The other night I was at a poetry open mic billed as a “safe space” for the LGBTQAII community. As per the norm in such spaces, the host was asking each person who signed up what their preferred pronouns were. This has become common practice in a lot of queer and sex positive spaces.
I gave her my honest answer, “I don’t care.” My partner was in line behind me to sign up. The host asked him the same question. He replied “male” but after walking away, said he was very offended by the question. He asked, “can’t she tell I am a man?”
This reaction could be written off as a heterosexual bucking at having their privilege challenged. However, as he and I talked about it, several additional issues came up beyond hetero norms. Here is where intersectionality make things complex.
My partner is a heterosexual, cis- Black man. He is very conscious of how people react to his presence. At six foot two, normally sporting a salt and pepper build, and arms and a chest that reflect his dedication to PT years after leaving the army, he reads “Male.” He wears men’s clothes. He has a closely shaved head. One would be hard pressed to argue he doesn’t read “male” by cultural standards.
As a Black man, his sexuality is a constant point of question and criticism in the public realm. This is not aided by dating someone who writes about sexuality and performs naked in public. People assume a lot about my man’s sexuality and prowess. His dick size is in constant conversation by people who will never sleep with him. And, as a typical, masculine Black man, his sexuality can be seen as a threat.
He also experiences the other side of American racism and sexuality by people emasculating him. He has been called a “pussy.” He sees how the culture at large likes to feminize and neuter Black man. Misgendering Black men is a common way to put them down and insult them.
So, I started to think about spaces where we ask for gender pronouns and how that might affect different groups. Asian men and Hispanic men experience similar public attitudes toward their gender and sexuality as Black men do. Asian men in particular are feminized and their sexuality is neutered in almost all American mainstream media. The fact that Aziz Ansari’s decision to cast a Chinese man as a romantic lead and he, as an Indian man, engaged in romantic scenes on screen in 2016 was seen as revolutionary tells you how long Asian men have been denied public recognition of their gender and sexuality.
On the flip side, Black women are often misgendered as a way of insult. There are millions of Tweets and memes calling Michelle Obama and “man” and mocking her fit body. Republicans, lacking anything of substance to criticize, often attacked her for wearing sleeveless gowns and showing off her amazing arms. They then attacked the President by implying he was gay and dating a man. This, of course, is where gender, sexuality, and race intersect to really boost up the public insults.
This leads me to the question, how to we honor trans and other non-binary people’s desire to be properly gendered and not demean POC’s gender and sexuality at the same time. Do we ask POC who are cis and hetero to accept the new way of establishing gender and not address the fact that misgendering them has been a cultural way of stripping them of power for centuries? Do we ask trans folks to continue to accept that they may be misgendered and will have to correct people- thus facing confrontations when they do simple things like order a morning coffee or pick up dry cleaning?
Neither seems like an acceptable answer.
Here is where I am out of my depth in personal experience. I don’t give a crap how you gender me. I have been called “Ma’am,” “Sir” “Miss” and, “They.” None of those are technically correct because none recognize a truly agender identity. However, the bonus of being agender is I simply don’t care. I respond to all of them and it never makes me feel bad about being read as one gender or another. That is where I differ from my trans brothers and sisters. I know being misgendered can be very painful. I want to respect that.
I am also White. I have the privilege which comes with that. And, as a person who has spoken open about my sexuality and gender for more than two decades I accept that my sex life, my sexuality, and my body is subject to public commentary and all the bullshit that comes with that. I have no idea what it is like to be a POC and have something so private become a point of public contention and used against me because of my race.
We are not having the conversation about pronouns in the context of gender, sexual orientation, race, and culture. Having this conversation means actually beginning to grasp how intersectionality works and not just defaulting to “White men magically have no issues so should accommodate everyone else.”
This is where is comes down to you, dear readers. I don’t know the answer. I don’t think one person will have “the” answer. I do think it is a worthwhile conversation. Please weigh in below in the comments. I will respond and make sure your’s posts, regardless of my personal level of agreement with your analysis.