My family has a long tradition of being led by the older matriarchs. I grew up surrounded by fierce and stern Black women who taught me that, regardless of my gender, I could be strong, brave, a leader. Lessons from these women were passed down as legacy, reinforcing the notion for me that gender is not a death sentence. I knew from their teaching that I was just as capable as the men in my life and that I only needed to seek their help if I wanted to.
Perhaps this is what sparked the cognitive dissonance in my young mind. Knowing that I was made to be a strong woman felt empowering but, as I got older, it also felt constraining. I realized shortly after puberty that womanhood was not for me. I did not have the language to explain my feelings to those around me, but the changes in my body reaffirmed feelings of discontent and isolation I felt as a child, caught between gender roles, drawn to masculinity along with femininity. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I began (thanks to Tumblr) to learn that there were many people who felt the same way that I did. These people described themselves as “non-binary” and elected to use gender neutral language to describe themselves to those around them.
In college, in an attempt to better understand myself, I majored in Gender Studies. My classes taught me that the concept of living between genders or outside of them entirely was not new. From the two-spirited indigenous people of the Americas to the hijras of India, people have been pushing the boundaries of what it means to be male or female for centuries. Those who did not adhere to gender norms or prescriptions were often revered before the influence of colonization.
People often think about transgendered individuals when they hear the term non-binary. While there is familiarity between them, there is a difference between the two terms. Think of transgender identity as an umbrella. Under that umbrella are people whose gender identity differs from the gender assigned to them at birth. For example, a person might have been assigned female at birth but identity as male. In the case of non-binary folks, their gender identity might align with both male and female or neither. It can also change over the course of time. Some non-binary people see their gender as more fluid, electing to present femininely one day, masculinely another day, or ditch the gender binary completely for androgyny.
The journey to discovering non-binary identity looks different for everyone. On the first day of my fourth year at USC, I found myself scrolling through Twitter rather than listening to my professor’s lecture. I stumbled across the poet Danez Smith’s profile and quickly became intrigued; their website bio was devoid of “he” or “she,” simply referring to Smith as “they.” Like myself, Smith is both Black and queer, and although I had heard of people using gender neutral pronouns before, seeing someone who resembled parts of myself using them turned my life upside down in a moment. Two hours later, in my Introduction to LGBTQ Theory class, my professor asked each student to introduce themselves with their name, major, and pronouns. My turn to answer quickly approached, and for the first time I would say “my pronouns are they/them/theirs.”
“Gender euphoria” is the phrase used to describe the fuzzy feeling of elation many transgender and non-binary individuals get when they are able to experience life, even just for a moment, in a way that aligns with how they view themselves. Adopting gender neutral pronouns has not only transformed how I interact with others, but it’s also opened the door for me to feel gender euphoria on a daily basis. I still remember the first time a new acquaintance asked my pronouns. “I just didn’t want to assume,” she said. I hesitated, because only my close friends and classmates were using my pronouns frequently. After a pause, I tried to say them with as much confidence as possible. The person smiled and thanked me for telling them. For the rest of the meeting, she integrated my pronouns into conversations with those around us. I had never felt that level of affirmation in my adult life. To be seen truly, without complication or disgust, while having the right to exist in a space as my best self became a gift that made owning my identity even more worth it.
Gender neutral pronouns can seem difficult to understand, but we use them on a daily basis. We often say “them” when we are talking about someone whose gender we don’t know. From “well, how are they doing?” to “yes, I heard about them on the radio last week,” we have been using gender neutral pronouns all of our lives. Using gender neutral pronouns is crucial because you can’t determine someone’s gender by looking at them. Someone might present in a more feminine manner and identity as a man, or a person who’s masculine of center in the gender spectrum could identify as a woman or non-binary individual. A good rule of thumb is to never assume that you know a person’s pronouns when you meet them. If you’re unsure, simply asking “what are your preferred pronouns?” is an easy way to make sure the person you’re speaking with feels comfortable and affirmed. It can also be helpful for all people, not just transgender or non-binary people, to practice using pronouns when meeting someone for the first time. Normalizing the practice of sharing your pronouns, even if you’re cisgender (meaning you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth), can make it easier for transgender and non-binary people to exist without the risk of being misgendered. You can begin by simply saying your name and adding “my preferred pronouns are…”
It is the hope of many, not just non-binary individuals, to break the gender binary. This might seem radical, but it gives everyone the opportunity to forgo gender expectations, roles, and prescriptions. Queer theory supposes that a world beyond the binary gives more freedom to everyone. The freedom to imagine. The freedom to explore. The freedom to escape. Acknowledging non-binary individuals is only the first step to a future that’s freer, safer, and more open for us all.