There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Question

In my role as a public school teacher, the idea that there’s no such thing as a stupid question is something akin to a golden rule. It’s one of those golden rules that I have internalized totally and applies to pretty much every facet of my life. There is nothing that makes me more uncomfortable as when people make assumptions or believe untrue things instead of just asking questions.

Extroverts (like me) love talking about themselves, it’s human nature to want to foster connection with your fellow human beings. Ask me anything — like reddit come to life. I am a highly therapized individual who wants to be critical of myself. I want to know why I behave the way I do, and what experiences have had a hand in crafting the bad-ass self I inhabit today. Of course, there are limits and questions I don’t answer, but I still appreciate every question as a prompt to grow.

Ever since I came out as trans, I have found a sharp decrease in the number of individuals — family members, friends, colleagues, etc — willing to ask me anything. People seem to think that my transness has somehow rendered me too delicate to touch, like Edward Scissorhands and his poor water bed. People speak around me in whispers as if I have become a butterfly whose wings will snap if gazed at for too long.

This is, as you might imagine, incredibly frustrating.

I understand that gender can be both confusing — frustratingly so — and precarious for cis people. If you’ve never had to think about gender, consider its nooks and crevices, interrogate its rules and caprice, or reckon with its influence and impact on day-to-day life, suddenly being launched out of the airlock of cis-normativity can be quite traumatic. Think about how difficult it is for trans people! Ignorance is in fact not bliss and you can save yourself and your trans acquaintances a lot of trouble by doing a little bit of self-education and reflection before giving up and whispering about them behind their backs. I also understand that many trans people do not appreciate being interrogated or asked to perform the emotional labor of educating strangers, but I am not one of those trans people. Educator is in my DNA, after all.

What follows are the answers to the questions that have been whispered in my orbit. Hopefully some of your questions will be answered here as well. (If not, please leave a private comment or reach out to me directly and I’ll address them in a future installment of this).

1. Aren’t sex and gender the same thing?

No.

Contrary to popular belief, biological sex is not -just- chromosomes. It is the perceived alignment between chromosomes (some common combinations include XX, XY, XXY, XXX, and X), hormone balance (notably testosterone and estrogen/progesterone), gonads/genitals, and secondary sex characteristics.

Gender, on the other hand, is the socially constructed understanding of the expectations that come with perceived biological sex. Gender has no basis in biology.

2. Oh, then what is gender, then?

Gender is a complex array of feelings, behavior, expression, perception of the self, desired perception from others, social roles, among other nebulous factors. Cultures from around the world and across time have determined their own gender identities that corresponded with various biological sexes or presentations. In modern western culture, the most common gender identities are man and woman.

Some people — most people, really — are cisgender. This means they identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. (Ex. a person born with XX chromosomes, a uterus, vagina, and breasts identifying as a woman would be considered cisgender).

Those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth fall under the large and (often) welcoming umbrella of transgender. The term ‘transgender’ is not in and of itself a gender identity. It’s an adjective meaning that there is an incongruence between assigned gender and gender identity. There are many rich identities that exist under this umbrella:

A. Man and woman — binary genders — yes, the genders you’re already familiar with — exist under the trans umbrella. Trans men were assigned female at birth but are men. Trans women were assigned male at birth but are women. These individuals are not “in disguise” or crossdressing. Many take steps to medically transition so that their outward appearance is more congruent with their gender identities.

B. Nonbinary/Genderqueer/Third Gender/Agender — These are all slightly different terms that live in the same part of the Venn diagram of gender. Nonbinary is its own umbrella term denoting an identity outside of the man-woman binary. Nonbinary individuals may identify with a third gender or no gender at all. This is where I live!

C. Gender fluid/Bigender- Individuals that fall into this category have multiple gender identities. Genderfluid individuals identify with two or more gender identities at different points. Some move between binary genders or between a binary and nonbinary gender. (Example: someone assigned female at birth identifies sometimes as a woman and sometimes as a man). Bigender individuals always identify with two identities (man and woman, wo/man and nonbinary) at the same time.

3. Queer? Oh! So you’re gay?

No.

Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same thing. Gender identity is all about how the individual identifies without reference to other people. You know what your identity is, whether you’ve thought about it much or not.

Sexual orientation is all about the gender of people an individual may be *attracted* to, either sexually or romantically.

Some trans and nonbinary individuals are gay. Many are not.

4. What is your specific gender identity?

As shorthand, I’m nonbinary. I identify outside of the traditional western gender binary.

Digging in a little bit deeper, I am transmasculine and agender. All this means is that I do not have a gender — much too ethereal for that — but that my presentation and embodiment is moving AWAY from the expectation of femininity I was assigned at birth and TOWARD a more masculine presentation. What this means in practice is that I am approaching androgyny.

Medical transition can take many forms for trans people of all identities, and can sometimes include things like hormones and surgery. Don’t ask about them. That’s a conversation for an individual and their doctor. I am, myself, beginning some form of medical transition, but those details are private. Being an open book doesn’t mean foregoing all boundaries, after all.

5. What is your specific sexual orientation? How does gender impact sexuality?

I got into the second part of this question a little bit before, but gender has a pretty significant impact on sexual orientation labels. Firstly, it’s important to note that the language we use to describe sexual orientation is cissexist and created with a binary gender system. Being heterosexual or homosexual when you identify as nonbinary is pretty fraught. These labels are mutable and depend on personal preference more than anything.

I personally identify as bisexual, although common definitions of the term “pansexual” also apply to me. I have been using the term bisexual my whole life and that’s really the only real reason I prefer it over pan. I am attracted to beautiful humans with no regard for gender or genitalia.

6. What are pronouns and how do I use them? (Also what are yours?)

Bear with my English teacher nature here, but pronouns are a primary building block of language. They are used to stand in for nouns when you don’t want to name that noun over and over again in writing or speech. We use them all the time, often without realizing it. We refer to our coffee mugs as ‘it,’ our dogs as ‘she,’ and each other with whatever pronoun aligns with the gender we clock them as. The problem with this is that it causes us to assume someone’s gender. This is why you’ve seen so many people add their pronouns to their profiles on social media and in their email signatures. Normalizing proliferating pronouns BEFORE an uncomfortable interaction saves trans people so much agita. It may be difficult for you, at first, to avoid making gendered assumptions about other people, but it’s really important. Imagine you were referred to as a set of pronouns other than the one you typically use. Pretty uncomfortable, actually.

The most common pronouns are he/him; she/her; and they/them. There are other combinations and entirely new constructions, but that’s a gender 201 lesson for another day.

My pronouns are they/them. I am not tied to them as the most true and accurate representation for myself, but I don’t think more accurate pronouns exist yet.

Before you even start with the “they is plural” argument, stop. They/them has been used as a singular pronoun since at least the sixteenth century. Ya boy Shakespeare used it. You probably use it on a regular basis without even realizing it. Consider the following example:

“Oh no! Someone left THEIR wallet on this table.”

It’s one wallet. It belongs, ostensibly, to one individual. You can’t gender them because you can’t see them, so you default to they without even thinking about it. Get comfortable NOT gendering people, and you’re golden.

How to use they/them pronouns:

THEIR name is Topher. THEY are in constant mourning that THEY are ineligible to be an astronaut. THEIR favorite franchise is Star Trek. Qa’plah, bitches.

7. What is gendered language? How does it relate to trans people and how can I be more mindful of it?

People use gendered language every day. It is a mode of reinforcing the cultural expectation of gendered dichotomies. How many times have you sat in on a speech or presentation in which the speaker began with “ladies and gentlemen?” How many of those times were the genders of audience members relevant? Not often, right? Gendered language is cultural and is very difficult to unlearn. It will take practice.

Using terms like “ladies,” “guys,” “dudes,” “ladies and gentlemen,” “sis,” “bro,” and others in everyday speech, particularly around individuals with whom you are not wholly familiar, can be distressing and invalidating. All people react to terms like this differently, so check with your audiences before you use them. Better ways to address large groups include: “y’all,” “you,” “friends,” “colleagues,” and other genderless terms.

The more difficult adjustment often comes with modifying gendered relationship terms. If you have a nonbinary individual in your life (or binary trans person and you’re switching terms), you should be mindful of the way you relate to them. Your daughter could become your son (masc) or child (neutral). Your brother could become your sister (femme) or sibling (neutral). Remember that when the trans person in your life asks you to stop using a particular term to describe them, it is a reflection of their identity and not a reflection on their relationship to you in particular.

TL;DR: The author is a transmasculine agender nonbinary individual who uses they/them pronouns and is taking steps to masculinize their appearance to approach androgyny. Sex and gender are different. Not all trans people are gay. The way we talk about sexual orientation is cissexist. Use correct pronouns (they/them counts. If you have a problem with that, take it up with Billy Shakes). Avoid gendered language. Be respectful and ASK QUESTIONS when you are confused. Assumptions are worse than ignorance. I’m your resident trans enby. I’m always here to answer your questions.

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(he/they) Queer, educator, city kid. Writer of words, questioner of social norms, collector of degrees, lovechild of Captain Janeway and Q

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Topher Bigelow

Topher Bigelow

(he/they) Queer, educator, city kid. Writer of words, questioner of social norms, collector of degrees, lovechild of Captain Janeway and Q

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