My mother, most of the time, can’t remember my real name.
It doesn’t matter how many times I correct her. She isn’t good at remembering things. The birth name, legal name, dead name, the name that I never speak or use myself, slides from her lips, and she never sees me wince. If I do protest, if I correct her, if I show exasperation or annoyance, she gets angry. I know her reasoning: she has a bad memory. It isn’t fair that I expect her to remember a name that isn’t the name she chose for me, isn’t the name she gave me at birth, isn’t the name ingrained in her understanding of the person I am. It’s too hard, too much, to ask her to think something that isn’t there in her own head.
Sometimes I feel strangled, as an autistic person who knows with painful understanding what it means to forget names. I should be more understanding, shouldn’t I?
But it’s my name. It isn’t even as though I’ve changed it to something wildly different: I’ve just hacked off six letters. Why is that so hard to remember?
Her anger works. It holds me rigid and silent. There’s no point in correcting if she’ll only yell at me for being an ungrateful arsehole who isn’t considerate of her memory struggles. She’s patient with me, isn’t she? So why can’t I be with her?
Here I am, strangled again.
It’s different, I want to say, but I don’t know how to communicate this to her. It’s different when it’s a matter of systematically denying me my own right to self-identify. It’s different when you’re using your disability as justification to hold onto your right to name me, shape me, box me counter to my will. It’s different when I’m in pain as a direct result of the word you use, and it’s different, so different, when you claim to love me but wreck on me the violence of referring to me by a name that isn’t mine. It’s different when you don’t even try to catch yourself after speaking those dread nine letters. I could forgive you everything if only you tried!
It is violence. The difference is that the wounds aren’t visible, and therefore we can operate under the illusion that no damage is caused. Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me, or so we teach our children as a lesson: we are not allowed to be hurt by names. We are supposed to, somehow, deny their lethality and keep on breathing as though our will is the thing that is weak, not the wielding of words with edges deep enough to maim and destroy a soul. We deny the fact that names lead to, encourage and allow physical violence; we deny the fact that people die from names alone.
I am not those last six letters. I hacked them away the moment I came to an acknowledgement that I wasn’t a cis woman. While I travelled through a couple of gender identities before deciding that gender is an oppressive, nonsensical concept I feel no natural connection with or for, those six letters remain just a memory. They’re not me. Like gender, they were imposed on me without my agreement or consent, but as a human being of any age with any self-determination, it is my right to declare my own name and my own gender identity (or lack thereof).
I can know this, though, and still feel silenced and strangled by the manipulative argument that loving my mother means accepting that she can’t or won’t remember who I am.
The hardest part is that if my name is a lost argument, so is everything else.
Our neighbour has a cat. We didn’t know its name or sex; we just knew it was an adorable half-grown ginger thing who liked our backyard. One day we got to talking and discovered that her owner named her female cat Brian.
The cat the three of us referred to as “it” suddenly, in the minds of both parents, became subject to an unrelenting and unbroken stream of “he” and “him” despite all of us knowing that Brian is a female cat and nobody having used male pronouns to refer to Brian before we knew her sex. Even now, however many months later, neither of my parents refer to Brian with anything other than male-associated pronouns. They seem incapable of making the mental leap that pronouns don’t need to match the gender associated with the name.
It’s a strange kind of cissexism/exorsexism, given that it involves a cat, yet it’s one I endure almost every day: “Brian jumped up on and broke the lettuce box again,” Dad says. “If he weren’t so cute I’d kill him for crushing my lettuces.”
Me, pedantically and desperately: “She is cute, isn’t she?”
“He needs to stay off my lettuce box, though!”
Maybe it’s because Brian is a cat that they feel no need to check themselves.
But I look at parents who can’t remember my name and can’t remember the appropriate pronouns to use for a cat, and I feel strangled.
I have told them that I don’t identify as female, that I’m not feminine. I’ve given Mum copies of my books with a bio, plain, that refers to me as genderless. Short of having a conversation where I ask them to honour my pronouns only to watch them nod, forget and rage at me with every subsequent refusal to try, I don’t know what to do. How can I? My psychologist knows my genderlessness and my pronouns, even why I feel the way I do about gender, but she can’t stop calling me “she”. Teachers have told me flat out it’s too hard or too much; those who acknowledge and try never seem to make it from the abstract knowledge that I use they to actually using it in conversational reference to me. My former boss, who knew that I consider myself trans and spoke about it with me, always used “she” as though I’m nothing more than my gender designated at birth. (Worse, once he found my legal name, he’d use it in reference to me despite the fact I have never once used it to describe myself – something I don’t understand, something that still wounds me more than the ableism I experienced there.) I’ve been daring to tell the new doctors, psychologists and physiotherapists at the pain management clinic that I am both autistic and I have no connection with gender, and most of the time my variance from gender is treated as an aspect of autism, as though I’m a cis girl or woman who just doesn’t connect with femininity because autism, not that my genderlessness is a thing that is likely influenced by autism to varying degrees but should also be a valid, unquestioned identity in its own right.
How do I not feel strangled, restricted, silenced? I am forcibly and repeatedly shoved into a box. I am silenced by the effect of such repeated shovings. Those words have left layers upon layers of scar tissue, scar tissue that binds my throat and brain, scar tissue that makes it easier to stand there and smile while I am, over and over, rendered unreal in the dialogue of those around me. Those words have taught me the habit of my own silence in the face of violence.
The worst part isn’t that I can endure a night with my mother and a friend and flinch every time Mum refers to us as “girls” or me as “she”.
The worst part is that I don’t even flinch most of the time.
Sometimes I don’t even notice.
Not in the moment, anyway. Not until afterwards. Not until I come home and curl up in my room and cry from the crushing weight of it all. Not only did I have to suffer the pain of being misgendered, over and over, I had to suffer it in the presence of a friend who does use correct pronouns for me. It’s a strange, commingled shame of not only not being real but also displaying no inclination to stand up and defend the person I am. It’s the shame of realising that the person I am on the keyboard just isn’t the same person I am in real life, and now someone, one of the special and rare people who have genuinely attempted and even mastered the quest to not gender me in their communications with and about me, has seen that.
I feel strangled all over again. Less. Diminished. Unreal.
But how can I defend the person I am when it would have made Mum so angry? When it would have ruined the night further? When the pain would have been far greater than that I felt that night? When I would have been stuck, alone, in the car with a parent who was furious at me? Yes, I know it’s nothing close to right that minimising her anger is my responsibility. It’s abuse, in fact. When a person decides to endure the pain of someone else hurting them because that’s the best option, especially when it’s a pain that just doesn’t have to be, it’s abuse. It’s abuse, just like teachers telling me my pronouns are too hard to remember is also abuse, and it creates a habit of silence in an attempt to find safety, a habit that now lessens and shames me.
I am made less and I make myself less, and I don’t know how to escape such a cycle.
It is dangerous, so dangerous, to merely say who I am. Yes, people do use my correct name and pronouns, but these people are few (countable on one hand) and occupy that liminal space between knowing me in real life and knowing me online. I court danger, though, like every wild, bold and political queer, every time I hand over my blog URL to someone I know in real life. This isn’t a space I can bring my family, and I never know if this is a space I can bring others, even those I come to like and respect. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve given my URL to an acquaintance only to never hear from them again! Every time I make my lips frame those words I am not only breaking someone’s assumptions that I’m straight and cis female, I am also phrasing a form of queer identity that is so far outside the mainstream many people don’t have the vocabulary in which to encompass it. When one is so different, the response often isn’t one of seeking to learn: the response is often bolting in the opposite direction. Just by daring to be me, my connections with other people, especially in real life, collapse and shrink.
Even those who don’t bolt – people I genuinely like and respect, like my psychologist or a few past teachers – fail in the quest to really understand just how important my pronouns are in a world where I’m repeatedly, forcibly and even violently shoved into a box that has never felt right to me. I can try and give voice to what this feels like, to have a world deny me the right to declare for myself who I am and what words to apply to me, but when one takes those things for granted, I don’t think that’s a pain one can ever appreciate, never mind understand. My language is just too alien. I have a body perceived as female, but it’s 2016: feminism teaches us that woman is whatever an individual woman seeks to make of it, even in the face of sexism, rape culture and the oppression cast by the gender binary. Why am I not a dapper-butch queer woman?
I know I’m not a woman. I don’t see a woman in the mirror. I can’t tell you why, though, not in something short and pithy and easily comprehensible to the cis ear. I know what I am, in my bones, and it just doesn’t involve gender at all.
(While parts of the mainstream are starting to understand that binary cissexism might not be acceptable, exorsexism is open season – even from binary trans people.)
I don’t know how to escape from this mess. I don’t know which flap to push that will open the box.
This place is as safe as any and safer than most to say it, though – and I write this with the acute awareness that I can’t even claim my own website as a place that is completely safe to be me.
I am Kim. I am trans. I am non-binary trans. I am genderless non-binary trans! Agender! (And because it breaks my heart that discourse in 2016 is so set on taking away from me the word that describes and encompasses the relationship between my genderlessness, pansexuality and aromanticism: queer, queer, queer.) I’m flirting, just a little, with the idea of an identity that shifts between agender and neuroagender: sometimes I feel that my genderlessness has nothing to do with autism, and sometimes I feel that, like just about everything else about me, I am who I am in a particularly autistic way, and neuroagender might encompass that better. I don’t require anyone else to understand this: it’s something for me to think about, play with, try on. If I decide to add it to my string of identities, I’ll tell you, and even if I do, it is still thoroughly accurate to call me genderless/agender. All anyone else need know is that I am trans in a way that rejects any form of gender, binary and non-binary alike.
In truth, it’s quite simple: I am a genderless person who uses singular they. Don’t use pronouns associated with a binary gender. Don’t use words or terms associated with a binary gender. Don’t define me by my designated gender at birth. Call me a person, not a girl. English already encompasses, quite readily, all the terms I need as a person sans-gender. Take advantage of this, because other languages don’t have this space to avoid gendered terms and forms!
I say this knowing, though, that in my real-life interactions, this will make precious little, if any difference.
I will be strangled, over and over.
I survive this silencing because I get to come here and write. I survive this silencing because I can write stories where it’s perfectly ordinary to be trans and non-binary trans (among other things) and I survive this silencing precisely because those stories don’t mirror my real world experience. (Do you know what it means to write Tes who is genderless and never once has to explain it beyond affirming hir identity and pronouns?) I survive this silencing because I have taken up the political act of attempting to not give a fuck what people think, at least in my online communications, and if that isn’t enough, it is something. The only person here who can stop me is me, and that’s a tough battle, but I mean to keep on fighting it, even if it means repeatedly shoving the monster of my perfectionism and insecurity into the darkest corner of my closet.
Don’t mistake me, though: this silencing is lethal.
It’s a credit to me and me alone that I have kept on surviving you.