Recently, I was invited to speak on a panel at Fairygodboss’s Galvanize 2019, a conference focused on empowering women’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). The panel was titled “How Women’s ERG’s Must Support Intersectionality,” and I had the privilege of speaking alongside Celeste Warren and Daisy Auger-Dominguez, two folks I admire greatly in the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging space. I was excited…and incredibly nervous. While I had spoken on panels before about ways to fund, structure, and promote communication and collaboration between ERGs, this was the first time I would be publicly sharing my personal views and perspectives on gender.
How would that go over at an event that was called Galvanize, with a bolded g-a-l?
Spoiler: it went incredibly well. I felt like I was able to connect with a very open and receptive audience. One of my favorite moments came after I rattled off some stats about the fluidity of Gen Z compared to other generations (more below), and Daisy said: “You know, I took my daughter to a Ladies Get Paid event last weekend, and she said ‘Mom why does it have to be ladies?’” It’s a good question.
I was moved by how many folks came to talk to me after the panel, quietly disclosing to me that they knew they had to shift but were scared and didn’t know where or how to start and that this discussion helped the door open for them. My experience inspired me to write down my views on gender for the first time.
One quick caveat: I’m not a gender studies major, nor a psychologist, nor a biologist, nor a theologist, nor a writer…these are just the things that float through my head. And the more I try to understand my own gender and the role of gender in society, the more I don’t understand. I am left with more questions than answers and it feels as if I am trying to hold air in my hands.
But here goes.
The future is fluid and we currently live in a system that only supports a gender binary. It doesn’t matter if you agree with the transformation or not — our systems are breaking and we need to evolve along with them.
We’ll feel this even more acutely as Gen Z enters the workforce — the same workforce that Boomers and Gen X are also a part of.
- 35% of Generation Z say they personally know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns like “they” and “them,” compared to 25% of millennials, 16% of Generation X and 12% of Baby Boomers
- 59% of Generation Z also say that “forms or online profiles that ask about a person’s gender should include options other than ‘man’ or ‘woman,” compared to 40% of Gen X, and 37% of Boomers.
- A new UCLA study finds that 27%, or 796,000, of California’s youth, ages 12 to 17, report they are viewed by others as gender nonconforming at school.
Gen Z asks the question “what is gender, and why do we need it?” Older generations respond “because that’s the way it’s always been.”
That answer doesn’t cut it anymore.
For as far back as I can remember, I haven’t thought of myself in terms of my gender. I’ve always thought of myself as, well, me. My gender is inclusive of traits that our culture deems both “masculine” and “feminine.” This puts me in a bit of a conundrum—I am at once completely comfortable with parts of my masculinity and femininity, and completely alienated from the social groupings of “Men” and “Women.”
Side note: I don’t believe that this dichotomy — especially as it relates to behaviors and emotions — is helpful to anyone. To say “that’s manly” or “that’s girly” is to create subconscious walls between human beings and the broad, expansive range of behaviors, expressions, and feelings we can encompass—as well as unnecessary barriers between human beings (a la, men are from Mars women are from Venus). Why can’t we be both nurturing and assertive? Analytical and empathetic? Confident and caring? I don’t believe we have to choose.
“I just don’t believe we have to choose.” That is a very privileged thing to say. A phrase like this wouldn’t be possible (and it still isn’t in many places) if it weren’t for the folks who fought to make space to be anything other than heterosexual or cisgendered before I was even born.
I often think about the word lesbian, and how some folks in the queer community dismiss it. While at this point I don’t strongly identify with that word (because I don’t identify as a woman), I hold a deep tenderness and appreciation for it — as well as a space for it within my own history. I used to identify as a lesbian.
“No no no no no no no. Sh*t! F*ck!” I was 15 years old—scared, angry, and hiding in my room because it had just clicked that I was “not straight.” I really, really didn’t want to be even more of an outsider than I already felt. The only lesbians I knew of were Ellen Degeneres, whose show got canceled after she came out, and Rosie O’Donnell, who I don’t even think was out until her show was off the air. So I tried to be straight for a few more years until the pain of faking it was greater than walking down the unknown path.
A few years after I came out, I remember asking my partner “am I butch?” to which she responded, “you’re adorable.” This was such a loving and kind response—but I couldn’t help shake the feeling that something was off. Sure, I was attracted to women, but I didn’t feel like a “woman who loved women.”
In hindsight, I probably always had been genderqueer, I just wasn’t aware that that being non-binary was even an *option.* The awareness took a while to come, but I got here eventually, thanks to the lesbian community that embraced me with open, accepting arms.
The point is, historical context is important. For lesbians to fight to carve out space for themselves at a time when any deviation from heteronormativity was shamed and ridiculed was incredibly dangerous and incredibly brave. Without these women, we might not have reclaimed the word queer and been given access to the expansive fluidity and beautiful, myriad permutations that come with it.
To dismiss the word Lesbian— and in turn, dismiss anyone who identifies as one — is not the way. Just because I don’t identify with something does not give me the right to say others can’t. I don’t want to be shamed into conforming to someone else’s version of the truth. Why should I do that to others?
I try to look through the same lens when it comes to words like Girls Who Code, Ladies who Lunch, Ladies Get Paid, etc.
I can’t imagine how difficult it was to be a feminine-presenting woman in the workplace in the 80s, 90s, 00s. I also haven’t experienced what it is like to be a feminine-presenting woman in the workplace now. While I have my own obstacles to overcome as a genderqueer person in the workplace, I never get dismissed as being “bossy” or “bitchy” or “too emotional”—another example of that toxic “masculine” and “feminine” dichotomy. Who am I to say that I know what the experience of being a woman in the workplace is like? Or, furthermore, lecture or shame women for the feelings of connectivity, camaraderie, sense of belonging that might come with phrases like “girl” or “hire tech ladies” or even “women in business.” I don’t identify with words like that because it is not my lived experience. Women who blazed a path in the workplace for themselves cleared the way for us to have conversations like this now.
That said, I don’t believe we should call an event for all who don’t identify as cis men a “lady-boss” or “girls-boss” event, as that doesn’t make sense for genderqueer or nonbinary folks. Also, many women don’t identify with the word “lady” — not just those of us who are genderqueer/nonbinary. “Lady” can imply certain behaviors — refined, delicate, prim, proper, well-spoken, reserved, restrained, and of a high social position or economic class. To me, that describes one type of person — a white, straight, cisgendered, affluent woman. Who else does that word exclude?
On the flip side, I don’t believe the answer is for us to eradicate words and phrases like “girlboss,” “PyLadies,” “ladies get paid,” etc, if they help folks find community and power together, just like I don’t think we need to get rid of identities like “lesbian.” Go have your gal-time, your girl-geek-dinners, a conference for lesbians who tech. I’ll go have chosen-family dinners with queers who don’t drink. We all need safe spaces for our specific group.
But what is it called when we all come together?
I don’t have an answer for this or one singular word we can use to describe this togetherness. What I do know is that we need to be very, very cognizant of the language we are using when it comes to building a safe space for those who are not part of the dominant (meaning dominating) culture — in this case cis men, specifically in the workplace (and even more specifically, media and tech).
Let’s do our best to hold space for each other—we have more power in numbers. We all just need to be willing to try.
Language, especially as it relates to gender, is changing faster than we can write (I not-so-secretly hope this is because we are moving towards liberation from gender not just assigning ourselves boxes), and I’ve found that more often than not folks simply aren’t aware of gender as a construct, what it means to be genderqueer, or the latest lingo. Or, they are aware that there is a shift, but they are so worried about getting it wrong or being publicly shamed that they don’t even try.
Let’s take a moment to talk about Call-Out Culture: I think accountability is important. I think folks need to be made aware of mistakes. But I see “calling out” as a shame-based, damaging concept that does not leave room for the imperfection of being human. We write folks off before they have the chance to understand that they’ve even made a mistake, seek to understand more, and make amends if needed. How does anyone even have a chance to get it right?
I’m after transformation — the slow, steady steps along the path of awakening — both for myself and others. I want to help guide folks onto the path of understanding others, not to kick them down before they even see the way-finding signs. So, to me, “calling in” is the way to go.
If I cut ties with everyone who misgendered me, I wouldn’t have many people in my life. On the other hand, if I was written off for the mistakes or missteps I have made, I would also be alone. I don’t want to be alone, and hollering across a canyon for others to respect me while only being willing to see the human-ness of those who are already on my side.
If someone misgenders me, I correct them and move on. We’re all learning. You’ll have an opportunity to try again. And someone if has a good-intentioned question, I can do my best to help them feel safe enough to ask it. What I’d like in return is for folks to be ok with being corrected and be willing to remain teachable, kind, empathetic—and to learn how to teach others to do the same. And if I misgender you (I sometimes default-they folks), just give me a little correction back. It’s cool. I’m learning, too.
I have found a sense of peace in focusing on the human before the words. Life feels so much better without assuming everyone is trying to harm me, dismiss me, insult me. By carrying those assumptions with me, I am only hurting myself. By practicing this, I can more easily see when someone *does* have the intention to harm so that I can take the next right action from there.
The binary system is cracking, but it hasn’t crumbled yet. Our terminology is going to continue to evolve until we come out on the other side. What’s on the other side? No idea. What I can say is that I think the only way forward is for all of us to remain teachable, keep a soft belly and an open heart, assume folks are doing the best they can (with what they’ve been exposed to), and to seek to understand the truth of the others by challenging and questioning our own truths.
I am tired of being divided, conquered. Think about the liberation, the power, the strength, and the belonging we can create for each other. A world where there is room for you, for me, and for us.