Every semester I get the same email from my program’s artistic director: “Hey Creative Writing Instructors! Introduce yourself to your students!”
The survey requests my favorite quotes about writing. (Chekov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”)
It invites me to share practical advice. (“If there’s something you’re not letting yourself write, what hits the page won’t feel honest. When you obfuscate the reader can tell.) I answer with an eye toward accessibility. My students are working writers, lawyers come home to themselves, retirees and empty-nesters, twenty-something-branding experts, and now during Covid-19, college kids taking gap years. No matter their background, I want my students to feel safe enough to lock into their passion and curiosity. As a teacher, much of my job is custodial. I keep this space separate and clean.
That’s where the survey’s final question comes in. The one other teachers—open-minded urbanites—probably answer with confidence. They’re woke academics; Twitter has provided some of their verbiage, black and white rights and wrongs.
But each semester, that question confounds me.
“What are your pronouns?” it asks.
When I was a kid, my feminist father referred to his female freshmen students as “women.” This, I learned, was how you showed respect. Unless I wanted to grow up to be Madonna, I figured by age twenty I’d need to stop calling myself a “girl.” But as I got older, I kept deferring. I’ll call myself a woman when I’m twenty-five, I thought as I climbed the rungs of my twenties. When I’m twenty-eight. When I’m thirty-three.
This bargaining was conscious, but I never thought much about why I felt resistant. Maybe I was some Peter Pan type, unwilling to become an adult; it was true that puberty felt like a trauma. When I got my first period, I lay cramping beneath my pink ruffled canopy. On my bedside table, the celebratory rose my parents had bought looked poison-apple-menacing against the soft lines of my room. After that, I spent decades withholding food so my body’s swells would flatten. When I was at my thinnest, my period dried up and I felt righteous. I’d beaten back my body. I felt more like me.
I also felt more like myself when, at nineteen, vague urges coalesced into a clearcut desire to date women. This was the late 90s and the mainstream was suddenly populated with out lesbians. What appealed to me was their shape-shifting: KD Lang getting a close shave from Cindy Crawford; the full-breasted Rock God cocksureness of Amy Ray. My early crushes on boys had rendered me bodily and self-conscious. With women, the roles seemed more fluid, like I might find union with the restive something inside my skin. When I came out, my mom said it made a sort of sense to her; my energy had always felt like a boy’s. That day I was wearing a pink angora sweater and my favorite sequined Converse. If I was a boy I was the kind who auditioned for RuPaul. I had spent my childhood doing battle with the dull androgyny of my mom’s feminist childrearing ethos. Beige corduroy pants. Legos. I’d fought hard for that pink canopy bed.
In the midwestern queer community, my feminine trappings made me an outlier. Fascinated with gender-bending, I was drawn to butch women, but found myself subject to mistrust. One girlfriend grilled me constantly, questioning my queerness despite the fact that I’d slept with zero men to her twenty-three. I was also conscious of how my femininity made my girlfriends feel more masculine, so I played into feminine stereotypes. I felt needed if not fully known.
Though increasingly mired in gender roles in my dating life, academically I knew gender was a construct. In the mainstream media, ‘trans’ was pronounced ‘serial killer,’ but I was a women’s studies major in a liberal college town. I read Gender Trouble and Female Masculinity; Butler and Foucault. All around me, people I had known as women were transitioning. In a brush with controversy, I cast a trans man in the university production of The Vagina Monologues. This was before the show was rewritten to be inclusive. As the director, I wasn’t sure my decision was the right one, but all other choices seemed inhumane. Yet on a personal level, I felt oddly deflated when gender theorist Halberstam transitioned. Objectively, I knew this was an indefensible position, but emotionally, I’d always been buoyed to see women owning masculinity without actually identifying as men. Selfishly, I also worried my dating pool might shrink to nothing. I liked a certain strain of people whom I understood as butch women. What if they disappeared?
By my thirties, I’d grown aware of how my relationships with some women flattened me. I don’t begrudge anyone their sexual needs and preferences, but checking myself to make sure my touch never made my girlfriends feel emasculated kept me locked in my own body. Meanwhile, outside of the bedroom, my behaviors were classified as feminine in ways that erased my particulars. If I cried at a movie, that was evidence, even if the movie was Field of Dreams.
This is by no means a broad critique of lesbians or the women I’ve dated; maybe I picked women insecure in their gender expression, who coped by externalizing their anxiety onto me. If so, who could blame them? We’d all grown up associating certain traits with certain genders. That’s part of why a continuum of gender can feel threatening. I’d read Simone De Beauvoir, I got it. If I can’t define you as one thing, how will I know who I am?
Even as I gender-theorized my way through my love life, I was only peripherally aware that the term ‘non-binary’ had jumped the fence of what was now Gender Studies. When a friend wrote to announce they were using they/them pronouns, I clutched my pearls at the grammar but soon Gen Z students began popping up in my classes. From my vantage point, they all shared a certain optimism. An expectation that things were just, and if they simply declared themselves they’d be understood. And why shouldn’t they? Just like when I was young, there were revolutionary examples. I’d understood my options by way of Amy Ray; they had Jonathan Van Ness. Or maybe I did too. Somehow his beard and his dresses hit me in that Halberstam place of possibility. I appreciated in a new way how you could gravitate toward traditionally feminine trappings without being a woman yourself.
In the meantime, I’d become more flexible with who I dated. Relationships with cis men, I learned, weren’t that different for me than with trans men or women. With some, I felt locked into the familiar gender dynamic, but straight cis men don’t spend years considering their gender. (They probably should.) They don’t feel like they have to defend it. Was that why with them I often felt less constrained? More uncomfortable was accepting how straight cis men perceived me. I’d never believed my suspicious girlfriends when they said men were hitting on me. My hands were small, paw-like. My nipples were childish and pale. But now men seemed to think I was a woman. And Jesus Christ, I was thirty-six already. I’d been ma’am-ed by baristas and students. I could no longer hit snooze on the woman alarm my dad had set.
Over the years, I’d tried to support students who made a point of their pronouns, but as a teacher, I’d never requested them. Perhaps later than most, I began to say during introductions: “Tell us your pronouns if that feels important for you.”
One of my non-binary students took me to task for my off-handed phrasing; I’d jammed the pronoun suggestion between “Describe your writing background,’ and “What are your hopes for Creative Writing 101?”
“The onus shouldn’t be on the non-binary to identify themselves,” my student told me. I said I wanted pronouns to feel like an option; I wasn’t comfortable requiring them. “Why should your experience be centered?” Look at your pink hoodie, I saw in their expression. This isn’t about you.
By then, I was dating a man I’d met on OkCupid. One night after dinner, he referred to me as a beautiful woman. In the passenger seat, I flared with righteous anger: “I’m not a woman, I’m a creature.”
Moonlight glanced off his glasses. Poor Matt, it was only our second date. I didn’t know what I meant exactly, except that I couldn’t abide another relationship in which I was role-playing. To Matt’s credit, he seemed delighted. “You’re a beautiful creature,” he said.
And maybe I could be. If we were really heading into the shining non-binary future Judith Butler and my young, idealistic students promised, maybe I wouldn’t have to pick a designation. There could be he/hims and she/hers and they/thems, but also, there could be me.
Then came the first survey. It was 2018, and my program had gotten hip to inclusivity: “What are your pronouns?”
This time I recognized the hot flare of righteousness.
“Prefer not to say,” I wrote quickly. I tacked on an EL Doctorow quote. (“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”) Added some writing advice. (Tell your story in your voice. Don’t try to sound like someone you’re not.)
Once I’d hit send, the heat inside me chilled rapidly; instead, I felt breathless and cold. By then, I knew I wasn’t reacting to the grammar. (In fact, examples of the singular ‘they’ are rife throughout the history of literature. Think: Pride and Prejudice and The Canterbury Tales. Even if that weren’t the case, when living, breathing people demand respect for their gender identities, who cares about linguistic rules?
“Why,” I raved to Matt— my now boyfriend—“do I have to pick a pronoun? If our goal is to transcend the binary, why are we using weak words to describe a broad swath of possibility? It’s so fucking limited, it’s so fucking human to think defining ourselves is the path to freedom from definitions. Isn’t the whole point not to have to say?”
When I’ve posed this question to colleagues, I’ve done it rhetorically. They don’t know I have skin in the game. To that point, there are things I don’t know about them either. It’s cynical to think their virtue is all signal, but when they stress the importance of us teachers setting an example, I can’t help assuming the issue for them is intellectual. They say, on Zoom it’s easy; simply slot in your pronouns beside your name. But just the idea makes me feel cornered and surly; smashed down deep into my body. When I’m teaching, I want to feel tethered only to intellect and shared creativity. I don’t want to think of my breasts and my bones. Yet if I don’t use pronouns, no one in my class will know the intricacies. As society shifts to promoting claiming our pronouns, I feel my own options narrowing. I don’t want to look out of touch, or worse, unsupportive. How do I navigate the terrain?
Recently, a ten-year-old trans girl snagged my attention. I was teaching a Zoom writing class for kids. On my computer screen, she wore a pink cape and—inexplicably, vampire teeth. “We have to give our pronouns,” she said.
Inside, I warmed— but this time with gratitude. She had access to the language to make manifest her concept of self. A shorthand so those around her could come closer to her soul. Wasn’t her comfort and safety more important than mine? As an adult—as a teacher— shouldn’t I suck it up and take the high road? They/them may not feel right for me, but she/her isn’t that bad—I’ve been trained to answer to it. Yet some small pink-caped part of me feels abandoned. I balk when asked to claim it as my own.
I guess that’s the crux of it. In some righteous future, we might all be beautiful creatures, but I can’t see that far by my headlights, and in the meantime, I don’t want to obfuscate. I’m not less who I am if someone else mislabels me. But I don’t want to pick a pronoun. I don’t want to mislabel myself.
SARAH TEREZ ROSENBLUM‘s work has appeared in literary magazines such as Diagram, Brevity, Third Coast, Underground Voices, Carve, and The Boiler. She has written for sites including Salon, The Chicago Sun Times, The Satirist, and Pop Matters. She was shortlisted for Zoetrope All Story’s 2016 Short Fiction Contest, receiving an honorable mention. Most recently, Sarah was a runner-up for Prairie Schooner’s annual summer Creative Nonfiction Contest, and her work was published in their Summer 2020 issue. Pushcart Prize-nominated, Sarah holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a Creative Coach, and teaches creative writing at The University of Chicago Writer’s Studio. Her novel, Herself When She’s Missing, was called “poetic and heartrending” by Booklist.