Nonbinary vs Gender Neutral

Nonbinary or Genderqueer are not the same thing as Gender Neutral.

There are people who describe their gender as neutral but for the most part, people usually have a lot more nuance than that. Gender neutral is a good way to describe pronouns like they/them or xe/xir, but it isn’t a good way to refer to nonbinary people unless they have explicitly said that.

My gender is anything but neutral. For me, it is relatively stable and not fluid, but it lies solidly in the realm of femme with a twist of tomboy. I am both a woman and a nonbinary person because my gender is queer and defies a single category. Queerness at its heart is about breaking boundaries and holding the tension between seemingly disparate concepts.

I see your categories and reject them because they don’t reflect my reality.

The Bathroom Dilemma

I know this has been written about ad nauseam, but I hate binary bathrooms. It is so stressful to need to pee and have to make that choice. Do I go in the men’s room and risk potential physical violence and awkwardness, or do I go in the women’s restroom and risk verbal harassment and awkwardness?

Up until recently, I had been going with the men’s room as the safer choice. My experience of the men’s room is that men tend to keep their heads down and avoid eye contact and conversation. And especially when I had my beard, I didn’t feel like I could safely go in the women’s room without creating a ruckus.

But now that I’m starting to be read more consistently as a trans woman, I am feeling increasingly awkward about going into the men’s room. I’ve only been brave enough to go into the women’s room a few times so far though. I’m scared that my voice, which I haven’t trained to be feminine yet, will make people upset.

That is part of why I am planning on going to to all the government offices tomorrow and changing my gender marker on my ID. I will feel slightly more like I have a right to be there if I can prove with my ID that I belong. Which I know is ridiculous.

The problem is the worst at work where we have 2 gender neutral restrooms on my floor (the only ones on campus) but they have been increasingly full when I go to use them which is very frustrating. We don’t have that many trans people here so I know that it is mostly cis people using them because they like the privacy. And since I work at a company that is mostly women, I know that I’m much more likely to run into people in the women’s room than in the men’s room and I don’t know how people are likely to react to that, even in my department where most people have a working knowledge of trans people from a research perspective.

Last night I planned a community event and I purposefully chose Optimism Brewery because they are renowned for their gender neutral restroom design. They have a row of floor length stalls with urinals and toilets marked instead of genders in an open room layout. Ideally they would also have a separate family size restroom for people who have cultural requirements for more privacy but it is still better than 99% of the places around here. It was refreshing to not have to make that binary choice, especially after I had a couple drinks.

Gender neutral single stall restrooms are great but we aren’t going to be truly accessible as a society until we do away with binary restrooms altogether. Until then, I’ll continue being uncomfortable almost everywhere I go.

PS – Did you know that you can report where there are gender neutral restrooms and search them on a database through the Refuge app and website? You can even mark if you need to pay to use them and if they are accessible to wheelchairs. So please contribute to map so that people like me know where we can safely go.

Should allies use they/them pronouns?

For every opinion a trans person shares, you can always find someone who disagrees. It may surprise you but we don’t have annual meetings or anything to decide what our unified message is. But one thing that concerns me and I suspect didn’t originate in the trans community is the idea that cisgender “allies” should adopt they/them pronouns for themselves.

And I’m going to go ahead and say that’s a big old NOPE from me. I want people around me who proudly own their pronouns in a way that normalizes the asking and sharing of them. We need to model to people who are still learning that pronouns are not something that should just be assumed based on appearance. If you don’t know how someone wants to be referred to, the safest option is something gender neutral. But the best practice is always to ask first and get used to doing it so that it doesn’t feel uncomfortable anymore.

And don’t walk into a conversation, especially where trans people are present, and say “oh, I don’t care what pronouns you use for me” if you are cisgender. All that signals to us is that you are so confident that you will be gendered correctly that you are willing to accept people’s assumption. It’s a sign of your privilege and based on the reality that you have never had the deep discomfort that comes with being constantly misgendered everywhere you go. Now of course there are plenty of nonbinary people who for various reasons are apathetic about their pronouns or don’t feel comfortable setting expectations. But we don’t need you muddying the waters.

Nonbinary people are constantly fighting this idea that our identities are a “fad” or a phase to not be taken seriously. Our enemies are actively looking for reasons to dismiss us and prove that this is just some social justice plot to make people uncomfortable. And when those people see you lightly using these pronouns, especially if you only do so to “teach them a lesson” or in liberal circles, they take us less seriously too.

So please, leave they/them pronouns for nonbinary people and for people whose gender you don’t know. Own your pronouns boldly by doing things like putting them in your email signatures, on your nametags, or wearing pins at events. Make it clear to people around you that the only way to know pronouns is if someone has told you. And model that by telling them what you actually use.

And remember, be kind about how you correct people. Gendered language has been hard wired in our education and systems for long enough now that there are a lot of people who have unlearning to do. And many of those people have less access to learn about how and why to do that. In particular, when you are interacting with working class folks such as service staff or people for whom English is their second language, have some patience. It may take many times of correcting people but believe me when I say that a gentle hand with a carrot is going to make a far bigger difference than a slap on the wrist.

When you see someone being misgendered around you who has already made their pronouns known in that space, please speak up and say something. Correct that manager who intentionally or unintentionally misgenders their staff member in a meeting. The good managers will show you who they are by responding in kind and the bad ones will then be forced to make a choice about whether to keep persisting intentionally. And if you see it happen to someone you know and you aren’t sure if you should say something, ask them privately afterwards. Sometimes it’s easier not to make waves or they may not be out in that situation. But often times it is just because we are exhausted of constantly correcting people every moment of our lives. Our patience has worn thin because of the constant mosquito bites of microaggressions but you as an ally have the ability to advocate for us without as great of a power differential.

If you see it happening repeatedly from the same people, maybe offer to have a practice session with them where they talk about the things they appreciate about the person they misgendered to you in a safer space where they feel less embarrassed being corrected. There are a lot of steps that you as an ally have the ability and power to do to normalize the use of gender neutral pronouns. Just don’t appropriate them yourself.

And finally, remember that Allyship is a verb. It’s not some badge you earn because you are vaguely supportive. You have to do that work actively.

Can I use “guys” “dude” or “man” as gender neutral?

I would say this is the number one question I get in contexts where I am out as nonbinary. People will often say things like “you guys,” “dude, it would be…”, or “thanks man” around me out of habit, quickly realize their potential faux pas, and clarify that they meant it in a gender neutral way. This is also a conversation I see in trans spaces a lot. So here’s my take on it.

Personally, and I must emphasize here that I do not speak for all trans or even AMAB nonbinary people, I have chosen to accept gendered terms like that as gender neutral in a context where they clearly would have said the same thing to a cisgender woman. Context is key though because there are definitely ways of saying them as an intentional form of misgendering or because you don’t see someones gender. So I can’t really give you a clear hard-and-fast rule on whether you should use them around me.

In general, I highly recommend trying to move away from using those words. While you may mean them in a gender neutral way, we all hopefully know by now that intent is not the same as impact. If you use them around many transgender people, they may get angry or upset, even if they don’t tell you. And that is a completely legitimate reaction to have. They are not being “overly sensitive” or “looking to get angry;” using traditionally gendered language around trans people can be a form of microaggression.

Microaggressions are like mosquito bites – individually they aren’t that bad, merely annoying. But if you get a bunch of them, the effect adds up quickly and can make you irritable, mad, or even dangerously ill. The same is often true for trans people and gendered language. They may have what seems to you to be a disproportionate reaction to something you unintentionally said. But what they are probably reacting to is the cumulative effect of the constant misgendering they get on a daily, if not hourly, basis. So many of us have to fight so hard to be seen for who we are and when things happen to remind us that we still aren’t seen as fully a woman or legitimately not a man (or the reverse), it can be very triggering.

Maybe it’s because I’ve only been fighting for public recognition of my gender for a couple years or maybe it is because I am trying to ignore my hurt feelings. But just because one nonbinary person says it is ok, doesn’t mean that you should keep doing it. Correcting your language is very very hard; I know that just as well as anyone. I am making an effort right now to be more aware of the ableism in my turns of phrase, not using words like “crazy” and “stupid,” but I am making very slow progress. Most of the time I don’t catch it until I’ve said it, at which point I try to correct without making a big deal about it.

You can do the same thing with traditionally gendered terms. Rather than waste your energy on trying to emphasize the evolution of language to explain why it is now gender neutral, simply correct yourself with a different phrase and move on. “You guys want to play a game? …I mean ya’ll?” Same thing with pronouns. Don’t launch into a huge apology, just correct mid-sentence if possible and keep talking.

Hopefully this PSA has been helpful.