Trigger Warning: Mentions of transphobia
I am a person who identifies as gender fluid non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. Being queer, I get a lot of questions about my identity because of a general lack of awareness in our society. These questions are increased tenfold because I am open about my pronouns on social media.
Often, strangers feel the need to ask me invasive questions through messages or comments, which is easier for them as I have a public account. I have, of course, been told many times to just stop having a public account to avoid this, but transgender and queer people such as myself should not be asked to stop existing in public to live with dignity.
While a small fraction of these questions are polite, they should still not be asked without prior consent, nor with any expectations for a reply, as transgender people do not owe other people their time to educate them on things that can be learned through free internet resources. To quickly explain, a transgender person identifies with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Non-binary people identify with a gender other than male and female, and non-binary identities come under the trans umbrella.
Gender fluid is a specific identity under non-binary identities, where the person feels their gender identity shift over periods of time. It is not necessary for genderfluid people to use they/them pronouns, but that is what I feel most comfortable with.
It is important to acknowledge that I have cis-passing privilege. This means that my appearance and gender expression is such that I am often perceived to be cisgender. Therefore, strangers often treat me better because they think I am cisgender. To be clear, this is not a privilege in general, but a privilege compared to trans people who have their lives in danger just by leaving the house.
Since I am perceived as cisgender, most comments and questions are from people aware of my identity, or from people who see my pronouns on social media. Below are some of the most common and strangest questions I have received, and my responses:
1. What’s between your legs?
Not only is this question invasive, I always find it so strange. Why are you, as a stranger, so fixated on my genitals? Not that this would be anyone’s business, but I specify stranger because it has usually been strangers on the internet who notice my pronouns on my Instagram bio and take it upon themselves to message me.
When I refuse to answer and forget to block them in time, I may get a follow-up message stating that I am deceiving people. My genitals are not anybody’s business, so I cannot deceive you about them. Cis people are never questioned about their genitals and so must not trans individuals be.
2. Are you intersex?
Non-binary does not equate to intersex. Intersex people present sexual characteristics in a combination that by societal standards, are not considered typically male or male. These characteristics could be genitals, hormones, gonads etc. Being intersex is based on biological criteria.
Being non-binary, on the other hand, is a gender identity where your biological sex is irrelevant, and there is no ‘criteria‘ other than identifying as such. So while it is true and possible that certain non-binary people are intersex, the two are not related. Intersex people have varying gender identities, and non-binary people don’t have to be intersex to be valid.
3. There are only two genders and this is a Western concept
No, there are not. Gender is a social construct. Social constructs evolve with the society and as we learn more about the world. Gender is a spectrum, and even throughout history, many societies recognised the existence of more than two genders including India.
Trans people have always existed in India. There are mentions of a ‘third gender‘ in the Vedas, and a ‘psychological sex‘ as separate from biological sex in Jain texts. Trans people played essential roles in Mughal courts. Mentions of transgender and intersex communities like the Hijra community or the Kinnar community can be found throughout history.
4. What is your real gender?
My real gender is genderfluid. Despite what we have been taught, male and female are not the only two gender expressions. Non-binary identities are not ‘phases‘, they are just as valid as the identities of men and women. Asking about the gender someone was assigned at birth is highly invasive and should not be a topic of discussion unless the person themselves brings it up.
5. If you are non-binary, why do you still complain about periods?
Well, that is quite simple. It is because I still menstruate. My gender identity has absolutely nothing to do with this. The idea that menstruation is a uniquely female experience is a misconception. Not all who menstruate are women, and not all women menstruate. This does not ‘reduce‘ womanhood or affect it in any way.
6. Why do you talk about sexual harassment? That is a women’s issue
Anyone can get sexually harassed. It is of course, important to acknowledge that there are power structures in place that make women more vulnerable to it. But these same power structures make trans people, particularly trans women and trans femme people, even more vulnerable. There isn’t sufficient India-specific data on this.
However, according to a study by the University of California, trans people are over four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than cisgender people. When we make it specific to women, trans women and femme-aligned or presenting trans people are three times more likely to be assaulted than cisgender women. But most importantly, isn’t sexual harassment an issue we all need to talk about, irrespective of our identities?
7. Being trans means you are mentally ill
The World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases manual, used by 70% of psychiatric practitioners globally, declassified being transgender, or what it called ‘transsexualism’ as a mental illness in 2018. They also admitted that the initial classification of it as a mental illness was rooted in transphobia and had little to no scientific basis. It is true that transgender people are more likely to be mentally ill, but this is because of transphobia and not transness itself.
8. It is wrong grammar
We use the pronouns ‘they, them and theirs‘ in the singular when talking about people we do not know the gender of. For example: ‘Someone has left their phone behind.’ If this is alright, why should it be controversial to say: ‘Their name is Alok Vaid Menon.’ Language does and should evolve to adjust to the changing society. However, the Oxford Dictionary traces the use of singular ‘they‘ back to 1375. So this usage is not something new, and it certainly is not wrong grammar.
9. Do you think you are multiple people, or have split personality disorder?
This is by far, the strangest question I have ever been asked regarding my pronouns, and I am thankful to say I have only been asked this once. As mentioned before, they/them is commonly used in the singular. I do not have a ‘split personality disorder’, the correct term for which is dissociative identity disorder. Having the disorder would be completely unrelated to one’s gender identity.
10. Why do you dress feminine, why not androgynous?
Well, because I like it. Gender expression does not have to ‘align’ with one’s gender identity. Moreover, gender expression is different for everyone. What may feel masculine to you, may feel feminine to me and may feel androgynous to another. Nothing is inherently gendered. Masculinity, femininity and androgyny are not rigid facts but perceptions. So when I ‘dress feminine’, I dress in a way that is conventionally feminine, but it may not feel feminine to me. So yes, I wear makeup, and yes, I am non-binary.
11. You haven’t had surgery, so you’re not really trans
Gender-affirming surgery does not make anyone trans. Trans people are already trans before (and if) they have a surgery, and do not become ‘more trans’ after. Surgery simply helps trans people feel more comfortable in their skin. Since the whole point is to make them feel comfortable, it would not make sense to take away a trans person’s comfort by making them have a surgery in case they do not want one. I have not had surgery, not because I am ‘faking my transness’, but because I feel comfortable without it. I don’t want surgery, and I should not have to explain this extremely personal choice to anyone.
12. Why can’t you just choose?
I have chosen, I am genderfluid. I am not ‘half-man and half-woman’. I am genderfluid, no matter how I present or my pronouns. Moreover, if I am not choosing a specific label or wish to change it at some point, that is not and should not be an issue. These labels are for our comfort, and if someone feels more comfortable without one, that is completely valid.
13. Pronouns are too difficult, can she/her not just be used instead?
You can use whatever pronouns you want for yourself. You should use the pronouns that are comfortable for you and not tolerate people who can’t respect them. For example, I use they/them pronouns and prefer to limit my interactions to people who respect that. I choose not to indulge those who do not respect my gender expression.
14. But I’m not transphobic
Physical violence, while absolutely horrible, is not the only way one can be transphobic. Microaggressions are transphobic as well. These include every single comment and question that I have just addressed. While it is possible that you are not trying to be transphobic, we are all taught transphobia from a young age. Unlearning it is all of our responsibility.
These microaggressions may seem like they are not a huge issue, but they add up and cause severe damage. You might not be physically violent at all, but you may be emotionally scarring someone. Moreover, when someone is physically violent towards trans people, they justify it through these transphobic ideas. We may not be committing hate crimes, but when we are inhumane towards trans people, we allow them to happen.