I went to a medical appointment and I couldn’t stop from wondering about the gender of the nurse’s assistant who interviewed me and took my vitals. In my head I felt like I was being rude. But still my brain chugged through the list of typical traits for men and women, comparing them to the person who was taking my blood pressure. I wanted a pronoun as a label and a gender to box this person in. It’s a habit, a way of seeing people, assigning them characteristics and predicting their behavior. He or she?
Gender has divided people into two groups my whole life. Until now. Now gender seems fluid, less confining, a choice. At least, I’m learning to see it that way. In the 1970s I went to a public high school where females weren’t allowed to wear pants and males weren’t allowed to wear long hair. Back then nurses wore white dresses with little white hats and nylon stockings. I was boxed in as a girl the day I was born. I marched in the streets for women’s rights. Biology is not destiny. Yet part of my brain wants to box in the nurse’s assistant.
Driving through the city I saw a thin young woman with a messy bun standing on the street corner, and I had the thought that if I grew my hair out, I would wear a messy bun like hers. Then she crossed the street in front of me and I saw she had a full beard. She was a he. Man bun. Presumably. Gender is an assumption.
At the grocery store the cashier was a young man with long shining black hair in jeans and a t-shirt, and full Kardashian makeup, boomerang eyebrows chiseled into caramel skin, glittering purple lids, butterfly lashes, contoured cheekbones and glossy lips. He was beautiful. I told him so and he flashed a brilliant smile. So why am I calling him a he? Intuition, I guess. I think it was the t-shirt. But, of course, I don’t know.
My barista is a young person with dark facial hair and a wispy mustache in a spaghetti-strap sundress, wearing a pair of fabulous vintage earrings. I want those earrings. So I ask if they’re pierced or clip-ons, do they hurt their ears, how old are they? After scouring them for clues, the person, not the earrings, I give up on the gender checkbox. I see my curiosity is reflexive. This person doesn’t fit the gender template in my mind. But gender is not a template.
“Where’s the ladies room?” The words come out of my mouth without a thought. On the door it says All Gender Restroom. I remember the days of the Miss, Mrs., Ms. fight. I checked the Ms. box because I wanted the right to define myself. Now the principle of un-gendering my pronouns seems similar. People have the right to define themselves. They, them, their. Words matter. It’s going to take me a while, but I get it.
4 thoughts on “Vocabulary Lesson”
Very thoughtful, Billie. A good one.
Thanks, Susan! I’m glad you appreciated the point of view. I did get some rancorous reactions from readers who focused mainly on the problem of sharing public restrooms.
Thank you, Ms. Best. Oops. It’s going to take me a while, too… I feel old. Like an old… person.
Great one, this, Billie.