When They See They

My youngest offspring is, to the best of my knowledge based on conversations and open dialogue, a cisgendered White heterosexual male adolescent. When he started a new high school and I asked about reinventing himself, his immediate response was “The only thing I change about me is my hair.” A vibrant mix of hottie pink and radiant orchid at the moment, his dyed hair changes its hue on the regular. He takes pride in having fabulous shoulder length hair, enduring regular trims so bleaching does minimal damage. With porcelain skin, a square jawline, and a dash of freckles, he is, objectively, beautiful.  

He might check the box of a cisgendered White heterosexual male, but he doesn’t fit into that box.  He doesn’t identify as trans or nonbinary but he rarely corrects people who mis-identify him because, as he describes it, there’s nothing wrong with being trans. He happily accepts gendered putdowns and the occasional side-eye, by-products from challenging Western society’s take on heteronormativity. 

When faced with "toxic masculinity," he keeps a stiff upper lip. His lips, rose petal pink, contort into a grimace when adults confront him to say he is not welcome to use the men’s room. His grey-blue eyes roll when he is called little lady and he quickly misgenders traditionalists in a humorous retort. He doesn’t shout “I’m a BOY!” because, as a self-described feminist, he refrains from put-downs on the basis of sex or gender alone. And correcting people doesn’t work when they walk away, whispering loudly, “she thinks she’s a boy!” 

He does not refrain from sarcasm and well-timed insults. He curses with shocking clarity, yet shies away from “b-words” as it is derogatory towards women. Shortly after toddlerhood, he convinced us that he was allowed to curse on vacations. He won an impromptu cursing contest with the unforgettable phrase “queefing endometrium”. By the time he entered elementary school, he had mocked up a list of age-appropriate curse words that he earned on each birthday until the pinnacle of the age-16 f-bomb. He then negotiated to be awarded the f-bomb a year early because, you know, he’s mature.

Small for his age, his cursing portrays the well-honed skill and talent of a middle-aged pirate. He intersperses biologically accurate anatomy terms and sophisticated sarcasm with solid, biting declarations to STFU. Often accompanied with flipping the bird, it would be jarring if it didn’t flow so seamlessly from those rose petal pink lips of his. Wrapped in mischievous adorableness, his dry, droll humor skirts across the borderline of sweet offensive. 

His grandmother, my mother, does not curse well. Don’t bother, he tells her, as she trips over monosyllables like a knock-knock joke that wouldn’t land in an audience of kindergarteners sugar-rushing on kool-aid and krispy kremes. His grandmother gets right to the edge of cringe, but even bad dad-jokes get a groan. She earns a slow apologetic sigh and a ‘bless her heart’. 

My mother pauses slightly before uttering an awkward four-lettered interjection; the hesitation communicates an intentional attempt at thoughtlessness. My son’s experience is similarly awkward when people use pronouns. It’s the He that is emphasized a little too loudly; the othering pause before They; the quizzical questioning She? The hesitation communicates an intentional attempt at thoughtfulness. Efforts at inclusive language come off as, well, effortful.

Don’t bother, my son tells seemingly well-meaning adults, until very recently. We both caught the skill and cadence of experience in a conversation at a bike shop. As polished as my son says “don’t get all butthurt”, the words rolled smoothly from the employee’s mouth, “what do you think they’d like?” My son’s rose petal lips curled into a smile and whispered “did you catch that?” 

They said ‘they’ as though they always referred to customers, regardless of gender, as they. They also referred to my husband and I with neutral pronouns because why wouldn’t they? It was seamless and smooth. It was practiced in its spontaneity, the way that a good callback makes a joke land perfectly. It was practiced before that moment. It communicated comfort and familiarity with pronouns that reflected the skill that my offspring expressed within days of each birthday’s curse word. 

I’m not cursing here, in writing. It would be forced humor and I’m already turning into my mother in more ways than I care to admit. I could substitute other words, like Holy Mother Forking Shirt balls, but they’re dad-jokes not mom-jokes. I know my role.

My pronouns are she/her. I’ve been singled out as a woman and discriminated against on the basis of sex and gender. There is no birthday for when the C-word becomes acceptable or mature; yet I know I’ve been called that, in jest and in earnest. My child is a feminist because, in part, they’ve experienced me and my husband going through gender and sex-based prejudice. 

I don’t lead with my pronouns on my signature line because I don’t want to force people in the process of transitioning to be put into the non-cis box (or the cis- box). But I’m going to take a cue from my foul-mouthed radiant orchid and I’m going to practice They. With everyone. Until it is spontaneous and smooth. Until I communicate a comfort in interacting with people in a way that doesn’t lead at the outset with my identification of their presumed gender and societal roles. Until it lands without othering folks. And if anyone has a problem with that, they can STFU.

Dr. Elizabeth Shirtcliff is the incoming Editor in Chief of Psychoneuroendocrinology and a Research Professor in the Center for Translational Neuroscience at the University of Oregon. Despite the given name of Elizabeth, Dr. Shirtcliff has been called Birdie since infancy or toddlerhood (no one really remembers) and this self-selected nickname is an integral piece to her identity. Dr. Shirtcliff can be reached at [email protected].

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