I like to think of myself as a laid back person. I don’t generally judge people on their choices, and when I do, it’s more of a gentle joking kind of judging. However, I’ve found myself feeling incredibly bothered by something which really shouldn’t have taken up so much real estate in my mind. And it has to do with people declaring that they now have a new name and/or gender they would prefer to be called by.
Now, to be fair to myself (cue the Letterkenney crew), I historically haven’t had an issue with this concept. I’ve got quite a few friends who perform in drag and a couple who like to spend more time as a woman than as a man and have never had an issue with the idea of calling them by their drag names or genders when they are presenting as such. I’ve traditionally taken a similar approach to those in the nonbinary communities. But, for some reason, when it comes to the middle schoolers in my life (which seems to be more and more as my children get older), I have found myself struggling.
I know this is a sensitive topic and I also know that in my revealing of my internal dialogue on this mess, I may not come off as being entirely compassionate toward that fact. But, to put my state of mind at the time simply: the sheer numbers of middle schoolers in my life who have been changing pronouns and names seem to be far greater than the national average for those who identify as nonbinary, suggesting (statistically speaking) that some of these folks are probably just into the trendiness of it. The fact that I know of a few who refuse to settle on a name or gender definitely caused me additional difficulty in resolving this in my mind as well.
This idea that you can just suddenly be someone else reminded me of my younger days when the goth or hippie kids would suddenly declare their name to be Lucifer Morningstar or Sunshine Gluten-Free Oats or something I would find equally ridiculous. I know kids today who have changed their preferred moniker to match that of a favorite cartoon character, which reminded me of the moment in the film Big Daddy where the kid declares his name to be Frankenstein. Something about the method in which these kids were approaching the subject felt so inconsequential that I just found myself having difficulty taking it seriously.
And so, because there is a definitely trendiness to this and oftentimes a lack of an emotional component to the decision, which I feel those who truly struggle with gender identity tend to showcase, I found myself wanting to ignore it. I didn’t see this as a reflection of one’s inner self as much as it was kids trying to figure out what clique they belonged to. And to be honest, a part of me felt like this was more of an attack on authority figures than it was anything else. To hear these kids who appeared to have no real emotional connection to their decisions talk about the evils of misgendering and deadnaming felt like a game where the rules meant that those who didn’t play were intolerant.
It probably didn’t help that my six year old, when seeing these kids changing identities at will, decided he now wanted to be called Jeff instead of Felix. He saw the game and wanted to play along. And a part of me felt like me playing along meant I was allowing these kids to take something that was an emotionally serious moment for many people around the world, and make it into a silly thing. I could handle the idea of people being nonbinary, I could handle feeling like you were assigned the wrong gender at birth, but for someone to claim this with zero emotional baggage connected to it, that I couldn’t handle.
For most of the last year, I’ve struggled with this. I was hung up on this idea that it mattered that these kids didn’t care about the struggles so many people have in coming to terms with the precise thing they were trying on like new pair of pants. Not only did I have this issue with feeling like it was my authoritative place to make sure they weren’t allowed to change their name and/or gender just because they thought it would be fun, but I felt like it was an affront to those who actually struggle with these precise issues.
And there’s a part of me who still feels like these kids might need to gain a better understanding of the background of this identity they’re trying on for size, whether they are truly struggling with with their own gender identities or not.
But another part of me has also come to the realization that I really don’t know why I’ve felt so personally invested in this.
While I definitely struggle with my years of training on how to gender someone in conversation and often have difficulty in remembering to say they or he for a person who appears to be feminine, and it gets even more difficult when I have to remember which gender a person might be this week, depending on how they are feeling, I finally found myself asking the question of why do I care?
For reasons I can’t explain, I felt this need to control the situation, and when I actually sat down to think about it, I couldn’t come up with a good explanation for why. It’s incredibly common for middle schoolers who were named Katheryn, but called Katie, to suddenly declare their name to be Kat. Why does it need to be any different because they is (singular nonbinary pronouns feel wrong when trying to use appropriate grammar, don’t they?) now wanting to be called Pat?
I’ve been requiring these kids to live in reality as I see it. And that reality means that you really shouldn’t be going about changing your names and pronouns if you don’t have some sort of emotional need to be doing so. There are rules to this society! Why should I be forced to remember what pronouns you want to go by? This isn’t some dream world where you can change whether you want to be considered a boy, a girl, or a gonzo depending on how you feel that day!
I, a person who spends his life writing fiction, became far too obsessed with needing people to live in a very specific reality.
But what is this reality I was expecting? Clothing, gender of names, or even pronouns, these are all simply societal constructs, things developed because of rules set down by people who died ages ago. Sure, perhaps in the medical setting there may be some reasons to know what gender a person was assigned at birth, but what need is there to know assigned genders anywhere else?
As a young buck growing up in the Southeast during the 80s and 90s who liked books and singing more than sports, I often found myself battling against the constructs of gender in our society. I never questioned my boy-ness, but I always questioned what it meant to be a boy. I may not have a solid grasp on what makes those who identify as non-binary any different than those who simply don’t follow the boy-blue/girl-pink rules of society, but I guess my point is: Do I really need to understand?
There is so much to be unhappy about in this world, so, if your name and/or pronouns are one of them…why shouldn’t you be allowed to change them at will? Who cares? There are far more important things to worry about than whether someone should be allowed to tell you how to refer to them. When talking to someone on the phone who sounds like a woman and you call them ma’am and they correct you, you generally apologize and refer to them by male pronouns for the rest of the conversation, you don’t ask them to verify what is in their pants. If my kid comes home and tells me his name is now Jeff and he wants me to refer to him with they/them, well, there are far worse things he could come home and say, even if Jeff is a terrible name.
Hell, even the religious among you really shouldn’t have much to get up in arms about.I mean, sure, Hebrew is a very gendered language, but there’s nothing in the Bible I can find which states a need to follow a specific naming pattern for gender or how you must use specific pronouns because of what equipment you were born with. And the Bible has people changing names all the time. Sure, there are the more obvious ones like Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Saul to Paul, but there’s also Simon to Peter, Jacob to Israel, and even Jedediah to Solomon. Names mean something and the Bible shows this time and again. Maybe there’s a place where we can recognize that sometimes the name given to a child before they are even born might not apply to them years after they are birthed.
And maybe, it really shouldn’t matter that much to those of us who just have to get used to a new name.
I mean, sheesh, I’ve known several people throughout the course of my life who go by their middle names instead of their first names and every single fiber of my being knows that to be wrong but I still play along.
So, bottom line, I’ve been at fault for my internal responses to those who have declared themselves to have different names and/or genders than what they were assigned at birth, even if they were primarily middle school aged. I shouldn’t care. It doesn’t matter. It impacts me only in what words I use in a sentence and as long as you’re willing to accept the fact that I’m not going to get your new identity correct 100% of the time, I really should accept that you have a right to tell me how you would prefer to be addressed. I’m sorry.
Be you. Heck, authors go by new names, sometimes differently gendered names, all the time. Even the transphobic author of a popular book series about a young wizard used an intentionally misleading penname so people would think she was a man instead of a woman, and that was just to sell books. Why can’t you use a name that makes you feel more like you?
Now the real question is…what name would you pick if you could change your name to anything? And, will there ever be a day when I can feel comfortable using they/them pronouns with singular verbs?
Have fun out there!