Here’s the thing.
1. Yeah, it is.
2. You’re an ass.
So I had this conversation with a gender nonbinary individual in which I mistakenly referred to them as a man. They corrected me, I apologized, and asked the appropriate question.
Which, for the record, is, “Which pronouns do I use with you?”
They asked me to use the gender neutral “they,” and while doing that always makes my inner grammar nazi run screaming into the night, I recognize that this is because the English language has not yet evolved to the point of having singular gender neutral pronouns, and is not the fault of this individual. Furthermore, as someone who is often much less traditonally feminine than I may appear at first glance, I also understand that a desire to be referred to as the gender one identifies with does not make one an attention seeker or drama mongerer.
So I asked the question, they answered, we moved on. Until later in the conversation, when they said, “Thank you so much for knowing how to handle the pronoun thing. Most people don’t, and it’s not my responsibility to educate the unwashed masses.”
M’kay, so here’s a lesson on gender vs sex. Western civilization had, for eons, taken to interpreting them as the same thing. But even long before things like gender dysphoria or gender queer or pick-a-label were acknowledged, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Go to a library and find a dictionary from the 50s. Even then, they meant different things.
Sex is the set of genitals you’re born with. Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. Unless you have a rare condition, you’re either male or female. One or the other. It’s static. It doesn’t change without a lot of work.
Gender is a hell of a lot more complicated. It does have a basis on your sex, although some people, I have no idea why, try to argue that. If you are a female, you are more likely to identify on the feminine side of the gender spectrum (although female may be a bad example, as females have quite a bit more socially acceptable room on that spectrum than males do). Your sex makes you predisposed to a particular gender, but does not guarantee that you are that gender.
So what is gender?
Simply put, gender is the product of chemicals and hormones in the brain, giving one an internal sense of self, combined with biological factors and social constructs that assign certain tasks, behaviors, roles, and forms of expression as “masculine” or “feminine.”
All this complicated science-y shit combines to create a gender identity that may or may not reflect the physical sex, to varying degrees.
Sex is set. There’s no changing it without significant medical procedures.
Gender is a spectrum. It can be fluid. It can be fixed. It can be all the way on the masculine side. It can be all the way on the feminine side. It can be somewhere in the middle.
Y’know, because of science and shit.
Some of those whose gender does not reflect their sex may choose to undergo treatment to have the two things be a closer match. Some may not.
Trying to force someone to identify on one end of the spectrum or the other, using only their physical sex, is akin to telling someone suffering from clinical depression, “No, you don’t need treatment. Just smile more. You can be happy if you just try hard enough.”
In other words, kinda a dick move.
I’ve had a number of people (primarily men, interestingly enough) complain about using someone’s preferred pronouns. And I’ve come up with an argument I simply adore. I simply start calling the men Cheryl (because it was the first random women’s name that popped in my head) and refer to them as women. Using feminine pronouns. And rudely criticizing them for not being feminine enough.
“Jesus, Cheryl. Why don’t you ever do your makeup? You really need to help yourself if you ever want to find love. What man is going to put up with a woman who has no desire to take care of herself? And what the hell, are you not wearing a bra? So you want the girls to just get all saggy? Do you not even care?”
Rinse and repeat. In front of coworkers, family, friends. Nonstop. For weeks. I never claimed to be a nice person, y’all.
People have gotten seriously pissed off. And when they finally reach the point I’m looking for, I stop and say, “So wait, you’re allowed to get offended and insist that I refer to you as the gender you identify with, but someone else can’t? Quick, tell me again how you’re not an asshole.”
I said all that to say that yeah, if someone asks you not to refer to them as the gender you assumed they are, you need to apologize for the mistake and fix it. Whether or not you agree with it. Because if you don’t, you’re just an ass.
If you are an individual who does not identify as masculine or feminine, hell fucking yeah it’s your responsibility to educate people who are interested and want to be educated. And if you don’t do it, you’re an ass.
Wanna know how I knew what the appropriate question was to ask?
Because someone fucking told me when I asked them how I should handle it. And someone fucking answered my questions and helped me understand why it’s a big deal. If I’d asked that question and been snubbed, or told that “It’s not your responsibility,” I would’ve just assumed they were just a whiny attention whore, and not given them the time of day.
So many people have this attitude, about so many things, and it’s the stupidest, laziest, most ignorant thing ever.
Why did Trump get elected? There’s really only one reason. And it’s because of that attitude. Because no one was ever educated or enlightened by being insulted or demeaned or alienated.
No one wanted to have those conversations. And now we have President Orangey McBabyhands.
And yeah, we all have that responsibility. Even I, a white Christian American, have that responsibility. For me, it’s primarily feminism that I have that responsibility with. And so many of us are so quick to get offended when people ask about why we feel the way we do, why such-and-such issues are important, why whatever problem is actually a problem, that we’re alienating potential allies and instead making them enemies.
And yes, I’ve had men question my beliefs. Not to be assholes, but because they don’t understand, and they want to. I’ve had guys ask, “But seriously, why is catcalling a bad thing? I’m paying you a compliment, right? I’m being friendly, right?”
He’s not an ass. He’s not a bigot. He’s not a misogynist or a sexist. He just doesn’t know. And in 100% of the conversations I’ve had, I’ve been able to talk about it and help them understand, even if they may not agree. And yes, sometimes it’ll be irritating the way they defend their views or argue why they feel an issue shouldn’t be an issue. But that still doesn’t make them an ass or a bigot or sexist. They have a voice, and they have a right to have their voice heard and acknowledged.
Let me say that again for the people in the back. Literally everyone deserves to have their voice heard. Whether you agree with them or not. Whether their beliefs are comfortable or not.
We stopped thinking that way, and shut down conversation. A man with questions was labeled sexist. A white person with questions was labeled racist. A straight or cis-gendered person with questions was labeled a bigot.
Wanna take a guess at who voted for Trump? White, straight, cis men.
Wanna guess who got Trump elected? Everyone else, who made those people feel like they didn’t have a voice.
Yes, you have the responsibility to educate those who want to be educated. If you’re gender nonbinary or gender fluid or gender queer or gender dysphoric, you have that responsibility. And yes, that will probably mean some uncomfortable conversations. Deal with them as tactfully as you’d want someone to deal with you.
It annoyed me when I saw trans people being interviewed on TV, and the interviewer, completely ignorant and naive, would inevitably ask what genitals they had. And the trans person would inevitably say they didn’t want to answer that.
And yeah, I get it. It’s uncomfortable. It’s personal. It’s private. It shouldn’t matter.
But all of this is new, and people are wanting to understand. They’re curious. And this super personal, inappropriate behavior is not a new trend.
Gay people experienced their own version of this with stuff like, “So which one is the man, and which one is the woman?” Over time, straight folks learned that A) they’re both men/women, and more accurate terminology may be top and bottom, and B) it’s none of our goddamn business.
But it took open-minded, patient gay people, tolerant of our unbelievably inappropriate questions and uncomfortable conversations, for us as a culture to finally sort of “get it” and figure it out. Now, it’s generally considered normal, and those questions don’t happen as often.
The gender identity stuff is still too new, and we’re slow learners. So we’re going to be curious. We’re going to want to understand how your sex does or does not relate to your gender. It’s going to be uncomfortable.
A possible way of answering the what’s-in-your-pants question could be, “You know, I’m not hugely comfortable talking about myself personally, but some people may have A in their pants, some people may have B in their pants, and some of the ways that may affect gender identity is C.”
Help people understand instead of alienating them.
Even I’m a good example of this. In college I had a black professor that I ended up spending a lot of time with (yeah, it’s what you’re thinking. Dude was hot. Smart as fuck. And submissive. No sense of humor though, unfortunately). And one day, I screwed up my courage and asked him a question I’d always been curious about. I asked him why there’s a Black History Month in the US, but no White History Month. I asked him why I wasn’t allowed to be proud of being white, the way he could be proud of being black.
He could’ve just called me a racist and I would’ve decided he’s an asshole, and I would’ve been a hell of a lot less likely to give any kind of racial issues serious thought.
But he didn’t. He was patient, and tolerant, and explained it to me in a way I, as a white person, could understand. I talked to him, he gave me a voice, and I left that conversation thinking, “Oh, okay, I get it now. You’re right, it’s not unfair, it makes perfect sense.”
I’m sure that was an uncomfortable conversation for him to have, and the fact that he had a well-thought-out and eloquent answer at the ready heavily implied that I was not the first privileged white person to ask him that question. He created an ally in me, when he could’ve created an enemy. I mean, I like to think of myself as intelligent and open-minded, I like to think that I would’ve figured it out on my own eventually, but you just never know.
And yeah, he has the responsibility (especially as an educator) to enlighten all the white people who ask questions. I have the responsibility to enlighten all the men who ask questions. And you, my non-cis friends, have the responsibility to enlighten all the curious cis-gendered people who want to understand you.
Is it fair to you? No, probably not. But do you want to indignantly cry about life being unfair while Cheeto Jesus gains more supporters, or do you want to man the fuck up or put on your big girl panties or whatever gender neutral equivalent we’ll eventually come up with and fucking deal with it?