How not to be a gender offender

Image by Guy James Whitworth.

Guy James Whitworth offers some heartfelt advice to help make this Mardi Gras the kindest and most compassionate we can. 

I’m stating the obvious here, I know, but none of us are born fully formed – we all grow, evolve and develop into the beings we are and that never stops happening.

This Mardi Gras/silly season/Queer Christmas, let’s all agree to do things a bit differently. Let us, before introducing old friends to new friends, check, by asking our old friends, ‘What are your pronouns again?’

We live in times where things can change easily and sometimes there are subtle changes in those we love without us even noticing it. The Mardi Gras Festival is such a good opportunity to check in on dear ones, and check if we are being the very best supportive friends we can be.

I remember when I came out as queer years ago, my good old dad informed me, he ‘had never met anyone who was gay before’. Now at this exact point, because my nerves were shot to hell and I was internally screaming, I wasn’t able to inform him that no, there were LGBTQI people all around him, he was just wasn’t noticing it.

In the past two years, I have had two separate friends come out: one as gender fluid and the other as gender non-conforming, both travelling in quite opposite directions (I’ve christened this occurrence my gender double-ender).

I don’t think this is particularly unusual, certainly for us city-bubble sociable types; lots of us know someone who identifies as gender non-binary or whose gender is evolving. (And if you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Actually, no, I don’t,’ well, let me tell you, ‘dad’, you probably do, just without realising it.)

“You don’t have to be the Bernie Saunders supporter that knits their own vegan shoes, like I am, to make space for your friends to feel supported.”

– Guy James Whitworth

Now, I’m the first to admit it, yup, I’m a total leftie, woke, major social justice warrior. So, yeah, people around me are going to be confident to come out to me and not fear my reaction. However, you don’t have to be the Bernie Saunders supporter that knits their own vegan shoes, like I am, to make space for your friends to feel supported.

One of my awakenings around gender was a few years ago, when I attended a (really rather dull) training seminar where a straight, cisgender woman stood up to speak, yet I noticed she took the trouble of introducing herself with her pronouns of her/she.

In the tea break, she and I chatted, and I said I was curious as to why she had done this. She replied, “Because it’s effortless for me to do so, and it’s easy for me to clear the path for anyone else who may be speaking after me for whom their gender is not as apparent.”

That has stuck with me and taught me many lessons. Now, whenever I undertake any public speaking, I try to throw my pronouns into the mix as early as possible for the same reasons.

Gender can be anything from a celebration to a uniform, a minefield, a mere serving suggestion, an ever-growing weight pulling us under or a key to free us, depending on who we are and where we’re at.

Personally, I identify as gender nonconforming (or as I call it in my head, gender non-performing) because, well, in so many ways I don’t really conform to the typically male ideal.

Some days I feel a bit like a gender identity fraud, because all I can muster is a dull, basic male representation to show the world, sometimes not, sometimes I’m braver and more daring/reckless/provocative, but that’s up to me and no-one else.

I keep people around me who, when I turn up to meet them, don’t make a fuss or mention my make up or how I’m dressed. I want to turn up, to wherever I’m supposed to be, and not made to feel self-aware or uncomfortable. Really, who cares if I’m sporting a couple of (expertly blended) smokey eyes? A GLOBAL PANDEMIC IS CURRENTLY RUNNING RAMPAGE, FOR THE LOVE OF CHEESES! Although, yes, actually, this is a new cardigan, thank you for noticing.

Saying personal stuff out loud can be scary. To some, terms like gender fluid, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, gender variant and gender deviant can be new, overwhelming and strange, and people’s reactions can never be predicted. Let’s all undertake some research and find out what these terms mean.

Such a small act as checking pronouns can make such a massive difference to how our friends experience validation and a sense of being ‘seen’ in the world.

Be kind. It may not be your life experience, but respect it is somebody else’s. Don’t be a Gender offender.

Guy James Whitworth is a Sydney-based artist and author. His book, Signs of a Struggle – is available from The Bookshop Darlinghurst and good bookshops everywhere. He can be followed on Instagram and Twitter.