Recently I visited a friend in Seattle that I know from college (we had attended an intellectual college, a bastion of the liberal artform of critical thought, churning out the educated and progressive people, square-capping the facilitators of a changing future), and he was espousing the intolerability of being asked to use “they/them” as a personal pronoun.
You know me – I’m an open minded guy! I completely accept transgender people, and I’ll use “he or she,” according to the person’s preference. Sure, maybe someone was born in a man’s body but then feels like a woman. Okay, I accept that, and I understand that the person wants to be called her and she. But then there’s these people that are – what, neither a man nor a woman? And they want to be called ‘they.’ Come on. A ‘they?’ I can’t get on board with that. I just can’t relate to saying ‘they’ when I’m talking about 1 person.
Yes, “they” is most commonly used to convey plurality, while a gender nonconforming person is singular, so that takes getting used to. But deal with it, dude! I was startled by his opinion but couldn’t formulate the words, in my shrunken, muted lady-voice at the time, to tell him he was being a dick. Or, had I stumbled into one of those rare public moments when I am able to muster both confidence and diplomacy, to just let him know how precisely his logic illustrates the trap of the exclusionary mind, this inclination to deny the existence of something outside your experience. How basic! And how human (or animal perhaps. At least the more animal side of being human…) that we would validate our own existence with micro-declarations of “I AM!” so sleekly disguised as “YOU ARE NOT!” After all, we are all subjects of the human condition. And we all goddamned long to know what we are.
Diversity inclusion, though, happens to be precisely centered around foreign content; content that is foreign to the includer. We must invite each other to center our every interaction around the humility of inviting everything in, familiar or foreign, without elevating the former above the latter. Imagine that the idea of your life exists in a boat that floats on the vast ocean of all possibilities. You ought to be busy steering your boat because defining who you are is a lot to handle. Existence is admittedly fucking weird, and one can imagine the discomfort that might drive us to jump into someone else’s ideological boat to get away from the discomfort of our own. i.e. espousing disapproval of someone’s chosen gender pronoun, OR seeking control over what someone wants to do with her womb, OR even, and especially, confining your own close relations to the ways they have floated their boats until now. I changed my name to Jaquelyn 11 years ago, and still certain people will openly – and seemingly sweetly – declare “You’ll always be Stephie to me.” It’s creepy. And it’s harmful to people, as documented increasingly in the mainstream media, like this recent article from Cosmopolitan magazine: “Why Allowing Trans People to Use Their Chosen Names is So Important: New Research Proves it has Massive Positive Impact on Mental Health.“
Before I finally and thoroughly pound this lifeboat analogy like an overworn stake into the ground, let’s really clarify what it is. I’m not saying that everyone should be able to do anything they want, or even to think anything they want. You may challenge me, for example, that if your neighbor steals your apples, you may “jump into his boat” and claim them back. But that boat involves physical actions, the right to possession and so forth, so it is not an apt use of the analogy. The analogy refers to the ocean of possibilities, and the boat is our own thoughts, and particularly our thoughts about ourselves. We stand to preserve a tremendous amount of energy by remaining in our own existential boat. More importantly, by doing so, we suddenly avoid causing all manner of harm to other people. Each time we refuse to see someone as they claim to be, or refuse to call them as they claim to be titled, it is like throwing a little explosive right into their boat. It compromises their state of mind, even as they are likely managing the fragile state of ideological development and sacred rebirth. Next time someone who is gender nonconforming, or for other reasons has requested to be called something new, observe how relaxing it is, how warm and connective (if slightly awkward!) to stay in your boat by trying your best to do as they ask.