My new cats were freaking out. In carriers in the back seat of the car, they yowled their displeasure. I reassured them: “Don’t worry boys, we’ll be home soon.”
Whoops! I had called them boys, when in fact they were girls. An understandable mistake, as I’ve had cats for about 50 years, and all of them have been male. “I’m going to have to work on using the right pronouns,” I thought. And then another thought: “Why? They’re cats.”
That’s when I decided to raise my cats to be gender neutral.
The cats’ lives wouldn’t change, I reasoned, and it would help me learn to use plural pronouns for my friends, neighbors and colleagues who individually go by they, their and them. Even though using they, them and their as singular pronouns grates on many people because it’s grammatically incorrect, it seems to be the most popular solution to the question of how to identify people without requiring them to conform to the gender binary of female and male. It also just feels right to refer to people as they wish to be referred to.
Around the house, with just me, Essence and Trouble – named for Rare Essence and Trouble Funk, for the DC music lovers reading this – things were pretty easy. I’d make a mistake (called “misgendering”), saying something like “Where’s your brother?” (Yes, I talk to my cats.) Usually, I’d remember to fix it (“Where’s your sibling?” or “Where’s your pal?”). Just as I’d hoped, I began finding it easier to remember to use gender-neutral language for the humans in my life.
And I began to get an infinitesimal taste of what transgender and gender-nonconforming people face. I’m not talking about the outright bigotry and hatred –something I can’t know without being in their shoes — but the complete cluelessness. Friends would come over, I’d introduce the cats and their pronouns, and some would ask, “But what ARE they?” Some would randomly use “he” and “she.” Some would stumble, unable to form a sentence when talking about one of the cats.
Things got a little more real when Essence got sick. They were really sick. I took them to the vet and had to weigh the question: Do I explain their pronouns not only to the vet, but also the front-desk workers, the vet techs, and everyone else we interacted with? Before the illness was over, we saw five vets, two sets of front desk people, and countless vet techs. I chose to fall back on my cis-gender privilege (look it up) and used the singular pronoun for Essence. I understood that wouldn’t have been so easy if I were the patient — or if Essence were human.
While all of this was unfolding, friends would ask me: How is your cat? “They’re better” or “The same. The vets don’t know what’s wrong with them,” I’d say. “Wait a minute—are they both sick?” people would reply, confused.
It is confusing. We’ve had gender drilled into us as part of language since we first heard adults talking when we were infants – decades of “he” and “she.”
But at the same time it’s necessary. People are coming to understand that not all of us fit into the “girl” box or the “boy” box. Those who don’t are claiming space to be who they are. We all need to find ways to acknowledge and respect that. My way of respecting it just happens to be raising my cats gender neutral. You can choose your own.
Lauren R. Taylor is a freelance writer and a part-time multi-platform editor at the Post.
Want to read more inspiring stories and ideas for improving your life and the lives of others? Sign up for the Saturday Inspired Life newsletter.