. But everyone has been calling them Jim, and that name seems to fit better than their old one. People begin referring to them as “they” rather than “he,” and, after one initial conversation, nobody brings Jim’s gender up again. Even when asked directly if they are a woman, Jim says, “I don’t know.”
That really struck a chord with me. Like Jim, I just don’t know. Like Jim, I’d prefer not to talk about it. If you talk about me, please refer to me as “they” or “them,” and let’s just drop the matter. (Unlike Jim, I won’t pull a knife on you if you keep making bad assumptions.)
Seeing a character so like me helped me understand that it’s okay if I don’t know my gender. It’s okay if I never know. That’s not the way I define myself, so it doesn’t have to matter.
I hope, over time, we’ll see more and more people like Jim. More folks will say they aren’t sure where they stand under the queer umbrella, just that they’re somewhere under it. More folks will shrug off the question entirely and just get on with their lives. It’s normal to want definitive answers to questions, but the word queer itself means not “normal,” whatever that is.
“But isn’t it already queer to question your gender?” you might ask. While it might be the first step on a journey to queerness, it certainly isn’t the journey itself. A person asking if they’re truly a woman, for example, might think, “Well, I don’t like makeup and I do like fixing cars, so maybe I’m not a woman.” But that isn’t necessarily true! They might explore other genders and learn that no, they’re really a woman who doesn’t like makeup and does like fixing cars.
“Aren’t people who say they’re nonbinary just afraid of fully transitioning?” This argument aligns quite well with a similar one about bisexual people, that it’s really just a step on the way to gay. But it’s definitely not true! Although some people do go through a period when they feel nonbinary and later learn that they are not, many others don’t ever transition back to the binary.
“Using ‘they’ is just too hard. It doesn’t feel natural.” Again, the singular “they” is older than modern English, and you already use it without realizing it. It’s really not at all hard to use it to talk about a specific person. After all, “you” conjugates similarly to “they”: I am, he is, you are, they are. You don’t stumble over using the singular “you,” so why is it so different with the singular “they”?
“This is just a phase. You’ll grow out of it.” Okay! Great! What’s so wrong with going through phases? People change over their lifetime. If someone goes through a phase when they use different pronouns, how is that so different from going through a phase when they wear skinny jeans, or when they dye their hair?
“I would like to explore my gender, but I have a partner and I’m afraid they won’t understand.” This is a very reasonable and valid fear. Many people’s romantic partnerships do end when they transition. But there are resources8 9 10 that can help. Ultimately, only you can make this decision.
And keep in mind, you never really have to choose. You don’t have to be certain. We don’t have to be perfectly defined and labeled. We can just be.
Elizabeth is a writer from Austin, Texas. Their passion is science fiction and fantasy, and they love writing stories that explore gender, queerness, and what it means to be human.
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The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.
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1 Perlman, Merrill (2019). How the word “queer” was accepted by the LGBTQ community. Columbia Journalism Review.
2 What does “cisgender” mean? (2017). Merriam Webster.
3 A brief history of singular “they.” Oxford English Dictionary.
4 A survey of LGBT Americans, Ch 3: The coming out experience (2013). Pew Research Center.
7 Hale, Lyra (2022). Vico Ortiz talks ‘Our Flag Means Death,’ being a non-binary actor & working with Taika Waititi, on HBO Max. REMezcla.
9 How To Support Your Transgender Partner Through Transition. Trans*H4CK.
10 10 tips for couples during gender transition. Psychology Today.