By Cooper Lee Bombardier, Collaborative Editor
If you’re someone who is wondering what the sudden buzz around pronouns and gender is all about, you might not be trans. Or nonbinary. Or gender fluid. Conversations around language to describe the vast range of possible human genders, and those little gendered words we use to stand in for a person in spoken or written language—pronouns—are something that many of us who gather beneath the umbrella term of transgender have been engaging in for a very long time! The critical mass in mainstream conversations might be new, but trans and nonbinary folks and our desire to use language to describe us properly and respectfully is not new. This is a vast topic, and this short article is by no means comprehensive, but I hope to offer a few tips to get you started on your journey toward respectful navigation of trans-inclusive language in your writing.
Remember that language is always evolving. Sometimes we have discomfort with change, and yet, language has never been immutable. Even as trans myself, I, too, once wrestled with adopting the nonbinary “they” pronouns years ago. I noticed my discomfort around using “they” and saw it as an indication that I needed to grow. It wasn’t about me, just as anyone’s use of any pronoun for themselves is not about me, and so I challenged myself to adjust and to expand. Now, I use “they” pronouns without a hitch, and it feels as natural as any other pronoun usage. So, if you notice that you, too, might be experiencing discomfort with some shifting element of gendered language usage, see it as an opportunity to challenge your own assumptions and to grow.
Using the best, most precise language to describe a person is not a chore—it is about respect and care. Unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to language. Some people under the trans umbrella might use words to describe themselves that other people under the same umbrella might despise. If you are a non-trans person who finds yourself writing about a trans or nonbinary person, whether real or fictional, the first thing you might ask yourself is “why?” The reasons and motivations behind writing about this person are important and can tell us a lot. Is the trans character making an appearance in your novella to add variety and spice? Or is she there to inhabit a fully formed personhood, with motivations, desires, flaws, and gifts, and a narrative arc to travel? Are you writing a journalistic piece about a nonbinary person dealing with workplace harassment as an object of curiosity, or because they are a member of your community and you want to support their quest for fairness? Like people of any marginalized community, trans and nonbinary people should not appear in our writing to perpetuate negative stereotypes, add interest, be points of curiosity, or shore up main characters from dominant cultural backgrounds. Trans and nonbinary people are real, so let them be real in your writing.
That’s all fine and good, you might be thinking, but how do I get it right? Well, first of all, be willing to do your homework. There’re tons of great books out there—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, theory—written by trans people. Read them. If you don’t actually have trans people in your life, maybe that’s something to think about. Get to know actual trans and nonbinary people in your community. You might be tempted to avail upon them to educate you: proceed with caution. It is already pretty exhausting to navigate in a world that levels huge penalties on people who challenge our entrenched gender “norms.” Asking these folks to take time out of their day to educate you for the purpose of a writing project might be received as exploitive. On the other hand, there are many folks out there who educate on these topics professionally. It might be worth it to hire them for a consult. If you have a work-in-progress that involves trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming characters or subjects, consider hiring a sensitivity reader: someone well-versed in trans culture and current conversations who can give your manuscript a read with an eye to how it represents trans folks and how it might land with them.
There are also great resources out there about “writing the other” in general—that is, how to write about people who are not you and who are typically “othered” by the dominant culture. These tools help us to expand our awareness and thinking and can completely transform the way we write. In this way, the quest to develop our range and knowledge in terms of representing trans people in our work not only shows care and respect: it also changes the way we think and challenges our assumptions around seemingly fixed language and ideas. Learning more about the current debates around gender and language can reveal how much unconscious bias we bring into our work already: not only about trans people but about people of all genders. For example, I was hired recently to do a trans-inclusivity training for coaches at a local CrossFit box. Through our discussion, we came to the conclusion that by no longer gendering inanimate objects—such as calling the thirty-five-pound barbell the “women’s bar”—it would make the gym feel more welcoming for people of all genders, not just trans and nonbinary people.
Language matters: as writers and editors, no one knows this more than we. So, this is an invitation for discovery: to get curious about how gender impacts your written and spoken language, to deepen our education about all the ways people express their personhood, and to see how we can write in ways that include and respect everyone.
Cooper Lee Bombardier is a writer, educator, and editor who has been writing and publishing about (trans)gender for over twenty years. His memoir-in-essays, Pass With Care, is forthcoming from Dottir Press in Spring 2020.