'What It Was Like Changing My Pronouns To "They/Them"'

One writer on the experience of discovering their non-binary identity, and the importance of their pronouns.

Because I'm a Libra, one of the first times I went out in public after coming out as non-binary, I wore a singlet that I'd painted with the pronouns THEY/THEM in glitter. It was a queer New Year's Eve party and I hoped I'd be in a space surrounded by people who understood and wouldn't challenge my new-found gender identity (or my extravagant display of it). Reactions ranged from smiles and approving nods to complete indifference (which was, in its own right, incredible). It was, luckily, a safe environment to try my new pronouns on for size.

Emblazoning gender neutral pronouns across my chest wasn't something I envisioned would be part of my coming out. Particularly due to the years of shame, confusion and fear about my gender identity. And even still, it would be a long road until I'd feel comfortable to sit in a meeting room or around a family dinner table and even suggest that people could use they/them pronouns for me.

'Lesbian' in a suit

In 2012, I decided to wear a suit instead of a dress to an eighteenth birthday hosted by a close friend. I'd always found formal dresses sat wrong on me, like I was playing a character – plus I wanted to look like Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City 2. The minute I walked into the party, I was met with jeers, giggles, and even someone pointing directly at me, saying "lesbian". Nowadays, I love anytime people call me a lesbian, but at the time, it crushed me. It was like I was being told to stick to the gender binary – dress like a "girl" or everyone would laugh at me. I didn't want to be ostracised – I wanted to feel like I was normal. But I didn't. I felt like I was wrong. Everyone "got it" and I just didn't.

I often wonder how different my upbringing would have been, had I been given access to trans education earlier on. Having the idea drilled into you from an early age that your options are limited to the binary of "man" and "woman", despite multitudes of experiences and identities across the world, can really delay the process of exploring your gender. When I was in my early twenties and met people who were non-binary, trans and genderqueer, I knew something significant in my life was about to change. I learned more and more about the rigid gender binary. I learned about how unbelievably restricting (and impossible) it is to try and fit the experiences and identities of every single person on earth into two categories. I learned about the long and cross-cultural history of gender diversity, and how the language we're taught early on barely scratches the surface of what we've always known.

As I learned more language and kept questioning my identity, I kept coming back to an important question: do I hate the gender binary because I see how restricting and bullshit it is? Or do I hate it because I personally don't fit into it?

A music festival, a kebab and a pronoun

I constantly asked this question to friends, people in my community and myself. I spent hours every day obsessing over my gender identity, trialing using different pronouns for myself in my head, just to see how they'd feel. Then at a music festival one evening with my best friend Sam, as I sloppily ate a falafel wrap and mused on my complex relationship to gender, Sam came up with a game. She'd tell me a story about me, and would switch pronouns throughout. She'd refer to me with gender neutral pronouns, then switch to gendered pronouns throughout the story – and it was up to me to tell her when I heard something that landed right.

"So Dani was just on the dance floor right? She was totally tearing it up hard," Sam said. "There was a person who asked for a cigarette, but Dani? He was too busy focusing on the show. He was totally enthralled – in fact, they've often told me how much they get around Todd Terje."

In that moment, hearing Sam use they/them pronouns as she referred to me – it was as if someone had seen me for the very first time. That I was understood – I felt ecstatic. Having the language for it now, I can say it was my first experience of gender euphoria. Shortly after, I began telling the safer people in my world that I was genderqueer, that I was starting to identify as non-binary. I asked people to use gender neutral pronouns for me, and avoid gendered language where they could. Having a lot of supportive people around me, my first few rounds of coming out went really smooth. I answered a bunch of questions from caring but curious people (no, 'they' isn't a singular pronoun, yes, I'll still use my name, no, non-binary isn't a new concept), and that was it; I was partially out.

The next step would be to tell my work and my family – a concept that sounded terrifying. Telling my folks was nerve-racking, and even though they struggled at the start, they're slowly coming around with time and practice. I'll explain to my mum, "If I'm telling you a story about a friend whose gender you don't know, you'd automatically use gender neutral pronouns right? It's exactly like that." Before I'd spoken to them, they'd never heard the concept of using gender neutral pronouns (or the fact that there are gendered pronouns for that matter). Giving them the benefit of the doubt of growing up when there was far less mainstream discussion about gender diversity, I've been patient but firm – taking no shit, but understanding it's a process. The unfortunate reality for a lot of trans and gender diverse people is they run a higher risk of family ostracisation and homelessness due to discrimination, so I deeply understand the privilege of having family willing to slowly, but surely learn to understand. My sister loves to introduce me as her "they-them-lesbian sibling", which makes my heart swell.

At the job I had at the time, we'd often do 'pronoun rounds', where people share their names and pronouns, to start a meeting. It was the perfect opportunity to refer to myself with gender neutral pronouns, and point to the fact I identify as non-binary, without having to bring the topic up myself. The first time I did, a cold sweat ran down my spine and while a few people looked strangely at me, it went largely okay. Of course, the microaggressions were to come next, including misgendering, gross assumptions without apologies, being cornered in a room and asked invasive questions, or some co-workers flat out refusing to use my correct pronouns.

Being in this workplace, I flip-flopped from feeling either invisible or overly visible as a non-binary person, like I was wearing a giant sign around my neck that said I was that person in the office. But while I used to be apologetic in my gender identity, allowing people to fuck my pronouns up over and over again, I've slowly become more resilient and proud, giving myself permission to correct people, and not feeling ashamed to take up and share space.

Thinking about in-the-closet Dani from a few years back, questioning their gender and their place in the world, it's wild to think I'm at where I am now. That I'm out, proud as hell to be non-binary and extraordinarily comfortable in my gender.

My pronouns and my queerness are pivotal parts to who I am. They don't just describe me, they hold me and they allow me to be seen. Coming to terms with my gender has meant I can live more authentically and proudly. It also means my entire cupboard is now full of Sex and the City 2-inspired suits and handmade singlets with my pronouns on them. And that's literally so fine by me.

Written by Dani Leever, a writer and homosexual pop culture enthusiast. Find their words at @danileever or catch their gay DJ drag adventures at @djgaydad.

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