When I came out to one of my mentors (not the butch mentor, my queer feminist mentor), as a trans person who had switched to male pronouns, she said to me, “You’re not changing your gender, you’re just changing the sex designation of your pronoun, which has gendered effects.” She had always seen me as a masculine- if not male-identified boi, and her affirmation that nothing essential about my gender was really changing was a relief among so many people who act as if my pronoun change is an earth-shattering transformation both in my identification and in their ways of seeing me. Still, I’d like to reflect on her statement – what does it mean to change the sex designation of your pronoun, and what gendered effects does this produce? I’m returning to this question now for several reasons. First, I have realized that I am not fully male-identified, but genuinely in between male and female and am reevaluating what that means in terms of both pronouns and hormones. Second, I am reflecting on how best to position myself as a trans person who identifies with and dates fags, but who has an important history with and debt to butches, women, and feminism. Third, I am panicking as the start of my new job, and thus the decision about which pronoun I will use on the job, is fast approaching. Being openly trans and female-bodied and going by “he” on the job is certainly the more difficult decision. I worry that it could affect tenure at this job as well as future job prospects.
So how important is a pronoun really? I’ve been going by “he” for about 2 1/2 months now, and it still doesn’t feel completely right. “She” feels wrong, but I wonder if that’s just because I associate it with a kind of death sentence: “You will be a female and a woman no matter what.” It makes me feel like a very important dimension of my identity is being erased to be called “she.”
Part of the problem, I think, is that as a faggy person with a female body, my hold on both maleness and masculinity feel so tenuous without the pronoun “he” to guide people in the right direction. I am genuinely in between, and you have to squint to see me either as a boy or as a girl (forget man or woman, I look 15 as a male and 23 as a female). I feel like going by “she” encourages folks to squint in the direction of the woman, to see me as a cute girl dressed up like a boy. It gives them permission to use female terms with me – Ma’am, lady, woman, lesbian, girl – terms that feel far worse than the “she” itself. What I find puzzling is that when I was going by “she,” even femmes flirting with me as a butch would call me “lady” or “girl” and tell me I was “beautiful.” “He” might feel unnatural or strange to folks at first, but if it encourages folks to squint in the direction of the boy or the man, that is undoubtedly what I want.
Yet there are butches who go by “she” no problem, even as they clearly exceed this pronoun. I have puzzled and puzzled about why I can’t be like them. But I think that many butches I know, though they might be quite masculine as sometimes pass as male, identify strongly as females and as women. For them, being a butch is not oxymoronic or incoherent – they are masculine women, and that is only a contradiction within a heteronormative culture that denies women masculinity. I, on the other hand, just can’t get my head around the idea of being a woman at all and never could. I may feel political solidarity with women, but not as a woman myself. But am I just being too literal? Feminism has taught us that we are not bound by our biology, and that a “woman” can be many things. So why not stretch the boundaries of what a woman, lady, girl, and Ma’am can be? Or why not, as many butches do, develop a sense of humor about these terms, acclimate oneself to being misgendered in language, because that is the lot of those who live in the in-between, then go home to friends and lovers who call us by our preferred terms?
And why is language such a big deal anyhow? Much of the masculine recognition I’ve been getting lately has been from people who don’t know my pronoun, just based on the way I present myself and my body. People stumble over what to call us gender ambiguous folk. And it seems o.k. to be called “Ma’am” if someone is choking as they say it. Sometimes I wonder if I could just take T until I was right on that border between female and male where pronouns and linguistic terms would become irrelevant, because no one would really believe it as they used female terms with me anyhow.
Some butches who go by “she,” I know, are not women. The two butches I know who are in this boat, however, have considered going by “he” and even tried it, but settled on “she” in a gesture of solidarity with other butches, with womyn’s cultures, and with lesbianism. They may not be women, but womyn’s culture is their culture. As a fag who was once a boi but was never a butch, I can’t feel this way. I recognize myself as an heir to the feminism, to lesbian culture, and to butches, as, in Bobby Noble’s words, a son of the movement, but I am not a part of womyn’s culture. My community is the queer community as a whole and the trans community more specifically, and my relation to feminism and to lesbian feminism, my speaking subject position when I write or teach, is that of a queer trans person.
Now things are becoming clearer. This is why it feels important to me to not teach Women’s Studies courses as a butch lesbian woman, because my relation to feminism and to lesbianism is not that of a butch lesbian woman. At the same time, it feels important to me to assert a queer trans connection to and critique of feminism and lesbian feminism. We are Sons of the Movement, and feminism must contend with us, just as we must contend with feminism. My male-pronouned body teaching Women’s Studies courses, I hope, will make this statement, both to young women and to young trans men unsure of feminism’s relevance to them.
The clincher is that I will also be teaching French language courses. French is an extremely gendered language, so it isn’t just a matter of going by “il” or “elle,” it’s a matter of feminizing myself with every single adjective, saying “Je suis surprise!” – “I am (a) surprised (lady)!” – or “Je suis intelligente.” – “I am (an) intelligent (woman).” Moreover, students frequently refer to their female French professors as both “Professeur” and as “Madame” and “Mademoiselle.” This I cannot handle.
I wish I didn’t have to feel so wounded and erased every time someone called me by a female term. But I do. I am getting to where I am o.k. with store clerks and other strangers calling me Ma’am on occasion. How could they know? Usually they see me as too gender ambiguous to be given any gendered terms at all, and sometimes I leave skipping in delight because someone has called me “buddy” or “Sir.” But being called female terms in the workplace and by people I knew felt incredibly wounding. The turning point, for me, was when a femme acquaintance said to me, “You’re a big girl now… a big boy now? I don’t know, you were introduced to me as ‘she’…” This made things feel simple. “He” is the signal, in language, that I want to be linguistically male. Or, as I told my feminist mentor, “he” is a linguistic shortcut. It allows me to not have to choose between engaging in the endless explanations – “You know, I don’t really identify as a woman,” “I prefer male gender terms,” “I actually am not a lesbian,” “I identify as a fag.” – and allowing people to make incorrect assumptions about me. In the end, it is simply the most accurate pronoun for me.