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Pronouns as a Method to Fuck With People’s Minds

June 23, 2010

A few months ago, I asked the people I live with to use he/him/his in reference to me, as an experiment. To see what it felt like, and to make space for my unexpressed masculinity.

For some people it was like, “What.” And for others it was like, “What a fascinating challenge for my awareness of speech patterns.” It seriously fucked with people’s brains, even if they were open to it.

But as a result, something interesting came to light.

People where I live don’t use pronouns much. When the person is present, they use names, and when someone isn’t present people usually don’t talk about them. So several people found themselves making up sentences they wouldn’t have spoken otherwise to work in a distinctly emphasized ‘his’ for me.

Which made me really curious to know what other people who change pronouns go through. My impression was that for some people it’s like a rite of passage, but in my case it’s practically inapplicable. People still go with the default she/her/hers half the time out of habit, which doesn’t really bother me as I’m a woman too, but I appreciate the consciousness when people do use the he/him/his.

In a lot of ways the unexpected gender exploration has eclipsed my sexual exploration, because I sexually express myself to others very rarely, and I express my gender to others every day. A lot of people I live with have a concept of sex=gender but allow that gender can be fluid along a spectrum of masculine and feminine. For instance, this system acknowledges feminine men and masculine women, based on attributing certain traits as one or the other. This concept doesn’t describe my experience, though, and to me it feels very two dimensional.

For a while I would get upset when people would try to describe me in this way, because it’s not how I conceive myself and I felt threatened that it seemed that they did. It’s been a struggle for me to step back and acknowledge that their conception of gender is just as valid as mine, and that it’s not a reflection of my experience, but their conception of their own gender. It’s not that they’re trying to shove me in a box, it’s that they are describing their own experience. One thing that really helped me reconcile the conflict I was feeling was when I visited some family, and the easiest way I was able to approach the subject was “I’m exploring my masculinity.” And suddenly just with those words a lot of my tension/angst around the terminology floated away.

I think it confuses some people that I’m doing all this gender stuff when my behavior has not changed, and by default they saw me as female-woman-feminine (and I didn’t understand myself enough to articulate differently). I dress the same, and I feel no urge or desire to actively present as masculine, though I would like to play with it. As a general rule I thinks pants are an abomination because it hurts to wear them, and I only do when the occasional absolutely demands it (walking through stinging thorns, for instance). Also, more men in human history have worn skirts than have not. Looking at gender fluidity and ambiguity in hunter-gather and other indigenous peoples, some people dressed in the clothes of their identified gender, some in the clothes of their biological sex, and some in a mixture of both.

Wewha, a famous Zuni lhamana (male body, mixed gender role). I think she wore exclusively feminine clothes, but on her death was dressed in men's breeches with woman's clothes

On the other hand neither have I thrown myself into traditionally (traditionally as in hunter-gatherers) masculine pursuits, even those that I’ve always been drawn to but haven’t allowed myself to embrace because I internalized “You’ll never be able to do it as good as the boys.” I can understand why the people I live with would not understand what being masculine/man identified means for me, as I’m not really sure either. It’s coalescing, very slowly. Sometimes with contradictions and backtracking.

For the moment communal acknowledgment of my gender sometimes looks like this:

A minivan pulls up to me as I walk on the side of the road. A window rolls down.

“I hear you were looking at my girlfriend last night.” (He doesn’t have one.)

“You know, I want to say something scandalous, but I can’t think of anything right now.”

“You say you wanna FIGHT?!?”

“Dude, you don’t wanna mess with me.”

*crazy frat-boy-gesture-scream*

*mini-van zooms away*

Or, alternatively, being referred to as “Your Manliness.”

Baby-steps, for all of us.

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