Some schoolkids in Baltimore began integrating into their slang a new gender-neutral pronoun, "yo," as in "so yo went to the store and bought a juice and a magazine" or "hand it to yo." It's the first third-gender pronoun I've heard that doesn't sound silly, separating or degrading. It can be used by anyone for anyone, and it takes the (gender/sex-based) guessing out of things. Without even realizing it, these kids found a realistic solution to the problem of creating a pronoun that can be applied to women, men and anyone in between. The first appearances of "yo" as a pronoun happened in 2008, and since then it has not spread as much as it should have. It will take some getting used to, but the more we spread it, the quicker it can catch on, and the less we'll have to worry about hurting each other's feelings by not using the particular pronouns that correspond with our diverse gender identities.
When I was in school, we learned that sex and gender are the same thing. "Girls" and "boys" were separated in health class so that each group could be taught separately about healthy heterosexual sex and deal separately with the female- or male-specific issues that would arise as we entered puberty. After being placed in the "girls" group, I remember being confused and grossed out as I learned to put a condom onto a cucumber in preparation for my assumed inevitable sexual encounters with boys.
But times have changed. Just as we began seeing and acknowledging in the '60s that some boys like boys and some girls like girls, we are now recognizing more and more that some boys are born in female-sexed bodies and some girls are born in male-sexed bodies. Now whether these people are straight or gay is irrelevant to how they feel and perceive themselves.
I'm a straight male who happened to be born in a female body. I know. I don't really get it either. I started to understand when I found out the word for people like me: "transgender." I thought, "We do exist!"
Recently, transgender people like me began popping up in the media and probably in your social circles. We are no longer trying to hide who we are and assimilate quietly. Just as the gay rights movement reared its head in the late '60s, we're now seeing a similar movement of transgender people, straight and gay alike. We are asking to be referred to using the pronouns that match our gender identities. For me, although I look like a "girl," that would mean referring to me using the words "he," "him" and "his."
That said, I'm not very butch. I still wear eyeliner. I like the way it makes my face look. I have long hair, and sometimes I wear heels. It does feel a little like dress-up, a tad "draggy," but I'm doing the best with what I've got while trying to stay true to myself. I'm not planning on transitioning into a male body like so many other trans guys, partially due to the fact that I'm an actor and believe I'll have more success in my field if I stay in the body I have now. I've also embraced this appearance as part of my role in the battle against conflating sex and gender.
Still, after figuring out that I'm transgender and not crazy, I began to feel entitled to acknowledgment of the fact that I'm a man. It had always felt right, but I hadn't previously realized that I was entitled to that acknowledgement, looking like I do. I began to ask my girlfriend to refer to me using male pronouns every so often. "It makes me feel good," I told her. It made me feel recognized, affirmed. I'd never related to female pronouns anyway; they always made me pause a little before responding. (So does entering women's restrooms, and checking the "female" box on government documents or job applications.) But to this day, friends who know me as male, and even my girlfriend, have a hard time remembering to acknowledge my male identity with those very affirming pronouns that so many cisgender men take for granted. Why? Because I appear female.
This brought me to the discovery that pronouns are not based on gender but on appearance. Since realizing that, I've gained a little more patience with people who use female pronouns when referring to me. I realize what a visual society we are. However, I know that letting the "wrong" pronouns slide and not demanding that people refer to me as I truly am may be seen as rolling over in an extremely important battle for respect of diverse gender identities. It's hard for me to know when I should bring it up, or when I'm being too politically correct or even hypocritical. I suppose I'm engaging in the sensitive task of trying to gradually challenge what society considers "male" and what it considers "female." Yes, transitioning is courageous and important, but I believe that it is also important for people to begin seeing and knowing men who look like me and women who look like any Joe or John on the street.
When it comes to friends and colleagues, I have a hard time knowing what to ask for. On the one hand, I want to be a successful "actress," but on the other, I'm a man, a true-blue straight dude who's sensitive but still not without the male ego, a little sexist, I admit, and everything else that comes with having a dick (or at least the phantom phallus feeling that's always been with me, but that's for another blog post).
So what's the solution? There are plenty of men walking around in female bodies, and plenty of women walking around in male bodies. Should we be forced to transition just to be "affirmed," "recognized" and "respected" as belonging to the gender we truly identify with? Nope, not all of us should have to, and I probably won't. A solution may just be a new pronoun that recognizes everyone for who they are. So let's use the "yo." After all, sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can still hurt like hell.
Lauren Hennessy identifies as a trans male actress and blogs for HuffPost Gay Voices.