By Denne Michele Norris, she/they
I identify as a male-bodied non-binary femme, and my pronouns are they/them. It’s a mouthful, I know! But being first and foremost a writer, my inner life revolves around words. Every thought, every sight or sound, every touch, and every feeling, comes with language. Whatever I experience, there’s always a word or phrase nearby waiting to catalog it. I long to ask questions and find answers, to organize memories and curiosities, all as a means of making sense of myself and my place in the world around me. James Baldwin, a queer black literary forefather, wrote “…it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls experience.” I think it’s fitting, then, that Baldwin’s insight so perfectly frames the way in which the evolution of language around gender identity has shaped the way I understand myself.
At nineteen, I first began questioning my gender identity. I’d been out as a gay man for four years, active in my college’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance, and seemingly out of nowhere, talk of gender identity as a spectrum exploded in the media. All of a sudden people spoke of a distinction between gender identity and biological sex. I remember an episode of the television show 20/20, in which Barbara Walters sat down with transgender adults and the families of several transgender children.
Two narratives dominated this conversation: the first was that like many queer people, these folks knew from a young age that they were different. They felt a disparity between their biological sex and their gender identity — some as early as two years old. The second was that many of them felt they had been born into the wrong body. Being called a boy had always been uncomfortable for me; that discomfort ballooned when I was old enough to be called a man. Anytime I was separated from my girlfriends because I was a boy, I felt drastically out of place, and often, unsafe. But I never felt I’d been born in the wrong body. That narrative didn’t quite resonate as my story. I had questions, sure, but there didn’t seem to be any answers, so I tried to lay them to rest.
The thing about questions is that they’re incorrigible. They insist on being heard, they insist on being answered, and they’re happiest when those answers are simple. My answers were not.
Over the next decade, my questions flared up at random moments, triggered by heated Facebook debates with family members, or reading the comments on Youtube videos when transgender people were onscreen. I would spiral for days, wondering, after all these years of being out, if there was another closet I needed to find my way out of.
At the same time, around me, it seemed our culture was changing rapidly. There was the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the emergence of trans activists into the public consciousness—people like Janet Mock, Raquel Willis, Laverne Cox, and writers like Thomas Page McBee. And the conversation around pronouns began to normalize, almost overnight. In the work-place, in the media, and among my friends, many of whom were queer.
After years of suppressing my own femininity, I slowly began to embrace it. I started wearing boots with higher heels, women’s pants. In the summer I wore rompers, and for formal occasions I purchased jumpsuits. I started accessorizing with clutches. I transitioned from boots to strappy heels, and I all but stopped shopping in the men's department at my favorite stores. In all of this, it seemed that around me, language was beginning to reflect this so-called gender-identity spectrum I’d long heard about. Words like non-binary, genderqueer, two-spirit, agender, and gender-neutral became atmospheric, swarming around me, getting close, their various meanings taking space inside me. And in that noise, I finally found the language that offered me peace.
For most of my life, I’d felt, at best, reduced by the label “male,” and at worst, misgendered. All around me, it seemed people were having the same conversations with themselves that I’d been having for years. Rather than hide any aspect of myself, I decided to honor every part of myself, every layer of my identity. I’m a human being; my existence is reason enough for affirmation.
Language exists to affirm, to make visible. For many people, our pronouns are the first time we feel seen and heard. This is the power of language, and its great paradox: as powerful as it is, it is merely a human invention, forever evolving. We get to make it up as we go along, which means we get to make it better. Think about the power that holds.
Written by Denne Michele Norris for Youth To The People
Photo courtesy of Michael George