It would be easy to fool yourself into thinking that attitudes toward transgender people have evolved significantly. True, celebrities including Caitlyn Jenner and Chaz Bono came out as trans years ago. It’s been five years since Time magazine illustrated a cover story, “The Transgender Tipping Point,” with a striking photo of transgender “Orange is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox on its cover. We’re all good here, right?
Alas, no. As transgender visibility improved, the inevitable blowback ensued. My adopted home state of North Carolina passed, then partially repealed HB2, the discriminatory “bathroom bill” that would have forced trans people to use the restroom that matched their birth certificates, regardless of their gender identity. The Human Rights Campaign puts the number of murdered trans people in 2018 as at least 26 , with trans women of color at the greatest risk. We’re not all good here.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to discuss “Gender: Your Guide: A Gender-Friendly Primer On What to Know, What to Say, and What to Do in the New Gender Culture,” by Lee Airton, an assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies at Queen’s University in Ontario.
This guide is a must-have for everyone, and not only those who are trans or gender non-binary — or who have someone trans in their life. Airton is speaking to a larger challenge in the culture: what Airton calls “gender unfriendliness,” our day-to-day language that doesn’t recognize that it’s no longer a boy/girl or blue/pink world but a non-binary one, where gender identity traverses a spectrum. (Airton identifies as non-binary and uses “they” as a preferred pronoun.)
Airton writes about gender, language and identity with a warm and inclusive tone, especially of cisgender folks — those, like most of us, whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth. Before tackling the question of how and when to use what are called “gender-neutral pronouns,” Airton provides a clear and concise background about “how to implement gender-friendly language and practices in your family and friendships, at work and with people you meet every day.”
Throughout, Airton encourages an attitude of “gender-friendliness,” which they say can result in “new and deeper connections with people you know now, and new ones with people you don’t know yet.” When, for example, you are making a speech or greeting a large number of people, say, “Hello, everyone,” which is more inclusive than “Hello, ladies and gentlemen.” If you are writing a letter (or business email), forgo “Dear Sir or Madam” and try using a person’s full name. (If writing me, that would be “Dear Steven Petrow.”) When it comes to “husband” or “wife,” Airton suggests gender-neutral options, such as partner or spouse, even if you’re cisgender, in an opposite-sex relationship. The adoption of such language establishes new language norms, which can be a proxy for our progressing attitudes.
Airton explains why it’s important not to “misgender” someone, which is to refer to one gender as another, for instance a man as a woman or vice versa: “For many trans people, everyday communication and interaction are situations where our well-being and mental health are actively, gradually either beefed up or run down — often by people around us who may have no idea how their words or actions affect our capacity to participate in the world.” I have seen how this plays out firsthand. Not long ago a neighborhood tween wrote me the perfect thank-you note for a birthday present. At the end of the handwritten missive, my neighbor added, “PS: I’m pan-sexual.” A year later, “she” changed her name and adopted the pronoun “they.” Neighbors, including me, struggled to make the shift in both our thinking and language. Their dad stopped using “daughter” and began using “child,” which is gender-friendly. Most of us have succeeded, I hope, most of the time — but it took focus and a lot of correcting by my young friend.
Airton hopes the book will help eliminate all this verbal — and spoken — fixing. “It takes too great a toll on transgender people to do all of the correcting, explaining and advocating required to make gender less exhausting all around,” Airton writes. “This is where you come in, and that’s why I wrote this book. . . . When people use or infer my correct pronoun, or use terms for me that match my gender identity, they make an incredible, palpable difference to my well-being.”
Airton also provides a helpful section on the use of the highly controversial pronoun “they.” Language purists insist “they” can only be used as a plural, but, really, the singular “they” is already common in our daily lives when someone’s gender is unknown. (“FedEx came, but I don’t know where they left the package.”) Like “you,” which is both singular and plural in English, so, too, is “they,” Airton explains. This means we need to listen for context when spoken. In my experience, those people who are most opposed to using “they” as a singular pronoun are using grammar impurity as a hedge for trans non-inclusion or antipathy toward trans folk.
If I have one quibble with Airton, it’s that they can sometimes be too accommodating. They counsel patience, especially to trans people who are misgendered long after making their new identity known. They warn that some “make our pronouns way too anxiety-provoking . . . and risk sparking resentment among those who feel humiliated or called out for an honest mistake.” One prominent trans advocate told me a few years ago that his parents — after two decades — still use his “dead name,” the name he was given at birth. He wishes he’d put his foot down much earlier, and I wish Airton had their back.
But I’m solidly with Airton when they take up the question of public restrooms. “For many trans people,” Airton writes, “using the bathroom requires thought, planning, and constant vigilance.” That’s demoralizing, scary and patently ridiculous. On the flip side, ever since North Carolina passed that discriminatory bathroom bill, I’ve seen local restaurants, hotels and other public accommodations in my neck of the woods go out of their way to be gender-friendly, which accounts for the plethora of restroom signs that say, “Everyone welcome” and “All Gender Restroom.” Plus, my favorite: “Whichever.”
That’s a sign of hope for this Tar Heel. We may not be all good quite yet, but we are all learning. Airton’s book just might bring you or a friend some much-needed peace of mind — and some new vocabulary to go with it.
Steven Petrow, a contributing columnist, is the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners.”
By Lee Airton
Adams Media. 240 pp. Paperback, $15.99.