When I came out to my mom as a non-binary trans person, she asked me, “What do you want?” and I struggled to answer. I’d spent the previous 6 weeks up and down the state of California, living out of a backpack, running ALF summers and traveling openly with my new pronouns; I’d been avoiding this conversation with her but was relieved to finally be having it. It’s such a simple question, yet so powerful. It’s a cornerstone of self-directed education.
“What do you want?” my mom asked me, her voice small and far away. The knot in my stomach was familiar. My fear, my avoidance, was familiar.
“I want a coffee,” I said, deferring. “I want world peace.”
“Really?” she asked. “That’s what you want?”
I got mispronouned a lot this summer. I’m making a distinction between misgendering and mispronouning because I want to acknowledge that it was, for the vast majority, an accidental slip of language and not a malicious erasure of my gender identity. It wasn’t surprising – from the beginning, when I started coming out to people as non-binary and asking them to use “they/them” instead of “she/her” pronouns when they spoke about me, the most common response I got was “I’m totally gonna try, just bear with me because it’s really hard.”
And I did – the conflict-averse part of myself, the bit that was ashamed and afraid of taking up too much space assured them that it was okay, that it just meant a lot to me that they were willing to try.
I made that assurance because I felt shame about having desires, about taking up space. I felt shame that what I wanted was not what white, western, capitalist, heteronormative US society told me that I wanted – that I forfeited some of my privileges as a middle-class, college-educated, english-speaking, white, cisgender female US citizen to be a radical transgender unschooler. I felt shame. I feel shame. The system wants me to feel it – requires me to feel it in order to maintain its coercive power over us. I was prepared to have grace for it to be hard for other people because it was hard for me.
The thing that started happening, though, was that people didn’t try. That people continued to breeze past pronouns with no concern for their power or the harm it might cause me. I got misprounouned with disappointing frequency by people I had been radically vulnerable with. Once, I read aloud a free write that said, “I feel frustrated that people are still mispronouning me even though I know they’re well-meaning.” I was in a roomful of people I’d already spent a week with, who shifted uncomfortably at hearing my frustration. I couldn’t meet the eyes of anyone in the room because it felt like an accusation and a claim to space that I didn’t deserve. Not half an hour later, I played a game with two people from that free write who called me “she” the whole time.
Sometimes I would catch them – “they, not she,” I would say – and they wouldn’t even hear their mistake but would continue blithely on talking about me. Sometimes I would catch them and they would turn into an avalanche of apology – “oh my gosh, I’m so, so, so, so, so sorry, it’s just so hard for me, you just have to bear with me I’ve never encountered this before and it’s all so new” and in my head the shame siren would blare: you’re wrong you’re bad your body is wrong you’re too hard you’re wrong.
Sometimes I would just be quiet.
When I finally sat down with my mother’s question, days after she’d asked it, I realized my essential answer was tripart:
- I want to feel comfortable, powerful and valid, in my body and my self expression.
- I want to feel loved and supported by the people I love and support.
- I want people to use “they/them” pronouns with fluidity and consistency when they talk about me.
This is the third place I’ve written these wants, and the most public. I feel them growing in power each time I articulate them. I feel myself growing in power each time I articulate what I want.
The thing about coming out is that you’re never done doing it. I know this, intellectually. I’d had some experience with it previously, when I came out as gay and spent several years navigating the world of “well what does your boyfriend think of your haircut” and other heteronormative nonsense — an alarming number of male barbers feel emboldened to ask you this question as they hold a razor to your skull.
I have grace for the people who mispronoun me, I do, I swear. But I need us to do better. And not just because I’m tired of having the same conversation (though I am) but because I’m tired of having the same conversation in ALC-land, where we’re supposed to be free, empathetic, understanding, imaginative humans raising free, empathetic, understanding, imaginative children. If self-directed learning is about asking the question “what do you want?” and meaning it, we have to do better when the real answer to that question requires us to do a hard thing.
Yes, it’s hard to hear pronouns. Our brains are amazing – they are so efficient that they effectively edit out the the parts of speech that we use most commonly. It’s why you probably didn’t realize that the word “the” is doubled in the previous sentence: your brain skipped it. Amazing.
It’s hard to do things that require us to make new neural pathways or to see things that were previously invisibilized to us. Privilege, intersections, toxic cultural stereotypes – it is work to see the places that we’re unconsciously holding poisons, without shame or defensiveness or our egos rearing up to say “I’m not a bad person, I’m trying!”
As facilitators, it’s our job to make spaces safe for children. Non-binary children, trans children, children living at all kind of intersections of privilege that are outside of our experience. Some of those children will ask us to do hard things – they will offer the miraculous radical vulnerability of children – and it is our responsibility to get it right. It is not enough to say I’m trying.
Only I am living this. Only I get to say what it feels like. Only I get to answer the question “what do you want?”
the only way of living this is in relationship. I am in relationship with you. I want you to use they/them/theirs when you speak about me: They were traveling all summer. I talked to them the other day. Sounds like their trip was pretty wild.
California is on fire. Nearly everywhere I went in the state, I could smell smoke on the air. Some mornings, we would come outside and the car would be covered in ash. The locals were nonchalant about it, but it disturbed me deeply. I began to have nightmares about fire: rescuing children from it, needing to warn people who didn’t notice it was coming.
Our political system, our courts, our educational institutions, our state are on fire. They are actively destroying to everything in their path. It is not enough to notice a harmful thing and to walk away from it. It isn’t. Not if you’re not willing to shift your gaze to yourself and see the ways that the system has broken you. If not, you’re just carrying the spark of that flame with you, you’re going to set someone else ablaze. Probably someone with less privilege than you. Possibly a child you’re responsible to.
Children tend to be less attached to gender than adults are, and I think it’s important to note. If gender is constructed, like currency, on the mutual agreement of its value rather than something tangible, then it can be destabilized by our refusal to believe in it. As a person who occupies the spaces between genders – who was raised a girl and grew up to be something more complicated than “woman” and less certain than “man” – I dream of destabilizing the gender binary. I think raising free people means raising people who see the assigning of gender categories to be just that – a linguistic tic, a trope of our speech – rather than something essential. I like to think that my presence as an out and outspoken non-binary facilitator will be helpful to some children as they come into awareness of gender. I hope so.
What I really want is to break systems of oppression. What I really want is for children inherit a world that is better than this one. What I really want is for them to grow up comfortable in their most radical wantings, to believe their impossible dreams.
I want world peace, but first I have to get comfortable with wanting.