The Importance of Words



A friend recently came out as non-binary. That is to say, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term ‘non-binary’ that they identify as neither male nor female (the binary genders), but find themselves somewhere on the colorful spectrum in between. Their preferred pronoun is now them/they. (This is now considered a grammatically appropriate gender neural singular pronoun, by the way). 

I am a little bit surprised by how much trouble I’ve been having to bend my mind around this news. I was already familiar with the idea of non-binary gender identification, but this is the first time that I’ve known someone personally who so identifies. Particularly, this is the first time I’ve known someone who has Come Out as non-binary, after knowing them previously in a binary gender role. This is a little bit different from meeting somebody who introduced themselves as non-binary from the get go. Even with the best of intentions, I catch myself thinking of them in their previous pronouns. I’m a little embarrassed about how consciously I have to remind myself to make adjustments. 

It’s not easy to unwrite your mind. Once you have a preconceived notion about someone it takes work to change it- not difficult work, but work nonetheless. I mean, I’m game for it: I don’t typically have a lot of cognitive dissonance about sexual orientation or gender identity- if someone wants to tell me who they are and who they like, then I’m not going to pretend like I know better. But I’m beginning to understand why it would be difficult for others: parents, siblings, close friends- people who thought they knew and are having to hold up all their memories and experiences against a new identity. And when you get right down to it, it’s probably even pretty difficult to make the same discovery about one’s self.

When I really got to thinking about it, I found myself realizing how much of our identity is handed to us by the outside world (‘society’ for the sake of simplicity) before we can decide if it is right. Before we even have a name, our identity is assigned a gender: It’s a girl! It’s a boy! (Never she’s a girl, or he’s a boy: as babies, we’re not even subjects yet- we’re gendered objects.) And then we go through our lives being given names and colors and stories and toys and games that go along with these assumptions. Probably, for most people, it is a non-issue: the assumed identity feels just fine and there’s no reason to question it. And for others the assumed identity feels so distinctly wrong that the way to feel right is to transition from one end of the spectrum to the other. But what does it mean to be in the middle? To be given an identity that maybe doesn’t always feel right, but doesn’t feel wrong enough to merit going to the other extreme?

The proliferation of names for new gender and sexual identities is still relatively new in mainstream culture. It’s not that these identities didn’t exist before, it’s just that there wasn’t a name for them. I’m beginning to recognize the importance of Names- if you want to get biblical about it, Adam’s one job was to name the animals. And not eating the apple, of course. (You had One Job, Adam!) So clearly, being able to put a name to an idea is really important, and we’ve known this for a long time. 

It’s a small but significant step from being able to say what you’re not to bring able to say what you are. I don’t think I really considered the profundity of this before now. Maybe this is what has caught in my mind: this idea that a change in vocabulary can change an identity. 

Words are that important. 

I mean, not to overstate my own importance, or anything, but if words are that important, then knowing how to use them is like knowing how to program reality. So being a writer has the potential to be a pretty powerful job. 

No pressure.

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~ by Gwydhar Gebien on January 4, 2018.

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