You are going to get the pronouns wrong. I do and I consider myself genderqueer. I’ve had more opportunities than most to think about gender as a non-binary thing, more time to detach gender from appearances and presentation. But I’m still human and I still make mistakes. And just like most people, I was subjected to years and years of cultural indoctrination that taught me that there are two types of people – women and men – that there are all sorts of little “clues” that help me separate those two groups, and most importantly that such separation is absolutely necessary for survival.
Most of us have been taught so well that the act of separation, of categorization, is practically instinctual. We see a person, our minds take in all the “clues,” and before we’ve realized we’ve processed all that information, we’ve come to a conclusion, a snap judgement, about the person’s sex and gender, which societal messaging conflates as one thing. M or F. But if the “clues” are even a bit confusing, we get uncomfortable. We stare a little longer, look for more “clues,” that one dead give-away. When we finally find it, we grab the “right” box and stuff the person inside, relieved. We can finally look away, problem solved.
Problem not solved, because people are not problems.
What we’ve been taught by mainstream society is wrong. There are more than two genders. The rules and “clues” we thought were so either/or, black/white, aren’t. The “clues” lie. People use the “clues” to confuse you and to mess with the system. And finally, gender categorization isn’t always necessary, even when you acknowledge genderqueer people as another gender category. It matters a lot, of course, in interaction with other people, as most people prefer to be acknowledged to be the gender they identify as, but it isn’t important to categorize strangers we will never meet. Get it right with the people you know, let it go with the people you don’t know.
The best way to improve your odds of not getting the pronouns wrong in face-to-face encounters with people who might be hurt by your mistake is to practice in non-interactive settings. Start with that person on the street who you aren’t immediately sure about, because in that situation you’ve already taken a pause and have space to make choices about how to proceed. You can look a second longer to find the “confirming clue” or you can choose to say to yourself something inconclusive like “They’ve got long hair,” or “They’re wearing a baseball cap” or “They’ve got the cutest dog” and look away without making a judgement about their gender. It’s okay not to know.
Next, try talking about anyone you haven’t met yet and whose pronouns you don’t know yet using a gender neutral pronoun. I recommend “they” because it is a word you already know and use. However, not everyone likes to use “they” as a third person singular pronoun, so keep that in mind and listen to what that person wants you to use. Try saying things like “What do you think they are like?” and “I bet they like blue.”
When you’ve gotten used to using they when you don’t immediately guess a person’s gender and when you don’t know a person’s gender, challenge yourself and fill your world with gender-neutral strangers. Pick the person the “clues” are screaming the most assertively about and tell yourself a story about them using gender-neutral pronouns. You don’t have to be creative, you don’t have to be the next J.K. Rowlings, you just have to practice. “They got on the subway. They are sitting on an orange seat. They look bored. They are going to get off. They will walk home.” Remember, the “clues” lie. That person you chose might identify as genderqueer. If all the “clues” line up, but a person feels genderqueer, they are genderqueer. We aren’t being bad at being genderqueer if we choose to present as feminine or masculine, not even if we “pass.” You are being a bad ally if you willfully ignore our pronouns once you know what they are.
But we are all human and no matter how hard we try, we still make mistakes. You will make mistakes. Sometimes they will hurt that person. Apologize. Keep trying to get it right. Keep practicing. Keep filling your world with gender-neutral strangers. The more often you have described any and every type of person with a gender-neutral pronoun, the easier it will be to meet those people and talk about them using the pronouns they want to hear.