Hundreds of years ago, when I was about 8 years-old, my family was “between mothers” for the first of many times. (I think dad’s wives ran out every time the wine did.)
Without the influence of an adult female, my dad decided to make me, his eldest daughter – into the son he always wished he’d had. Apparently, my 2-year-old brother was not man enough, what with his barely being able to walk or drive a stick shift.
So, dad cut my hair into a micro-pixie. He made me lift weights and had me do wall-squats – that’s where you squat against a wall just in case some day you need to hold part of the house up with the power of your thighs alone. I still list this skill on my resume.
Dad would then try to pass me off as a boy to his friends.
“Try to pull those fists apart,” he’d goad them as I held out my unusually strong tiny hands. They’d take dad up on the dare and afterward compliment me with, “What a strong young man!” I wanted to yell out, “I’m a girl, dammit,” but was afraid I’d have to squat against the wall some more and I already had thighs like a Sumo Wrestler.
Needless to say, when it comes to mis-gendering someone or not using their preferred pronouns, I am very sensitive. I may have been born a cis female, but spending years being confused for a boy had a long-term effect.
Throughout my 20s and 30s, I tended to dress more like a guy than a girl.
Sure, part of that was due to the fact that in the ‘80s working women were encouraged to wear suits, bowties, and shoulder pads thick enough that had we worn them on our backsides, we wouldn’t feel it every time some office jerk decided to slap our ass on the way to the water cooler.
It didn’t help that my first mother-in-law kept buying me brown and gray polo shirts because she thought “I’d look good in them” or that my first husband called me “Bubba” because I could lift more weight than he could.
But recently, much of the world has begun to acknowledge that gender is a spectrum and that we don’t all fit into tidy boxes that are pink or blue, sweet or strong, Axe-scented or vanilla-fragranced.
For much of the last decade, I taught in the Journalism department at a major university and quickly became aware that younger people are growing up more comfortable being whoever they are and choosing labels that they feel best suit them (or no labels at all).
And almost none of them wear polo shirts against their will!
It was freeing – for them and for me – to know that we don’t have to be what we’ve been told we are by someone else. I do wish I’d known this decades ago, but then my thighs wouldn’t be so awesome to this day.
One of the classes I taught was grammar and many years before the Associated Press declared “they/them/their” to be acceptable singular pronouns, I encouraged my students to rebel and use this option, especially when writing about anyone who preferred not to be labeled with a gendered pronoun.
Now, given my history and my experience, you might expect I’m great at remembering to use the correct pronouns every time for everyone… and you’d be so wrong. When made aware of pronoun choices, I try my hardest to remember and in a one-on-one situation, I do great. The problem is when I’ve got 10 or more people in a room, my brain struggles to choose correctly. Like my dad’s friends who saw what looked like a boy and assumed I was a “he,” my brain does the same thing.
But I have learned that the best response when I screw up is to:
Apologize when called out.
Not make excuses about how hard it is to remember.
Not whine about how you can’t tell whether “they” refers to one person or to lots of people. (The same is true of “you” and no one argues about that.)
Remind myself that just because my brain thinks something doesn’t mean it’s correct.
Maybe squat up against a wall until my thighs beg for mercy (this one is optional).
For those of us who grew up in times when gender seemed to be either/or (although it never truly was), remembering to use the right pronouns can be more difficult than for younger people who have always been aware of the amazing diversity of humans on this planet and their right to be called as they choose.
We all need to do better and try harder. And that includes me, a girl, dammit, even though now I have less estrogen than an avocado.