My name is Melanie Renee Taylor, and my pronouns are she/they. These are your two requisite pieces of information needed when addressing, discussing or otherwise perceiving me. And as intrinsic as they both are to my identity, even they aren’t set in stone. Maybe someday I’ll change my name. It was only very recently that I adopted new pronouns. Yet, when I introduce myself as such, it paints a stagnant picture that allows you to begin to make evaluations and assumptions about the person I am.

However, there’s something you may not have inferred from that introduction: I love language. I love how it provides an outlet for explanation and innovation, putting words to concepts which would otherwise only exist in the mind. I love the way language ebbs and flows with the human experience, both influencing and being influenced by the introduction of new cultural norms. But language, like all other manifestations of culture, can only attempt to estimate its nuances and complexities. One example of this phenomenon can be found in gendered pronouns.

Studies show that Gen Z has the largest proportion of publicly queer-identifying people of any generation to date. Over the past few years, and particularly during the lockdowns, young people across the country have convened with their peers and taken to social media, mulling over exactly what kinds of gender identity fit them. Along with that exploration comes a logistical debate over how our language can adapt to these newly emerging demographics.

Gendered pronouns are often inconvenient. They imbue gender identity with formality and rigidity where it’s not always natural. We have to put our identity in a box as a function of our language. Gendered pronouns are also a great source for enforcement of the existing patriarchal status quo, exacerbating certain stigmas against those who can’t or won’t conform.

Many widely-used languages — including Korean, Afrikaans and more — function without gendered pronouns as they exist in English. And for many of the languages that treat pronouns like English does, activists across the world are working toward increasing the use of gender-neutral language in their respective cultures and countries. Some have argued that the solution lies in transitioning to gender-neutral language entirely. But in my experience, acceptance and normalization of gender neutrality is not always the answer.

Many people find empowerment in gendered pronouns. It can be very affirming for someone who transitioned from male to female or vice versa to “pass” as their desired binary gender, and when they are “misgendered” — either through use of the opposite binary pronouns or through a reductionist use of they/them — that constitutes a microaggression. The way I see it, ubiquitous use of agender pronouns is comparable to attempting a “colorblind” approach to race; it’s tone deaf and ignores all of the intricacies that gender identity has to offer.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, gender identity continues to be muddled and misunderstood. Perhaps the only thing we can really do is stop taking it so seriously.

***

We’ve established that the nuances of gender cannot be described through a catalog of identity monikers. Gender encompasses emotion, expression, personality, perspective. In a recent Tiktok trend, creators emphasized this complexity by attempting to describe their gender by likening it to some object or experience.

In keeping with the trend, LSA junior Syd Lio Riley (they/them) said in a phone interview with The Daily that they’d describe their gender as “when an LSA freshman tells you their major, and it’s like, ‘Maybe that’s it, but probably not.’ And it’s too soon for anybody to actually tell.”

Riley — who often uses he/him pronouns as well — also compared their gender to Bernie Sanders’ tumultuous political orientation.

“I am a man in the same way that Bernie Sanders is a communist,” Riley said. “Like I’m definitely not, but I’m close enough to let you think that. And the more removed from gender and transness that you get, the more likely that you are to assume me of being (a man).”

Riley said that in this sense, their identity is often least understood by cisgender people who haven’t had to grapple with any inaccuracies produced by a binary conception of gender. Thus, it is more difficult for cisgender people to understand the nuances of Riley’s identity.

Art & Design junior Xochi Sanchez (she/her) — who in a phone interview with The Daily described her gender as “a raccoon that you’ve befriended” — believes that it’s “intuitive” for queer people to understand the nuances of their peers’ gender whereas cisgender people may not. Without an organic introduction to gender politics, such as the lived experience of questioning your own gender, it becomes much more difficult to empathize with what that looks like for another person.

“I think I'm lucky,” Sanchez said. “Nearly every person I'm friends with is trans and/or nonbinary, so they just all know.”

For LSA junior Parker Kherig (ze/hir), confusing people with hir gender is half the fun of it. Kherig, whose self-described gender is “the bundt cake from ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ with the little flower in it,” said in a phone interview with The Daily that ze find joy in subverting gender expectations.

“I feel like (spite) really colors my gender,” Kherig said. “Because so much of my gender expression is just, ‘How f—ing confusing can I look? How absolutely perplexing can I present myself to the world?’”

Kherig said hir first experience questioning hir gender happened at a very young age. One night when Kherig was in elementary school, ze were intrigued by something happening on hir block and attempted to go out to investigate in hir pajamas. Ze made it down the stairs only to be stopped at the door by hir father.

“He was like, ‘You can’t go outside in that,’” Kherig said, “Because it says something about my morals if me — a seven-year-old — went outside in my pink princess Barbie nightgown. And that was the point where I was like, ‘What is this bullshit?’”

For Riley, that realization surfaced a bit later in life. Riley began to wonder about their gender when they were in high school because they had been dating someone who identified as gender fluid. At first, Riley said, it was difficult to understand.

“I never felt like I fit into that expectation of what gender fluidity was supposed to be,” Riley said. “But as soon as I kind of unlearned the idea of gender needing to look any particular way, I started identifying as nonbinary.” 

Sanchez also took to questioning her gender identity late in high school, but it wasn’t really until two years later when she transferred to the University of Michigan that Sanchez started feeling comfortable in her identity. She met a group of queer people also in the School of Art & Design and habitually attended the school’s events hosted by trans artists whom she showed her work to and solicited advice from.

“That ended up being the breaking point where it was like, ‘You know what, it's been over two years,’” Sanchez said. “I need to actually get this out in the open and start working on it.”

It was then that Sanchez started coming out to her family and others “in little bits.” And that’s the thing about coming out — it’s not some one-and-done task that can be accomplished in a single, swift motion.

Contrary to how it may seem in film or television, coming out is a long and laborious process that never really ends. So long as they continue to have new life experiences and expand their group of friends and acquaintances, queer people will always have someone else they need to come out to.

For example, I attend upwards of 10 Zoom meetings every week. Because my account, like most students, is hosted by the University, I am unable to permanently alter my name on the platform. That means that if I want it to list my pronouns next to my name, I have to manually go in and make that change every single time I enter a Zoom call. When you have to come out once every two hours, it starts to get exhausting.

“It's become such a formal way of designating not only what gender are you, but who in the space is trans,” Riley said. “And I have to choose then what pronouns I put next to my name — if I do at all — and then as soon as I do, what statement does that make about who I am in that space?”

Riley goes on to note an added complication: Our identities aren’t static. Not only do they evolve over the course of our lives, but they also switch from context to context. Sometimes we may choose not to update the pronouns in our name because in that particular setting, expressing one’s nonbinary identity doesn’t feel safe or welcome.

Kherig described this code-switching as a defense mechanism used by queer people in situations where they may not feel safe expressing their whole or truest identity.

“I think there are plenty of times where the real thing, the big thing, the beautiful thing is just too much for people,” Kherig said. “So there are definitely ways that I have learned to make myself smaller, to protect myself in certain spaces. And I think that's something that most people have to do.”

Kherig also noted a sense of shame prevalent in the queer community which arises when someone simplifies themselves to conform in unsafe situations. To Kherig, that shame is neither fair nor necessary.

“We have to make ourselves smaller for other people to protect ourselves,” Kherig said. “And you should never feel ashamed of that. Because you are preserving yourself, you're preserving your peace. And you deserve to survive.”

Riley said that it is difficult for a third party to ever be fully cued into a nonbinary or trans peer’s entire gender identity.

“One thing that would be really useful for non-trans and cis folks to understand is that they will never be able to fully get it right,” Riley said. “And I think that's a really hard thing for people to sit with, especially if you're a person who cares about other people and affirms other people.”

There are so many factors influencing how a person’s gender manifests at any given moment that it’s not feasible to evaluate it all from a distance.

“I think that trans people's experiences are so varied across and outside of binaries, and in terms of language with reference to their old self and to their newer selves, and in different contexts, that it will be impossible to ever fully grasp at any given time what one person's identity is and the right way to refer to that,” Riley said.

Riley went on to clarify that their hypothesis is not a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for those who don’t want to make an effort. Instead, Riley urges everyone with a trans or nonbinary person in their life to check in with them every once in a while. Better yet, Riley suggests that you simply make it known that you’re a safe person to come update when the time is right.

This process can certainly be bolstered by finding an understanding and empathetic community of peers. Riley, Kherig and Sanchez are all part of the University Spectrum Center’s LGBT+ Oral History project, an endeavor to catalog and archive the experiences of queer people in and around the University. They each were drawn in by the job listing as an opportunity to join a faction of specifically queer academics.

Sanchez was already working on a research project exploring the history of Latinx queer people (though use of the term “Latinx” has been met with controversy given its linguistic inapplicability to Spanish, Sanchez personally takes no issue with the term). Being Latinx and Indigenous herself, Sanchez was already exploring the intersection of her heritage and her gender in a few artistic mediums. She found the Oral History Project to be a natural extension of that work.

Kherig responded to the listing primarily in hopes of finding an extracurricular activity that specifically pertained to gender and sexuality issues. Ze were intrigued by the prospect of becoming “a baby gay teaching other baby gays.”

Riley, who is the current Team Lead for the Oral History Project, has held a slew of positions within the Spectrum Center. They said that they have enjoyed the Spectrum Center’s superb working environment because it offers a unique experience on campus where gender and sexuality considerations are pushed to the forefront.

“It’s been a really nice place to just be at peace with myself in a physical study space,” Kehrig said. “Being in the Spectrum Center, there was never really a time that I felt I needed to be conscious of my body in particular ways that I feel like I have to be conscious of my body in most, if not all other University spaces.”

University students who may be questioning their gender or sexuality can rest assured that there is a space on campus for them to help guide them through that exploration.

***

I made the decision to adopt she/they pronouns because though I am not ready to abandon all that is wonderful about womanhood, I do not feel like my gender can be fully encompassed by that experience alone. I would describe my femininity as a beautiful piece of latte art that you may take a picture of for Instagram, but you’ll destroy just as quickly for a bitter sip of some much-needed caffeine. I may be a woman on the surface, but it’s not the most interesting, important or substantial thing about me.

I hope that through the use of she/they pronouns, others will begin to understand me as I understand myself. I also hope that my gender will become less of a burden and more of an accessory to be leveraged as I see fit.

Riley said that to call them “disappointed” at the current cultural conception of gender “might be the understatement of the Century.” In a perfect world, Riley said, people would treat gender as a rhetorical device rather than a pathology. They also believe that experimenting with your pronouns is a great way to push the conception of gender back into the former realm.

“In theory, we found such an interesting way to categorize ourselves and express ourselves, and I think that could have been really interesting,” Riley said. “But it kind of got ruined by colonization and patriarchy and all of those things, and we really turned it into this oppressive, othering tool rather than something that is fun and expressive.”

Kherig said ze love pronouns because of how the trans community has been able to campify them. From hir perspective, pronouns were already made up to begin with, so if we’re not satisfied with what we have, all that’s left to do is make up some more.

“The ability for pronouns to disrupt a space is just such magic to me,” Kherig said. “And it's not always a good thing. It can be incredibly f—ing painful. But I think when it disrupts spaces in positive ways, and when people are supportive, that is really interesting to me.”

Nonbinary pronouns and nonbinary identity are not about rejecting gender, they’re about reclaiming gender. It’s about playing with gender, and turning it back into something that can be fun.

“(People say), ‘Oh, you’re like, what is it? Gender neutral?’ Like I’m a stick of deodorant or something,” Kehrig said. “And I’m like, ‘No. I am so full of gender … what do I have to do to show you how full of gender I am?’”

I’m not sure we have an answer to that yet, but I can tell you that it’ll definitely involve more than just some pronouns. Our language simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to accurately convey all of what gender is and all of what queer people aim for it to be.

If you or someone you know is struggling with gender identity, you can reach out to the University’s Spectrum Center at spectrumcenter@umich.edu for resources and support.