Do you have a pronoun that you prefer?
He is fine.
Call me he.
Sorry, sir. Wait. Sir or ma’am?
Thanks for coming to the support group. We’re gonna go around the circle for an icebreaker before we get started, just say your name and your pronoun.
Hi, I’m Casey, and I don’t care what pronoun you use.
This was my attitude about pronouns for a long, long time, even around the most supportive and progressive of folks, even after I started wearing women’s clothes all the time, after I told everyone that I was transitioning, and after I began taking hormones. It’s not like I particularly enjoyed being called he. It just felt like a neutral word to describe a physical state, like redhead. I wanted a female body, and I wanted to live as a woman in this world, but being referred to as she didn’t seem a huge part of that. It was a bureaucratic symbol that held no symbolism. When I had a woman’s body, I figured, then I would go by she, sure, but my level of excitement was roughly the same as one might be about changing the address of a driver’s license.
Back in the day, my pronoun apathy made me fret, it was another doubt that made me go I must not actually be trans, maybe I am just pathetic and crazy. Eventually I came to see it as another of the individualities of this whole experience. Some need surgery, some don’t. Some need to pass, some don’t. There are a lot of things I wish I could go back and say to myself at nineteen, but near the top of the list would be “The mileage varies like woah, kid.“
It’s true that I love it when strangers called me she or ma’am, but that was about the knowledge that I passed as opposed to the word itself. Years ago, my ex Mikayla once said “Hey, pretty girl” to me as I was getting ready to go out one night, and it made me sad, because I didn’t feel like a girl yet and I wanted to be. It was so sweet of her to say, but I still felt that I was a boy and I was frustrated as all hell about it.
Last summer, when I was mapping out my transition, I decided to make all the social and legal switches—change names and gender markers on the passport, driver’s license, etc—after the end of my program at school, what would’ve been this May. A natural transition point. I’d be nine months on hormones by then, I thought, so I guessed that I would be able to pass okay, or at least significantly better than I could pre-hormones. When people asked, last fall, if it was time to call me she, I said I’d let them know when to switch. Probably in May, I said. I planned this out like you might plan a hair appointment.
It’s late January of this year, about three-and-a-half months into hormones, and I’m in bed at my lover’s place, in that mid-consciousness level between awake and sleep, and suddenly without precedent I think, I can’t be called he anymore. I’m not a he anymore. It’s done. It’s time. I don’t consider or mull it. Maybe the hormones move some awaiting needle, maybe it’s the culmination of years of hope and searching, but regardless, it’s one of the quickest decisions I make in my life.
The next morning, she gets up to make the coffee and when she gets back, I say, “So, uh, I need to ask you something, uh, yeah, um,” and she looks worried until I tell her, when she smiles and laughs. “I was going to ask you today if I could start doing that!”
Later on, I’ll be asked if I have a “girl birthday,” as some do, and I’ll realize retrospectively that it’s not when I started hormones, or when I came out, it’s that night, in bed, at that moment.
In disjointed fits and starts over the next month, I tell my friends. I begin using the women’s bathroom. I come out at school. My New York friends make mistakes now and then, but for the most part the switch is smooth.
In the past, some people told me I was a he and nothing could change that. Some people told me I needed to use she when I was still using he, before I was ready for it. But I like that I’ve waited until the moment felt right. Being called she quickly becomes warm, natural. He becomes intolerable, rapidly so. I get snarly when strangers call me sir or he. Not just because I don’t pass around them, but because the word itself takes on an ugly shape.
It’s easier to tolerate from friends who’ve known me a while, and I try to not get snippy, but it still stings. It becomes a reminder of something I’m ready to put behind me. Sometime in April, Stephen accidentally calls me he and apologizes. “It’s okay,” I say, automatically. “No it’s not,” he says. And he’s right. It’s understandable, but it’s not okay. The word wears on me.
A few times, even I slip up and refer to myself as he in the third person, which feels rotten. (I’m the one most used to calling myself he, I have verbal muscle memory too.) I go home to Oregon and he is abundant, it gets harder to hear. I change my driver’s license and my American passport, and I spend long, long minutes staring at the new Fs. I dislike looking at the Ms my Canadian passport and birth certificates—which I can’t change because I haven’t had surgery—and these markers suddenly don’t feel bureaucratic or meaningless at all.
Now, in August, I’m at a new job in a large store for three weeks before somebody calls me he, and it simultaneously puts me a bad mood while flooring me to realize that I can go that long without it happening. He becomes unexpected, random, needling. A word that once did not matter now sets me on edge. And she, a word that once hurt because it reminded me of something I couldn’t do, is now strong and shining and lovely. What was once incorrect is now imperative.
In giving HR my documentation, I show them my American passport, listing me as female. Social Security—another institution insisting on the M—sends a no-match letter back to HR, saying they have me listed as male. I’m lucky that my employer doesn’t care, but they’re required to point it out to me, and it’s jarring to see. Gender codes do not match, reads the Social Security letter. Yeah, no shit, I think.
I don’t remember when I first heard or was called the word faggot, but it was probably in middle school, joining up with the elementary school-learned terms of sissy and gay and the cumbersome you’re like a girl. Of all the epithets meant to degrade unsuitably masculine boys, I hated faggot the most, above others it felt ugly and visceral and sharp and cruel, whether it was used to degrade me or someone else, or whether it was used for joking around. It hurt me without warning and it held power over me.
I felt angry and helpless about this, and feeling angry and helpless sucks, so sometime mid-high school I started throwing the word back in their faces—with a joy that now strikes me as bordering on hyperactive. Fuck yeah big boy, you want some? That’s funny, haha, I do look like a fag, you’re totally right. Sometimes I’d get visibly angry, but usually I tried to defuse it. Sometimes this was just to cool down a situation, but also, every time, it was to never, ever fucking give someone the satisfaction of letting that word hurt me. I started saying faggot undefensively too, casually and endearingly and without much care, through much of high school and college.
I’m guessing I unknowingly hurt a fair amount of people by doing so. I never thought about this. I was empowered. I realized later this is what’s called “re-claiming,”
Now, I still use the word in that re-claimed sense, especially incarnations like faggy that somehow seem softer-edged. I mostly use it in private though, with known friends, because regardless of my own history it seems unkind to bandy loaded terms in public willy-nilly. (This column hopefully not falling under the willy-nilly category.) As for when I hear it? The word has lost a lot of its ability to hurt me, yet when bashers direct it at me, it doesn’t feel much different than when I was in middle school. Language is contextual. There are chasms to me between an old friend laughing benevolently and saying you’re like the best faggot ever and a man sticking his head out a courtyard window and yelling fucking faggots!
My personal history with this word wouldn’t be particularly notable if it wasn’t for the fact that I have never identified as a gay man. Because of its connotations of male femininity, sometimes I’ve felt a kinship with the word, but mostly my strong feelings come from it having been directed at me in anger and misunderstanding and sometimes with the desire to do violence to me. My experience with this word is complicated, but my identification with it is close to nonexistent.
A different epithet, very much meant to describe a group I identify with, is tranny. And that’s a word I just don’t care much about, because it’s not a word that was ever thrown at me in a hateful way. It bugs me when I see a presumably cis person write a hot tranny mess to describe someone, but it doesn’t carry much of a punch. Intellectually, I understand that bashers often use it to be shitty, but emotionally, I like it. It sounds scrappy and laid-back and it seems a nice alternative to our usual clinical-sounding words, like trans woman and transsexual. I don’t throw it around senselessly either, for the same reasons I don’t throw around faggot, but though I identify with the word tranny, my experience with it isn’t terribly deep.
For me. For now. It might mean something different at some point. As words as disparate as he, she, and faggot have meant vastly different things to me too.
I don’t have the authority or the space to recount the debates about the words faggot and tranny, about the contexts they’re used in, about who’s tried to promote or exterminate them, or the different thoughts about what these words really mean.
Yet what I would like to say is that the vocabulary game can’t be won. The best, most sensitive term doesn’t exist, because terms are meant to classify, and classification, by definition, is meant to include and exclude. There will always be those who don’t identify with the words assigned to them, no matter how benevolent or agonizingly thoughtful the assigning. This isn’t to say that words are meaningless, or that they all carry the same weight, or that epithets like the ones I’ve mentioned should be used by everyone with the carelessness of sofa or breadbox. But I can’t help but wonder if those who insist that faggot and tranny are unconditionally liberating, or offensive, aren’t just as incorrect as those who told me, before that January night in my lover’s bed, that I was to call myself he or she.