this past week i had my first day of school — the first in a long time. and no matter how old you are, the first day always takes you back to childhood. you’re stepping into a space with new peers and mentors who will become significant to your life, and you’re making a first impression: with your behavior, your talent, your intelligence, your looks — and the words you use to define yourself.
my first day was like any first day of school, but it was also different: it was the only first day of school i’ve had since i began publicly identifying myself as non-binary.
what is identity? the etymological dictionary tells us that the word comes from the latin root idem, or “the same,” which stems from id — “it, that one” — from PIE stem *i (yon). i have an obsession with etymology — i find it the best way to uncover what a word — and therefore a shared concept — really means. so in this case the word root tells us that identity is really about sameness — that we use words that describe identity to delineate what is the same about you and me: what is true for both of us.
but a side effect of being human, it seems, is that the words we created to describe sameness end up being used to delineate difference — used not only to define what is us, but what is them. words of identity carve power lines between us, and no words have created more difference than the words we use to describe gender. some others come close — but oppression related to gender and sexual orientation cross lines of geography, race, and religion.
why? because straight men in power throughout history have perceived anyone who doesn’t identify as a straight man as so different that we are less human.
i still remember understanding by the time i was eleven that the boys in my class were perceiving me not as human, but as female, and that my worth was defined by my desirability in relation to them. it’s impossible to explain the traumatic effect this can have on a life, and the way it has imprisoned my expression of self for decades. i knew i wasn’t this thing called female — that i didn’t fit in whatever patterns of behavior and ambition were usually proscribed to my gender. i also knew that any definition of behavior or ambition as being gendered were completely off base. what definitions can we have of masculinity and femininity, when those meanings have been created by patriarchal power?
but i existed in a world where there wasn’t a word that simply meant human. in the past handful of years, this has been shifting. new words are beginning to make their way forward, such as non-binary and they/them — used as a non-gendered singular — which was added to the oxford english dictionary just last week. so when i found myself at the Los Angeles DMV this past april, and discovered that i had the possibility of legally identifying myself as non-binary — of having an X on my license instead of M or F — i jumped at the chance. and in that moment, i understood the “heart leaped” metaphor — something inside me lifted into the sky like the hot air balloon at the end of The Wizard of Oz, and in some way the alien that i am was suddenly a little more home.
because it is new, a lot of us are only beginning to understand the meaning of the word non-binary. here’s what identifying as non-binary means to me: I AM A HUMAN ANIMAL. everything else is just a skin. the vessel i live in was born female, but what is inside is fluid and shifting, constantly in a state of movement and growth. what i am is utterly ungendered. to be honest, i believe this is true for everyone — some of us are simply more in touch with it than others. and to me, this word non-binary extends beyond gender to every aspect of my person: i am a non-binary human being. my person is not this or that, but both. whether we are discussing gender, artistic expression, submission/dominance, extroversion/introversion — i’m a switch: always and, never or. if words of identity that were made to denote sameness are actually being used to create boxes, i refuse to live my life inside the lines. i don’t have a box.
to me (and caveat, i am speaking from privilege, not for all) being non-binary means being willing to laugh at it all, to say fuck identity and gender altogether. in my book, if you’re playing life fully, everything we “identify” with — all that shit — is for exploration and fun. behavior is shiftable. so while for some people the pronouns you use to describe them are very important, for me the pronouns are interchangeable — i’d happily be called any gender that we have pronouns to describe. so call me (by your name) whatever you’d like. ;)
that said: have you noticed that every word we have for identity includes the word he or man? look: he, she, they, man, woman, human. there’s no way to avoid the base word we’ve used to denote masculinity throughout the history of the english language. want to know what the etymology of the word woman means? literally: wife of man. the oppression is built into the language. i want to unbuild it. and one way to unbuild it is to create new words.
so — as i said to my class of Masters students at the University of Manchester — if you’re willing, if you’re up for playing with it sometimes, i’d love for you to use the pronoun xe/xey to describe me. it’s cool if you don’t, i’ll answer to anything — but in my dream world, xe becomes common usage. an X in the word, just like the X on my driver’s license. an X — a criss crossing of two lines — of a binary — to envision a third entity that includes both.