Wednesday December 16, 2020

Someone recently asked me if I’d written about how I relate to gender. I realized I hadn’t, at least not publicly, so here it is.

It’s always been pretty easy for me to not think about my gender. I think that’s true for a lot of people who were socialized as boys — masculinity is in many ways the default, and thinking too much about your gender is typically discouraged, so it’s easy enough just not to consider it. Even growing up in a hippie liberal town, where I knew (and even dated!) people who used they/them or neopronouns, it was easy enough not to think about my own relation to gender. I didn’t feel any sort of dysphoria, so might as well just live and let live.

I knew a reasonable number of trans and queer kids in high school, but they mostly weren’t in the social circles I interacted with. It wasn’t until I got to the Recurse Center that I was regularly interacting with people who used they/them pronouns.Looking at the current numbers, a bit more than 10% of people who have pronouns set in the directory use they/them pronouns. Interacting with so many people who I saw as peers and friends who had chosen to reflect on their gender prompted me to think about how I related to masculinity.

Like many nerds, I didn’t particularly care about most traits associated with masculinity, nor with femininity. Insofar as I do care about those traits, I want to be able to pick them à la carte — a little bit of rugged self-sufficiency from masculinity, a little bit of emotional openness from femininity. Of course, one can still do this while thinking of themself as a “man” — it’s just harder, the insidious tendrils of “manhood” and heteronormativity next to impossible to completely expel from one’s mind.

This didn’t click all at once, of course. It was in the back of my mind for quite a while, stirring around. I eventually switched to they/he, and after a while of that, dropped the he. When I made that choice, it was primarily to free myself from the trap of thinking of myself as the sort of person who has to act in “manly” ways, and it was quite effective at that.

If you’re shrewd, you’ll notice that I mostly haven’t actually been talking about gender yet — just pronouns. They’re frequently conflated, but quite distinct. I don’t consider myself trans, since I don’t feel that my gender ever “changed” — I used different pronouns, but the underlying thing is still the same. This, of course, is not how most people or computers conceive of things — I’m occasionally “nonbinary” or “genderqueer” for the sake of dating apps or particularly inquisitive people, but that’s not really how I conceive of myself. I don’t personally see much meaning in gender, so I see no reason to define myself in relation to it. Pronouns, however, cannot be opted out of, so I’ve chosen to pick the most neutral ones.

Once I started using they/them pronouns, I realized they had far more function than I thought, though. They’re an easy way to signal a rejection of dichotomies and taxonomies, which is an important part of my personal philosophy — it’s much easier to meet people with similar ideas and outlooks, and it’s also a good way of filtering out interactions with assholes of many stripes. I see this in the same way that I see clothes or CSS for my personal websites — they aren’t something you can opt out of, so I might as well make them reflect my philosophy and aesthetic as much as I can.One can opt-out of clothes or CSS in a way, but being a nudist or a web brutalist are perhaps some of the most politically charged ways of dressing.

So far, I’ve been quite happy with this. It’s been an simple change to make, the people I interact with regularly have largely adapted to it quite easily, and it’s been an effective sort of signaling and filtering for meeting more interesting people.