Here’s something that happened to me last month: I got asked my preferred gender pronoun.
For those who aren’t familiar, this is a thing that tends to happen a lot at queer-positive conferences and gatherings these days. When you go around the room at the beginning of a session, you’ll say your name, something about yourself, maybe answer an ice-breaker question, and state your preferred gender pronoun. It can be he/him, she/her, they/their, or one of the newer invented substitutes like ze or hir. Or you can say you’d prefer to be referred to by your name.
I first encountered this tradition in 2011, I think. Maybe 2010. Most likely it was at a United States Student Association conference. The idea behind it is that respecting people’s gender identity is important, and volunteering your identity can be awkward, and misgendering someone is hurtful. So rather than guessing, or asking individual people to speak up if their preferences are non-standard or non-obvious, you just go around the room.
So I’ve been asked my preferred gender pronoun before. But this was different. This was at a party. In a one-on-one conversation.
It was the middle of the evening, and I’d been chatting with someone — a college student — for ten or fifteen minutes, over by the snacks. And at some point, as an aside, like asking me what borough I lived in, they asked what my preferred gender pronoun was.
I’m six foot three. I have short hair. That night I was wearing jeans and a button-down, and I don’t think I’d shaved. The question wasn’t about my self-presentation, is what I’m saying. It wasn’t specifically about me at all. It was about a new way of interacting, a new way of thinking that is on its way to becoming ubiquitous among young people — and far quicker than I could ever have imagined.
Every few months, doing the kind of work I do, I encounter another artifact of this sort of change. It can be a little discombobulating. But when I told this story to a friend a few days ago, and he rolled his eyes, I surprised myself a little with the vehemence of my response.
Because it was actually a great question that I was asked that night. It was an exciting question. I’m a “he.” I’ve always thought of myself as a he, and I expect I always will. I’m a man, I’m a guy, I’m a dad, I’m a son, I’m a brother.
But in that moment, I got to choose. I was asked to choose, asked to pick whether for the duration of that conversation I wanted to be approached as a he or as something else. And I knew that whatever answer I gave, it would be honored, respected, taken seriously. And that recognition, far more than any of the rote rounds of he/she/they/ze responses I’ve seen given at the start of workshops, opened something up in me. It wasn’t a door — at least not a door I was tempted to walk through — but it was a window.
And I liked the view.