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'They' is me

'They' is me

Call us what we wish to be called
A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a young woman, a college student, who claimed that her professor had assigned her entire class a special little assignment, for extra credits, for students who could track down my legal name and bring it to class. This young woman had tried and tried, she said, to find it online, but couldn’t, and she really wanted those extra marks. Would I be so kind as to just tell her?

I took a deep breath. I was flabbergasted, skin crawling with chill fingers at how totally creepy this felt, an entire college English or writing or queer studies or whatever class assigned the task of violating my privacy for extra credit at school.

Exactly what educational or literary purpose could my legal name serve, anyway? Jesus, I thought, I need to find out who this professor is and write him or her a carefully worded yet very stern letter. So I wrote the student back, politely asking for her prof’s name, the class number and the name of the college she attends. I did not, of course, answer her question.

I have written her twice now, and my cyber-savvy buddy has possibly tracked down the kid’s school, if she indeed attends the college whose pink hoodie she was sporting in her Facebook profile picture, and I have written an instructor there who very well might be said professor but have yet to hear back from anybody.

This leaves me frustrated, and feeling violated, and worried that this will happen all over again this semester, that I will get a new crop of letters from eager students asking me about my legal name.

For those people who use their legal name and have never had any dissonance in their head or life with the name given to them at birth versus the name that feels like their name, well, I am glad for you, I really am. It must be fantastic to have all your ID match your face and your gender and your tits and your birth certificate and what the border guard sees when he looks at you and decides whether or not to let you on the plane. You are lucky.

I am not one of those people. I don’t like my legal name, first or last; it doesn’t suit me, it never fit, and what is more, I never really knew the man who I got it from, my grandfather, and the few times I did spend any time with him, I didn’t like him much. He died when I was 21. I think I met him about three times in my entire life.

I changed my name in 1990. That was 22 years ago. Some of my family still call me by my birth name, and I let them do this only because they are my family. I cash cheques and do business and perform and publish and live and fuck and talk to my neighbours as Ivan. Because this is my name. It feels good to be called who I am.

A couple of months ago my friend and collaborator Elisha Lim (they drew the book covers for Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme and for One in Every Crowd, my latest two books) was approached by Xtra to do an interview about their work. Elisha prefers to use “they” as a pronoun. Many of my friends do. Xtra, much to my chagrin and embarrassment, refused to honour this seemingly simple request, citing grammar considerations and awkward language concerns, I believe.

I was mortified that the paper I have been writing this column for since 2001 (that’s right, 11 years) would not honour my trans friend’s simple request to be referred to by their choice of pronoun. I had a long chat on the phone with my editor. She heard me out, but nothing changed. I kept writing my column. I had to. I keep my promises. I do what I say I am going to do with my writing commitments. I am a professional. I needed the money.

Then last week my other buddy and collaborator Rae Spoon, who I regularly play, tour, write and record with, wrote a blog post about how they recently turned down a full-colour cover and article with Xtra Ottawa, over concerns that the paper would not respect Rae’s pronoun choice as well, which also happens to be they. I have included the links to both Elisha's and Rae's posts about how this feels, so folks can check them out.

I humbly request that Xtra do some serious thinking about what it means for a queer paper to refuse to honour such a fundamentally basic issue so important to many of its readers, or potential readers. All of its trans, gender non-conforming, gender-queer readers and all of our many allies. Call us what we wish to be called.

And in case you are still considering calling upon rules of proper grammar to justify ignoring our need to be seen and respected for exactly who and what we are, well, my lovely wife has prepared a fairly comprehensive reading list of reference materials proving that not only is it perfectly correct to use “they” as a singular pronoun in the English language, it was first done in the 16th century. My wife is my favourite ally of them all.

So, Xtra, it is too late for you to lead the way on this issue, but you still have an opportunity to step up and be a better and more accurate and diverse voice for the true GLBTTQQI communities that seek to find information and support and recognition in your pages. Please, this is not a complaint. It is an opportunity. An opportunity for you to make this paper better. More diverse, more trans-inclusive, more relevant, more courageous, more real, more truly queer. Call us what we want to be called. Be a part of changing our language to better reflect the world that uses it to communicate. Make me proud. Proud enough to keep on writing here for another 11 years.

Comments

A Rose by Any Other Name...
As an English prof, I can say that that kind of assignment sounds like a spur of the moment task given without any thought. When I walk into a classroom I want everyone to be respected and to show respect to others. If that means calling somebody They, or any other pronoun, then that is what I will do. The rules of grammar are not an issue when related to identity in this context. Ivan is speaking to my Creative Writing - Fiction class this week at Mount Royal University. My request for Ivan to speak to the class has nothing to do with birth names or gender as I could care less. Ivan is simply a damn good writer.
Fail?
Perhaps Shaed, but teacher still says I have the cleanest desk in class.
really?
If it is not important to you to use a person's preferred pronouns and therefore you won't respect mine, we have nothing to talk about. --- If you insist that "they" is not appropriate english and therefore you refuse to respect my pronoun choice, we have nothing to talk about. --- If you believe that all of this is just some sort of "politically correct" attack on journalists and therefore refuse to respect my pronoun choice, we have nothing to talk about. --- If you are unable or unwilling to "suspend disbelief" for a single moment, to extricate yourself from the mire of disrespect this non consentual gender binary has plugged your brain with, we have nothing to talk about. --- i see your gums flapping, but i'm hearing nothing new, nothing revolutionary, and certainly nothing queer. --- There's a reason why Xtra is a dinosaur in the queer publishing world. Moving on.
I have always said...
People who refuse the singular use of "they" should be forced to give up the singular use of "you." They are grammatically identical people. Serafin LaRiviere, you fail at grammar.
really a college assignment?
It just occurred to me that that doesn't sound like a plausible assignment. Whereas it does sound like a possible fake assignment someone might have made up, someone who really wanted to figure out what you used to be called in order to do some amateur sleuthing or something. What on earth kind of class would assign that? It's creepy either way, I guess.
grammar is a mode of maintaining the status quo
We should understand appeals to grammar as desperate (and cloaked) attempts to keep things the way they are. They are fearful resorts to language--hey, it's not me, it's just that the rules of language dictate that I can't treat you as human, that I can't treat you with the respect you deserve. These people, editors I guess, are forgetting that language changes--like your wife points out, English used to allow for this! We are not stuck in 1950s English, people! If you don't want to give up on "whom" yet, fine--that doesn't hurt anyone. But it would seem to me that editors above all are responsible for acknowledging that language is powerful enough to maintain prejudices, that is to hurt people, just as it's part of maintaining certain proprieties that help people. Being conservative about language can be fine--it's why we have legible publications to read--but you have to be ethical too. You have to remember that humans are where these locutions begin and end, and sacrificing the human for the locution is also forgetting why editing is actually a really important profession. I might be misquoting a little, but Nietzsche says "We will not get rid of God until we have gotten rid of grammar." A lot of ideological cruelty is embedded in language. Thank you for this great post and I hope the editors of xtra step up.
get out of the muck of Xtra now!
It is time for all trans and queer people to leave Xtra and start a new Trans and Queer publication/web site. Ivan can be the resident writer. Why bow to the haters. Separate and celebrate.
guidelines for trans issues
are NOT difficult to follow. There's whole websites dedicated to them. One of the more accurate ones is at http://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender The # 1 thing, that Xtra is not only ignoring, they're flat out refusing to do, is RESPECT the Trans person. If in doubt, use what they decide is the pronoun to describe them. period. There is NO reasonable excuse what so ever, to EVER not respect this very simple, and very basic issue of good manners. Period. Failing that, fire your current editors, and hire me. I'll do the job RESPECTFULLY as opposed to the idiots doing it now!
Confused about how they want to do this?
I have no problem using he or she as desired, but the grammarian in me has a hard time with 'they' as a singular pronoun. Maybe I don't understand how it's supposed to work, but would that mean I should say, 'When Kelly goes to the store they will need their shopping list' instead of he/she will need his/her? It's not that I have a problem with being gender neutral, but the sentence no longer makes sense to me - I am left wondering 'who is they'? I believe the historical examples of they as a singular pronoun are correct within a certain context, but that doesn't mean we can universally use they/them/their without crippling the English language. There has to be a way to respect people that doesn't require grammatical acrobatics to parse a sentence. The "legal name" thing is crazy, I can't see how that prof could think it was remotely acceptable.
Go Ivan!
I echo the comments of appreciation above, Ivan. You are a constant inspiration, as storyteller, challenging and beautiful writer, performer and all-round solid human being. I too am saddened that you had to go through this and maddened by both the prof (gah) and Xtra (boo). Will they never learn?! love and compassion.

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