On Loving Someone Who Uses They/Them Pronouns
I have been known to eat brown, wilting salad at a restaurant — god forbid I burden the server with assisting me in my effort not to eat rotten food. When a discussion about politics turns tense or someone says something offensive, my heart pounds and my palms sweat with terror that I may be compelled to speak up.
I really, really hate confrontation.
And yet I am learning to get comfortable with it. I have to. About a year and a half ago, I began dating a wonderful human who is nonbinary. Amber is not afraid of confrontation because they don’t have the luxury of being so. A lifetime of explaining yourself to people and assessing the threat level in various situations is a surefire way to strengthen your confrontation muscle.
But though Amber is skilled at confronting ignorance and disarming people with their superhuman charm, I know that moving through life in a world where so few people understand you is exhausting. To some of the worst people, Amber’s very existence is an affront. To some of the best people, Amber’s existence comes with a learning curve. For transgender people, but especially for trans folks whose gender presentation doesn’t fit in the binary, explaining your identity — and often, defending it — can feel like a full-time job.
As Amber’s partner, part of loving them means clearing a path for them when needed. I have to get comfortable being uncomfortable and making others uncomfortable. I need to embrace necessary confrontation, especially with my friends and family. I would never bring Amber into a situation where I hadn’t laid the path to ensure that anyone I’m introducing them to has some education about what nonbinary means and how to use they/them pronouns. I don’t want to ever unwittingly expose Amber to bigotry because I didn’t do that work. Obviously, we are going to experience a certain level of bigotry in our lives just by virtue of being who we are. But as Amber’s partner, I can’t leave them to face bigotry alone, and I damn sure won’t let anyone in my family or social circle hurt Amber.
For anyone who loves a transgender person, educating those around us is obligatory. This applies even more so with nonbinary folks who use they/them or other gender neutral pronouns because those whose gender lies outside of the binary tend to be the most misunderstood. This need to educate applies to partners, of course, but it applies to other relationships too — parents, family members, friends. If you love a nonbinary person in any capacity, you have to be willing to go to bat for them, even if you’re afraid of what people might say or think. Even if confrontation makes you sweaty.
For parents, this may mean defending your child’s pronouns and right to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with or the bathroom where they feel most comfortable, or even advocating for gender neutral bathrooms. For friends, it may mean correcting pronouns when mutual acquaintances forget. For partners, it may mean cutting out family members who can’t refrain from dropping bigoted comments or who refuse to do the work to use correct name and pronouns.
As cis people who love a nonbinary person, we need to be very comfortable explaining they/them pronouns to people who are new to the idea or reluctant to accept it. For many, they’re simply in need of a grammar lesson. “But ‘they/them’ is plural!” is a refrain we hear often. I use the backpack-left-on-a-bench example to squelch this idea. It goes like this: “Someone left their backpack on this bench. I hope they come back and get it. I’ll stay and hang onto it for them so no one else takes it.” This example quickly illustrates how we already use singular they/them pronouns for gender-nonbinary situations. I’ve used this explanation more times than I can count, and it’s great for creating a lightbulb moment for folks who are struggling to understand.
Of course, you will face people who are determined not to understand. You will face rejection, mockery, and hatred. If this scares you, I’m sorry, but you are just going to have to toughen up. Any discomfort we may feel as a cis person who loves a nonbinary person pales in comparison to what our nonbinary loved one may feel having to defend their identity on a daily basis. Everyone should be an ally, but if you love a nonbinary person, this is absolutely non-negotiable. You have to be willing to gently correct people who misgender your loved one, and you have to be willing to cut people out of your life when they refuse to accept. You have to be willing to bulldoze a path with friends and family, explaining in advance how you expect them to behave and making it clear that your loved one’s identity is not something they get to negotiate or second-guess. I tell loved ones that it is totally okay not to “get it” right away. I just need a promise that they are committed to trying.
This new layer of effort may feel daunting. You may still be working on getting used to new pronouns yourself, which, yes, takes extra effort and mental energy. (I promise, the correct pronouns do eventually begin to spill out effortlessly!)
Of course, ultimately, the transgender person you love must be your primary go-to for how best to support them, regardless of with which gender they identify. Amber certainly isn’t afraid to stand up for themself or explain gender identity, but they appreciate it that I explain to and “train” my friends and family in advance of interacting with them (via social media and video calls, because COVID) so they don’t have to do that extra, often exhausting work. Some transgender folks may prefer to do all their own talking. And sometimes the best support we can offer is to accept that our loved one doesn’t want to be around specific people or attend certain events — sometimes it’s just too emotionally taxing for them to know they will be misgendered, even if by accident. We have to give the support our loved one needs in the moment.
Nonbinary people are some of the best people on the planet — if you love a nonbinary person, you already know this. It is a privilege to love a nonbinary person, but along with that privilege comes a responsibility to be more than an ally. The world has a long way to go to understanding and accepting this incredible group of people. Until we get to that point, we, the cis people who love them, have to do our part to support, educate, and, when necessary, defend.
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