We’re going to have to get something out of the way before I start this: I didn’t watch the Eurovision this year. Or last year. I think the last time I saw it was either three or four years ago. It was a perfectly pleasant experience, although I generally rather my rare moments of alcohol-induced patriotism come with less Jedward. What I’m getting at here is that while I completely understand the appeal of camp spectacle and national pride, I was perfectly content with my own decision to spend the evening knocking my friends (and bare acquaintances) over in stinky skate gear. We all have our hobbies, y’know?
Anyhoo, even from where I was sitting it was impossible to miss that this year’s winner (or at least, the person everyone’s talking about) is Conchita Wurst. Unable to resist a palaver, I gave ‘er a google and a watch. Aside from having a daycent song (if you like that kind of thing, which I do), Wurst also presents as strikingly gender-variant. And also just plain striking (those eyes!). And while most people are cheerfully (and accurately) exclaiming about how great she is, there’s also the loudmouths who seem to have missed out on how to deal courteously and calmly with the fact that there exist people on this planet whose genders aren’t immediately apparent to bystanders.
This post is for them.
A little note before we start: I, your friendly blogger, am cis. This post is by me. If you read this and then talk to someone who’s not cis and they disagree with me, then for the love of all that’s cute and fluffy listen to them and don’t you dare refer to me to argue with them because I am significantly more likely to be wrong than they are.
That said, let’s go on.
Panic, Chaos, Dogs And Cats Living Together, Nothing In My Life Has Prepared Me For This!
I know it’s happened to you. You’re a person, right? You live in human society, which means that you come into contact with other people, probably on a daily basis. Chances are, a lot of those are people who you don’t know. People you’ve never met before. Near-strangers who you have to interact with every day. And because they’re (near-)strangers, you don’t know all sorts of things about them. What kind of house do they live in? Are they a cat person or a dog person or do they not like animals at all? Star Wars or Star Trek? Tyrion, Arya or Daenerys*?
Sometimes- even more of a shock, this one- you don’t even know what their gender is. Scary, eh? It’s easy to get scared by this one. We’re used to taking people’s genders for granted- there’s men and there’s women and you can tell by looking exactly which one someone is. We’ve even been saturated with tons of social scripts based on the genders of the people interacting with each other.
As a person who’s confused, scared and maybe even a bit annoyed- why can’t this person have a readily identifiable gender like all* the other people?- you might not know what to do next. It’s okay! Having spoken to many people with and without readily identifiable genders in my time and lived to tell the tale, I’ve put together a handy list of dos and don’ts. I’ve even explained why some things are Bad Ideas! The next time you’re confronted by someone whose gender you can’t work out within .5 seconds of seeing them across a crowded street, simply refer to this list and you’ll be interacting with other human beings like the non-douchecanoe we all know you are in no time!
Things Not To Try
1. Loudly talking to your friends about what gender the person is when they’re not there.
Talking about someone behind their back is considered rude, even if the person is gender variant! Especially if you’re not using your indoor voices. This is rude not only to the person in question, but also to any bystanders who might be trying to get on with their day and don’t fancy listening to you loudly discussing someone else’s personal information.
2. Loudly talking to your friends about what gender the person is, when they ARE there
Talking about someone in their presence is considered even more rude than doing it behind their back. And yes, Basic guidelines of courtesy apply to people regardless of gender. Additionally, either your friends won’t know the person’s gender- in which case you’ve wasted valuable time- or else they will, in which case they will probably be feeling extremely embarrassed and awkward, and not want to spend time with you anymore. You do want your friends to want to spend time with you, don’t you? Don’t you?
3. Asking them “WHAT ARE YOU?”
This question could be considered both overly personal and confusing. You are not specifying the informaiton you would like to receive. Do you want to know if the person is, in fact, an android replicant? If they are, in fact, composed entirely of very small Lego bricks? If they are an accountant or a journalist? If they enjoy macrame? What on earth macrame is anyway? The likelihood of getting an answer that related to the person’s pronouns in this situation is extremely low. Particularly if you’re the tenth person to ask them that since they left the house this morning.
4. Ask them “ARE YOU A MAN OR A WOMAN OR A BOY OR A GIRL? ARE YOU? ARE YOU?
While this does have the advantage of precision over 3, it might be rather personal for the person in question. You are asking about something that could be rather complicated. They may not be a man or a woman! And also, it could be implied that you are asking about the shape and condition of their genitals, and that isn’t something a nice, polite person like you would ask a complete stranger. Is it? Also, they might have all sorts of feelings about their gender, the gender they’re perceived as, and how closely/often the two coincide, and they might not want to have to deal with their deep-seated feelings about things while they’re trying to get a latte or ride the bus to work or get through their second cousin once removed’s wedding or funeral.
Also, if you’ve been spending a lot of time worrying about near strangers’ gender identities, let me put your mind at ease. It turns out that someone’s precise gender identity isn’t actually a thing that you need to know! It might be convenient to know what pronouns they use, but that’s actually a completely different kettle of fish. The details of other people’s gender identities are like the details of their religious (un)beliefs or the relationship they have with their parents- a thing to be discussed over a few gallons of wine or tea among friends or blogged about endlessly online. Not really small-talk.
But if I can’t say that, what can I say?
You may think that if you can’t talk about a person behind their back or ask them intrusive questions, you’re without any means by which to communicate with them. It’s okay! Didn’t I tell you I’d get you through this ultimate test of your social abilities unscathed? Instead of the above, you can refer to this handy three-step guide to surviving situations where you don’t know what someone’s gender is. I’ve even laid them out in order of which to use first, so you’ll always have a backup plan. Win!
1. Don’t actually bring it up at all because it’s not relevant to the situation
It’s amazing how many situations you can navigate perfectly well without knowing what pronoun a person uses. The vast majority of shorter or more casual interactions can be nicely handled this way. The person making your coffee (or ordering a coffee)? The friend-of-a-friend who you’re briefly introduced to? Chances are that you won’t need to know their gender to order your vanilla soy chai latte or make awkward smalltalk about the weather until one of you finds an excuse to be somewhere else or a mutual friend shows up to rescue you both from uncomfortable silence hell.
But, you ask me, what if you do have to refer to the person in the third person? What do you do then? How do you get through the sentence without descending into a hopeless mess of confusion and embarrassment?
Don’t worry. I’ve got ya. All you need to do is this:
2. Use gender neutral pronouns until corrected.
“Oh hey, I think the barista’s made your coffee- they’re looking around and they’ve got a cup with your name on it”
“Yeah, I heartily dis/agree with that comment you made regarding NearStranger. I feel that they are definitely blah blah blah”
How easy was that? If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, just use a neutral one. There are plenty of neutral pronouns to choose from, but as this is a fairly 101 level article, I recommend using the singular they. It’s okay, grammar nerds, the singular they has been in use for centuries, dropping out of vogue in recent decades for some reason, but it’s perfectly correct. You can use it just like you would as a plural, and it has the advantage that you don’t even need to learn any new syllables. In fact, you’ll notice that I’ve been cunningly using ‘they’ to refer to people all the way through this post!
The vast majority of the time, Steps 1 and 2 shall get you through social situations nicely. Occasionally, however, it will become genuinely necessary to know what someone’s pronoun is. If you’re in this situation, then hightail it down to the next paragraph where the mysteries of politely ascertaining someone’s pronoun shall be revealed!
- Super Surprise Possible Pitfall: You may think that as I’ve just recommended gender neutral pronouns when in doubt, that you can pick and choose any old neutral pronoun you like. While there are several perfectly polite options to choose from (they, zir and hir are three good ‘uns), it is never ever ever appropriate to refer to a human being who hasn’t explicitly asked you to do so as ‘it’. Ever. It is a word we use to refer to objects. People are not objects, and people who use this word to refer to people who haven’t asked them to do so deserve to go to the most special of hells. I ain’t kidding.
3. Ask them “Excuse me, what pronoun do you prefer/use?”
Remember how we talked above about how asking someone their gender is a complicated and personal thing that can open up all sorts of cans of worms? Asking someone their pronoun is far less fraught. You’re not looking for an exploration of their deepest identity. You would just like to know what set of one-syllable words to use to refer to them in the third person. Also, saying “excuse me” is considered courteous in most social situations, and you can’t go wrong with a bitta courtesy.
Now, sometimes people might answer this question with a pronoun you’re not familiar with. You know the basic ‘he’ and ‘she’, and by now you’re even acquainted with the singular ‘they’. Some people, though, use other pronouns- common are ‘ze’ and ‘hir’, but there are loads more. As long as you’re polite about it, it’s perfectly fine to as a person to briefly explain or confirm what pronouns they use. Questions like “just checking, is that spelled abc?” or “was that ze and zir you said? Thank you!”. When it comes to more personal questions (why they use that pronoun, for example, or where it came from), ask yourself if you really need that information about an acquaintance. Remember, you can always Google your general questions later!
..and that’s it. Easy, isn’t it?
- TransGenderQueerPerson wins Eurovision… (offthetrolleyproductions.wordpress.com)
- Russian MP: Conchita Wurst winning Eurovision is ‘the end of Europe’ (pinknews.co.uk)
- Gender-Neutral Pronouns Rant (freethoughtblogs.com)
- 57 genders (and none for me)? Reflections on the new facebook gender categories (rewritingtherules.wordpress.com)
- Are Gender-Neutral Pronouns Actually Doomed? (psmag.com)