Is “Butch” A Nonbinary Identity?

My own short answer to the question of whether butch is a nonbinary identity or not is, of course, it depends. Identities are personal. Someone butch might identify as nonbinary, or might not — both are legit. Of course. I wouldn’t ever tell someone that the way they choose to identify is wrong.

Ultimately, identities are very personal.

We contain many, many identities, never only one, and to reduce someone to one is to hyperfixate on one particular part of someone — usually a marginalized part — and overlook dozens of others. And yet, holding marginalized identities is very difficult when the cultural hierarchy so overly values those with power and close to the centralized identities. So, forming a chosen, intentional, conscious identity surrounding a marginalized trait can be an empowering process.

Generally, I use “identity” rather than “label” because to me, labels are what other people put on you, and identities are what you choose to use for yourself. Identities have socio-political context, lineage, and community agreements about meaning and significance. Labels are usually stereotypes, reductive, and excuses for discrimination. There’s more room to play around inside of identities — identities conform to us. We expand them in order to fit all of our complicated multitudes inside. But with labels, generally we are expected to conform to it, and there is social pressure to stay within the confines of the label, within all its rules and regulations.

The words we use for identities, and the subtle definitions of them, change and morph over time, sometimes a lot. In the last 20 years since I came out as queer and started exploring a not-feminine identity, I’ve used all kinds of words, like: androgynous, masculine of center, butch, nonbinary, transmasculine. Some of those have fallen out of fashion. Some of them go together, some people think some of them are roughly synonymous. But there are differences in how they’re used and what meanings they convey.

The other day, I was musing to myself about two of the strongest identity words for myself: butch and nonbinary. Is it an oxymoron to use them together? Do they compliment each other? Has what we used to call “butch” morphed into “nonbinary” now, in 2020?

So I put this up on Twitter:

A poll, asking “Is butch a nonbinary identity?” The results, after two days, were Yes 18.4%, No 11.2%, Could be, it depends 70.4%, out of 206 votes.

My opinion? It depends. Identities are personal. If an individual butch identifies as nonbinary, then yes. Are all butches nonbinary? Not really, no.

But also, yes. I’m interested in the relationship between butch and nonbinary identities as a cultural phenomenon. When looking at butch as a socio-political identity, in general, not about one particular person, I would argue yes: it generally exists outside of compulsory binary gender identities of “man” or “woman,” and that’s one way to define nonbinary.

Though I suppose you could also dig in here and say “it depends on your definition of nonbinary,” which is also true. A lot of folks are using nonbinary to be just about any gender identity outside of the conventional gender roles of “man” or “woman,” which means that pretty much any conscious gender expression could be nonbinary. I’m okay with that — I think it suits us to have a broad umbrella term under which many things can be explored and expressed.

I’ve used nonbinary to describe myself for that reason, too — that I don’t fit the conventional definition of “woman,” both on purpose and by design. But my gender identity is, at the same time, a fairly conventional expression of masculinity. In some ways, it is a very binary expression. But I do still think I exist outside of the very limiting two-gender cisheteronormative system, so it’s just fine to use nonbinary to express that.

In short, yes and no, identities are personal, and words matter. Generally, I want to use the words that people use to describe themselves, and not ever force a label on someone from the outside.

Happy #InternationalPronounDay!

it’s #InternationalPronounsDay! And in honor, I’ll just gently remind you that my pronouns are they, them, theirs, themself. I prefer the honorific Mx., but Mr. works too, and calling me “sir” is also great (though preferably not in a D/s way, unless we have that kind of thing).

As in:

  • Have you seen their latest post?
  • Did you go to the workshop with them?
  • I like their work!
  • They really look like themself away.

Honestly, it doesn’t bother me all that much when people call me by another pronoun … I mean, not much, though it does still bother me. But I am always thrilled when people get it right. Like, always. It continues to make me feel so seen, even vulnerable, in a way that surprises me. I mostly don’t expect people to get it right, I suppose, because I’ve had so many experiences with people getting it wrong, that I don’t want to get my hopes up.

So, thanks, to all of you who get it right.

Thanks to all of you who are working to get it right, and don’t always, but who try, and who correct themselves and others.

And to all the nonbinary babes out there: I see you. Your pronouns are real and valid and I promise to always do my best to honor them. I screw them up, sometimes, but I want to get it right, and thank you for correcting me.

To all the cis folks with your pronouns in your email signature and Instagram bio and business cards: thanks. Thanks for showing that you understand that if you “look like a girl” you still might use pronouns other than she/her. Thanks for showing that you understand that gender identity doesn’t necessarily match your presentation. Thanks for making it easier for me to share mine.

I don’t think anyone should be forced to share their pronouns, because sometimes it isn’t safe for someone to be out as trans or nonbinary. But for folks who are comfortable and able to share theirs, it helps folks like me who don’t always know how it’s going to be received if we share our pronouns. It helps me be more open, be more vocal about being nonbinary, about being outside of the norm. And it helps me to trust other people more, because I see that they’re trying, and that they know something about gender.

Image: glitter knuckle face paint by a lovely queer clown at Lesbians Who Tech conference in 2019.

The Singular “They” Is Grammatically Correct, Dammit

Hello!

I just read your identity pronoun piece on Medium and I would like to converse with you about a few questions I have.

My child is currently identifying as non-binary. My only issue is from a grammar stand point. I struggle with referring to an individual in a plural way due to years of grammar education. I truly feel that I (and possibly others) may catch on quicker if it didn’t seem like we were being incorrect with the grammar by being correct in addressing the person.

I truly ask this with an open heart and mind. Do you think due to the creation of the subset — or acknowledgement as it were- that it may be easier for those outside the set to be mindful and those in the set to become recognized?

I look forward to your commentary.

Regards,
Renee’


This is a real email that I received, though I did edit it to be shorter. 

Here is my reply.


Hi Renee’,

I hear ya with the kind intention of this question. You’re not alone in asking it — many, many people do not like the use of the “singular they” as a nonbinary pronoun.

Here are a few resources for you.

Other options for third person pronouns:

Many transgender, gender non-confirming (GNC), and nonbinary folks in the US have been using pronouns aside from he or she for decades. Ze, hir, zir, xie, ey, and per are just a few that some of my community has used over the years. Here is a table of many of the different third-person gender pronouns used in English.

In GNC communities, people choose which pronoun they feel best fits them and resonates for them. The use of the singular they was always one of many, but it is only recently that it has become widely accepted in the mainstream English speaking / US environment.

Why singular they is okay:

Singular they was declared the word of the year by the American Dialect Society in 2015.

It has been in consistent use as a third person singular pronoun since the 1300s. Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Emily Dickinson all use it in their work. The wikipedia entry on it breaks it down quite well. Here is another longer history of the usage of the singular they.

Whether or not you realize it, most people already use the singular they. It is just used more generically, rather than individually. Teen Vogue has a good write-up of the common questions asked about nonbinary pronouns.

Because singular they has been used for so long, it is generally the easiest third person nonbinary pronoun for people to grasp.

Which do you think is easier to say?

  • they went to the store
  • ze went to the store
  • pe went to the store

On changing language:

I get that it’s hard to change the use of something that has always been one way. But language changes all the time. Here’s a list of TED talks that discuss how language is fluid and changes.

Language is solidified by those in power. Those who have been in power have been (are) cisgender people. But language is more of a living thing that both reflects and shapes cultural norms. Changing the language changes the oppression of marginalized people.

Using singular ‘they’ also helps with another major feminist linguistic issue: the way we default to using he/him pronouns as general examples in English. Using they/them solves that problem, and is much less awkward than using “s/he” or “she or he,” and challenges the use of maleness as the norm.

Here are two books for you:

A Quick & Easy Guide to
They/Them Pronouns
The Gender Book


Perhaps this part is the most important:

It takes uncomfortable change to be inclusive and supportive of marginalized people.

Yes, it can be uncomfortable to use the singular they. Yes, it means you will probably mess up as you are getting used to it, and perhaps hurt some people’s feelings, and perhaps have to apologize and learn and do better, and that is uncomfortable. But it is essential to try in order to make a world that can be more welcoming, inclusive, and celebratory of marginalized and oppressed folks.

This is a very clear, very concrete way that nonbinary people are asking to be supportive. Please do it.

Last, but not least:

Please consider doing your own Google research before asking nonbinary people, such as myself, to do research and explain things to you. This has taken an hour of my time that I could be otherwise working for money, being with my friends, or creating my own art.

I decided to do this for you because I am going to use this as my next article and make it public. But next time, please use Google — or a librarian, whose job it is to help you find information! — and educate yourself. There are thousands and thousands of articles, videos, and offerings online that already explain the things you’re asking me.

Things you could Google for additional research:

  • how to use the singular they
  • why use singular they
  • history of singular they
  • is singular they grammatically correct
  • how to be supportive of nonbinary people
  • alternative third person pronouns
  • use of singular they in literature
  • changing language over time

Asking nonbinary people to do work to educate cis people is a form of emotional labor that costs us time, effort, and energy. It is incredibly common for nonbinary people to be asked to educate cis people, and it is exhausting.

Next time you ask for labor like this, at least offer to compensate. I do coach people on gender, sexuality, and relationship issues, and I would be happy to consider coach you further. Contact me if you wish to pursue that.

In conclusion: 

If you agree with me, great. Please share this.

Perhaps you do not agree with me, and you’re one of those people who only uses “cool” to describe temperature. But if you insist on prioritizing grammar rules above honoring nonbinary people, I insist on thinking you’re a jerk.

Sincerely,
Sinclair

Pronouns: they/them

PS: If you appreciate the time I put into this article, please consider supporting me on Patreon or making a PayPal donation to my email address, [email protected]

Dear (Cis) People Who Put Your Pronouns On Your “Hello My Name Is” Name Tag

Dear cis people who put your pronouns on your “hello my name is” name tags:

Thank you.

When you do that, I feel more comfortable putting my pronouns — they/them. I feel more comfortable being visibly out as nonbinary. I feel more comfortable asking people to use the pronouns that feel most like me, that make me feel most seen and whole, instead of just resolving to be mis-gendered and mis-represented and whatever who cares anyway.

(Maybe I do, somewhere, a little.)

When we’re doing the socializing part of whatever event we’re at, and we are introduced, I automatically feel warmer toward you — regardless of your gender or presentation. I feel much more comfortable talking to you, because you already tell me you know a little about gender.

Thank you.

It is an ongoing cultural struggle right now to break our eyes open to more than the two binary gender roles. We are all still learning. Nonbinary and trans folks are still evolving the language and culture, and educators are still figuring out the best ways to communicate the theory and compassion. It’s a challenge to undo the cultural systems that have been normalized all our lives.

And yet, we must. If we want to support everyone to live their best lives, we must. If we want to be honoring of everyone, we must.

Other great places to include your pronouns:

  • Your email signature. Example: “Sinclair Sexsmith¶ Pronouns: they, them, theirs, themself¶ [email protected] | @mrsexsmith | Facebook | Patreon”
  • Social media bio, on Twitter or Facebook or etc. Example: “Writer. White non-binary butch feminist dominant. They/them.” You could also periodically put a post up on your social media, “Just for the record, I use they/them pronouns. Also, I grew up in Alaska, my favorite flower is red gerbera daisies and my favorite number is 12.”
  • Regular bio, if you’re a performer, writer, teacher of some sort and you have a bio you send around, include them there! Example: “Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is a writer and queer nonbinary butch dominant.”
  • Introductions at a meeting or workshop, if they say “Go around & say your names.” They don’t have to invite you to include your pronoun in your intro in order to include it! Example: “I’m Sinclair, I use they/them pronouns.”
  • Any time you’re speaking in front of a group! Example: “Hi! I’m excited to have you at this poetry reading today, thanks for coming to the Bluestockings Bookstore. I’m Sinclair, I use they/them pronouns — but you probably already know that, since you’re here!”
  • Can you think of other places I haven’t listed here? I’m sure there are others. Leave ’em in the comments!

If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, ask!

This is an important skill to cultivate. We have probably all heard this, but there are plenty of times we — all of us, myself included — feel awkward asking, and so we don’t. But it’s never too late — ask at any point during the conversation.

It’s not a faux pas if you have to stop in the middle of a sentence, just ask.

“Sorry, what are your pronouns?”

“Oh I didn’t get your pronouns, what are they?”

“Will you remind me your pronouns please?”

If you mess up, no big deal. We all do.

You’re not a bad person if you mess it up. You’re not a bad ally, or a bad person. You’re practicing. Maybe you got the wrong info, or maybe that person just changed their pronouns.

Just start again.

The #1 thing to remember: don’t make it about you. Apologize, move on, try again.

“The other day, she — “
“They use they pronouns.”
“Oh, they. Okay. The other day, they …”

That thing where people say, “Omigod, I’m SO sorry! I really care about pronouns! I’m trying so hard! I’m not used to it! Forgive me!!!!” — that makes it such a bigger deal than it is. Treat it like mispronouncing someone’s name — it’s a little disrespectful, so be sure to be sensitive, but it’s ultimately no big deal.

Just acknowledge, apologize, have a redo, and do better in the future.

It gets easier with practice & time.

You’ll get it. Keep at it. Practice saying and expressing your pronouns whenever you can. Practice asking. The more cis people can ask and practice with each other, the more of the burden it takes off of trans and nonbinary folks to do the education work themselves.

There’s one more thing I want you to know:

It feels so good when people get it right.

It can make my whole day brighter when I hear someone use they/them pronouns.

Honestly, I rarely hear it myself, because if I’m standing there, it’s the least likely place for someone to refer to me in the third person. But sometimes it happens in an introduction, or a story. And it still surprises me sometimes.

I feel vulnerable, and cared for, and seen.