Pas de Queer: A brief primer on talking to trans and non-binary people

In the spirit of full disclosure, this is not a post about dance.

Recently, some of my friends, coworkers, and family members have asked me questions regarding my gender identity. With my content on Art Intercepts, I hope to spread awareness about the experiences trans dancers go through in concert dance. But to impact any actual change, I need to take a step back and explicitly state my gender on this forum and explain what it means to be non-binary.

So here we go.

I, Kaitlyn Dessoffy, identify my gender as non-binary.

All-gender restroom sign | via Creative Commons

Non-binary, also called genderqueer, is a gender identity under the transgender umbrella. It means that you don’t identify as male or female, but that you identify as something between those genders or outside of gender constructs altogether. I was assigned female at birth, and have a female body, but I don’t identify as a woman or a man.

This can be tough to understand, because it requires thinking about gender as a segment of identity with more than two options. A key component of understanding the non-binary trans identity is that sex and gender are separate.

A person’s sex is the physical characteristics that make them male or female. For example, men have an Adam’s apple and women have breasts. There are also people who are born with some combination of male and female sex characteristics, known as intersex people.

Gender, on the other hand, is how a person mentally and emotionally identifies as male, female, or something else. Most people’s sex and gender are the same, this is called cisgender. For example, Ellen DeGeneres’ sex is female and she identifies as a woman. Even though DeGeneres is a lesbian and wears masculine clothes, she is a cisgender female because her sex and self-identified gender match.

When a person is transgender, it means their sex assigned at birth is different than their gender identity. Laverne Cox is a transgender woman. Cox was assigned male at birth but identifies her gender as female. This is a binary transition because Cox transitioned from male (one binary) to female (another binary).

Laverne Cox addresses the attendees the 24th Annual GLAAD Media Awards at the Hilton San Francisco – Union Square on May 11, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by John Medina/WireImage, via Creative Commons)

Non-binary is a transgender identity where someone is assigned male or female at birth but doesn’t identify with either of those categories. This is how I identify.

I also use they/them pronouns. Since I am not a woman, referring to me using the female pronoun “she” or “her” is incorrect. Using “they” and “them” as a singular pronoun allows non-binary trans people to be addressed without being gendered. For example, instead of saying “Kaitlyn forgot her sweater,” you say “Kaitlyn forgot their sweater.” We use a singular they pronoun more often than you might realize in everyday speech, like when someone leaves their ballet shoes in the studio. We know we’re only talking about one person, but we don’t know the gender of the person who left the shoes. Additionally, there are other non-binary pronouns such as “ze/hir/hirs” that some non-binary people use instead of they/them.

If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, ask! It’s a little uncomfortable at first, even for me, but it’s always better to ask than to assume incorrectly. I have been to a few classes and auditions where we are asked to include our gender pronouns when we introduce ourselves. This is an excellent idea. Everyone should do this. Also, if you make a mistake, it’s OK! Most trans people appreciate the effort and would rather you try, and make mistakes, than be uncomfortable around us or avoid conversation.

Also of note, some non-binary people medically transition by taking estrogen or testosterone, or by getting gender reassignment surgeries so their bodies reflect their gender identity. However, medical transition doesn’t make someone “more trans” than a person who has not medically transitioned. I will likely never take hormones or get surgery for plenty of reasons. Top surgery (a cosmetic double mastectomy to masculinize the chest) sounds really appealing, but it’s an expensive procedure not covered by most insurance plans, and I’d have to take a month and a half off dancing to recover. These barriers aren’t impossible to work around, but at this point, the cons outweigh the pros for me.

I hope you found this explanation helpful and can put this knowledge to good use when you interact with non-binary people. If you learned something from this post, please share it with everyone you know. I’m doing my best to fill everyone in on the trans revolution, but I could really use your help! So many people have only half the equation. They know they should be welcoming of trans people, but don’t quite fully commit. As an example, having an all-gender bathroom is great, but if your teaching staff still splits classes up by gender, it’s kind of a moot point.

As it stands, many realms of the dance community are not welcoming to trans people. The good news is, there are signs of progress everywhere. YOU, reading to the end of this article, are a sign of progress. So please, again, help spread the word! By asking for pronouns and challenging the gender norms in our field, you can make this community a place where more folks are included.

Header image: Trans flag, Baltimore, MD | photo by Flickr user Ted Eytan

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