The spectacular freedom of embracing she/he/they pronouns

vector illustration on the theme of gender diversity, people with non-binary gender identity, transgender people. Hands of people of different races holding puzzle pieces with pronouns
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Updating my pronouns for the first time and telling my friends and family was challenging, but doing the same thing a second time nearly three years later felt even more daunting.

Nothing else about my identity has shifted, but I recently switched from using they/them exclusively to using they/she/he. I shared that anyone accustomed to they/them could keep their habits the same, as that was still my preference of the three, though I would no longer correct anyone if they used he/him or she/her.

I first came out as nonbinary in January 2021, following the quarantine era of COVID-19 that had many folks challenging elements of their identities. I personally found a lot of clarity during that time period: I was just coming into my true self and celebrating two years of sobriety from alcohol. During that time, I realized my alcoholism had severely hindered my ability to exist authentically in the way I needed to.

Gender presentation versus gender identity

In my first few months living as an out nonbinary person, I found myself trying to embrace gender neutral terminology while I figured out what I was really comfortable with. I staunchly rejected more masculine terms like “bro” or “man,” but I found I was pretty comfortable with anything more feminine.

There are still constraints on gender-neutral language, though. I remain an “uncle” to my sister’s children, because the newer phrase “pibling” (parent’s sibling) didn’t really sit right with me. I still prefer Mx. as a prefix over Mr. or Ms. — another fairly new, gender-neutral alternative.

Over time, like many others, I found that being nonbinary didn’t mean I had to reject all language and traits traditionally considered “binary.”

Nonbinary people have often joked about the broader perception of our gender, that the only way to be valid in our gender expression is to present as solely androgynous and in-between male and female. Of course, the broader trans community has rejected this notion, namely that gender expression does not have to equate with gender identity. This ideology is not only freeing for trans folks but for cisgender people as well.

I have a hard time talking about gender expression because, to me, it often feels arbitrary. Gender as a concept and our fixation on it often never made a lot of sense to me. The traits I have naturally that make me “masculine” — my jawline, my facial hair, my large head and broad shoulders — are human characteristics across sex and gender. Society sees a cis woman with these traits and calls her a “masculine woman.” Conversely, a man with a smaller frame and high cheekbones is a “feminine man,” when in reality these are just proof that we as humans can naturally display any number of traits. We’ve just taken it upon ourselves to label them in a binary fashion.

I don’t understand how we gender objects, like clothing, either. I feel like my style and the way I show up in the world is very all over, depending on the day, but I love pastels and patterns. I just happen to feel most comfortable in pants, shorts, and shirts. I often shop in women’s sections, but many of the dresses and blouses don’t fit my body. The skirts I own are cute, but they don’t have pockets, so I don’t wear them often.

 Even if my expression was blatantly feminine or androgynous, I bet most people would still box me into masculinity. But beyond that, I shouldn’t have to alter my expression for my gender identity to be respected.

Nothing to prove

My experience as a nonbinary person has been constant correction, which I know is the experience of many trans people — no matter how much they embody society’s “acceptable” expression of their gender. 

I have often told folks that I am nonbinary and use they/them pronouns, only for them to immediately use he/him for me. Service workers exclusively call me “sir” (and I never correct them, they’re just being polite and doing their job). I’ve come to terms with the reality that I am often going to be perceived as a man when I go out in public. 

As time has gone on, I also realized that, while I am naturally more in touch with my traits society deems feminine, I often don’t feel attached to gender as a concept at all.

One thing I can’t change is that I was raised as a boy. I am intimately familiar with men, as I desperately tried to fit inside that box most of my life. I was always nonbinary — my coming out provided a lot of clarity for the confusion of navigating my childhood and adolescence — but I can’t really erase that part of myself that still understands and resonates to some degree with masculinity, even though I am not a man. 

For me, the idea of gender abolition, eliminating or moving beyond gender as a whole, means that we should all embrace those innate parts of ourselves without them playing a key role in how we define our identities. We’re all masculine and feminine to varying degrees because, again, these are simply a spectrum of human traits we all carry.

Personally, it’s always felt affirming to embrace my more masculine traits in contrast to the feminine, a subversion of societal expectations in the way someone like me “should” show up in the world. 

Finding freedom

As time went on and folks relentlessly used the wrong pronouns for me, it began to sting less and less. 

I began telling people that my pronouns are they/them, but they can call me whatever they want — “man,” “bro,” “girl,” “queen,” “dude” — it didn’t matter. So many of these words are used in such broad contexts anyway, and while it’s important to use language that people are comfortable with, I’ve simply found that in the way I embody my gender, any and all apply to some degree.

They/them is still the most comfortable for me, though I’ve realized that I’m not sure any of the pronouns necessarily feel correct. When folks use she/her, it doesn’t exactly feel right, but it doesn’t feel wrong either. It’s affirming in the way that it validates my femininity, though I can’t imagine only using those pronouns. 

When I initially came out, he/him felt like recognition that I must be a man, a sort of reluctance to recognize my true self, but as I’ve grown more comfortable in my gender, I’ve started to feel similar about those pronouns — not quite correct, but not wrong either. I used those most of my life, they are what most people default to, and it now feels like it simply represents another facet of my identity.

For a while, I was hesitant to update my pronouns because it felt like I was letting those who consistently misgender me “win.”

I don’t feel that way anymore.

Rather, I see my use of all pronouns as giving myself permission to not to be so concerned with words, to embody it all in whatever way the world around me perceives. I know that is a privilege and that many trans people get a lot of dysphoria from certain pronouns. I did for a while, too.

My gender truly does feel all encompassing. It’s fluid, it’s masculine, it’s feminine, it’s all of it, it’s none of it. In that way, it started to feel more natural to me to simply accept any pronouns. I saw other trans folks who did the same and often envied that freedom. 

Ignoring the haters

It’s been a little over a month since I made the update, and I have noticed the palpable relief I feel any time someone uses he/him for me. There’s a relief to notice that the sting that was once there has now dissipated. I’m comfortable with the fact that those who are close to me and who deserve a place in my life understand my gender and how my use of any pronouns reflects it.

In the same way that I didn’t drastically alter my presentation to fit a standard of what nonbinary “should be,” I’ve realized that my gender isn’t contingent upon my use of pronouns or what terms I accept for myself.

I understand the hesitation in changing pronouns, namely because bigots may use updating pronouns or shifts in gender as ammunition, as if it somehow proves fraudulence of trans identity as a whole. “What will it look like if I change my pronouns after I already did?”

This very narrow-minded thought process ignores how complex humans are, how we are always growing, and how our identities can and do change over time with our experiences. There are a lot of things about myself when I first came out in 2021 that are no longer true, as I constantly seek growth and evolution. New experiences often open up doors that show me more about who I am and the person I am becoming.

I’ve always touted that we should give ourselves the grace to venture out and explore new parts of ourselves, and this year, I finally did that. I understand my gender so much more intimately than when I first came out, and I’m sure I will have an even better understanding as I continue to explore who I am. While I don’t see my pronouns shifting again, I give myself the grace to know that it’s absolutely okay if they do. 

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