Column: The Power Of ‘She’

Some have said it’s old school, that we all have to understand that the world is changing and how gender different people identify is changing as well. I can accept that, though I still manage to screw up non-binary gender identities on a regular basis.

I do my best to use “ze,” “hir,” “they,” or whatever else someone expresses as their personal preference, but I’ve never been truly comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns. Millennials and others may be perfectly at ease with them, but I doubt I ever will be.

When I came out in 1997, no one, or at least no one I’d ever met, identified as non-binary. There was Box M and Box F, and you got to choose one and only one. I was completely fine with this. I knew who and what I was, and most importantly, who I wanted to be. I was (and am) “she.” Perhaps most importantly, I wanted others to see me as “she” too.

Today it’s not uncommon to see people half my age or younger redefining and playing with their genders in ways most of us couldn’t even conceive of a generation ago. They’re blazing new trails in gender diversity that could well become the norm in the future. In some places, we’ve even seen the beginnings of formal acceptance of those identities. It’s a truly great thing to see.

It’s just not for me.

I fought for “she.” I went through hell for it. So did a lot of my trans sisters. We put ourselves out there as the women we are, often as the targets of violence and ridicule, all because we needed to be “she.” Despite not being popularly seen by others as being born to it, “she” was an identity we took for ourselves. We held onto it tightly with both hands, no matter how harshly the rest of the world chose to punish us for it.

I think it’s fair to say that for the most part we’ve won that battle, albeit pretty recently relatively speaking. Conservatives are still getting worked up over bathrooms, but the significant backlash to HB2 and laws like it tells us that most of the U.S. finally gets it, that one does not need to be born with a specific configuration of genitalia to qualify for respect and acceptance as the women we say we are.

We’ve taken “she” for ourselves and we’ve taken the rest of the country along with us for the ride. Where once not so long ago we couldn’t get almost anyone in our government to acknowledge trans people as a viable minority interest, much less actually fight for us, now politicians campaign for office on their support for or against our rights, companies change their policies to include and support us, and even military service is opening to us.

“She” makes a difference, perhaps even more than “he” does. Masculinity in women has always been more socially and culturally acceptable in the U.S. than femininity in men and that directly impacts the difference in how trans women and trans men are popularly perceived. There’s a reason why all the politics around the bathroom bills are about keeping trans women out of ladies rooms, not the reverse. At their core, these efforts have nothing to do with keeping people safe but everything to do with playing on social and cultural perceptions of men and women to score political points.

The problem, of course, is not only that this kind of gender politics works all too often, but also that major LGBT political organizations like the Human Rights Campaign have repeatedly proven themselves incompetent in defending against it.

Such activists have not only shown themselves to be generally unwilling to bring a significant amount of resources to bear in fighting these laws but also extremely hesitant to take cues from trans people as to how these battles should be fought. They prefer instead to rely upon antiquated tactics derived from a marriage movement, which won virtually no traction in redder states until the U.S. Supreme Court forced the issue. It’s the kind of milquetoast advocacy, which keeps gay-focused major donors happy but rarely if ever actually gets the job done.

However, the problem isn’t just centered on our own community’s advocacy. It’s also about our political allies who are finally finding their stride in dealing with trans people who present ourselves within the gender binary. When non-binary identities are added to the mix they lose their courage and revert back to just trying to pretend we don’t exist.

Our youth want to live in a world that accommodates and respects multiple gender identities. That’s a laudable goal, but before it can happen we have to get the “she” thing worked out.


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