In an early episode of HBO’s series Gentleman Jack, the main character, Anne Lister, pays a visit to one of her tenant farmers, whose son has been in an accident. Lister is seated on the bed beside the boy, chatting with the parents about his recovery, when the theretofore silent boy suddenly pipes up to ask, “are you a man?”
We know from historical accounts of the person upon whom the character is based that Lister both dressed, and comported herself, in ways that challenged the bounds of the feminine. This is especially remarkable given that that she lived in the early-mid nineteenth century. We also know, thanks in no small part to her meticulously kept and minutely detailed diaries, that she had a series of romantic relationships with women, including one that, by today’s standards, would be considered a marriage.
Until this moment in the show, the complexities of Lister’s gender are marked largely by the reactions of characters who gesture at her difference, but who stop short of pointing directly to it. In her wit, composure, and self-assurance in each scene, Lister gives no indication that she is preoccupied with, or held back by, her difference. The boy’s question, then, becomes a spur for her to describe, for the first time and in a way the viewer can already identify so early in the series as uncharacteristically clumsy, her relationship to language and gender.
Part of the allure of Gentleman Jack is that it offers up a corrective to the lack I, and others like me, felt watching or reading a canon that did not represent the kind of desire we experienced. The great on-screen romances of my childhood were adaptations of cornerstone texts of Western literature and thus exclusively featured heterosexual romance. As someone with racial and socio-economic privilege, tv and film were constituted primarily by people who looked like me, but for someone who understands their desire to be both non-normative, and largely invisible, the sense of isolation can come to define who you are in ways that may seem disproportionate to someone who either does not experience difference, or whose difference is more readily legible. The difficulties of finding others like you in Lister’s time might resonate more with someone of my generation than with a teenager today.
But the show in general, and this scene in particular, pushes beyond the queer desire I craved, to deal with gender presentation in a way that is much more relevant to who I am now than it is to the teen whose spectatorial desires the show perhaps set out to fulfill. I came out in my teens, but it took several more years to grow into the gender ambiguity I inhabit today. No one who knows me now reads me as male, but plenty of folks do if they don’t look too closely—which, not incidentally, is how most of us move through the world most of the time. When I feel like my identity is being challenged in public, it is almost always because of my gender expression, and hardly ever because of my sexuality. Gender, as it turns out, is a powerful signifier—something we are wired from early on to use as an indicator for how we will speak to, about, and treat, someone.
I have known for over a decade that pronouns other than those I have historically been addressed with are available, but it never occurred to me to use them, because the way they were being used by others didn’t speak to my own experience. It seems now, though, that the boundaries of experience that gender-neutral pronouns are able or expected to cover have expanded in some ways. From my perspective—which is admittedly delimited in some ways I can see and others I cannot—it seems as though the conversation around pronouns suddenly extended, some time during 2018, beyond queer communities, where it had long resided. Asking for or signaling pronouns was something a broader, usually left, liberal-leaning, perhaps “woke”-identified group were trying to become conversant in and, occasionally, deploy. So, after being asked a number of times what my own pronouns were this Spring, I asked a few close friends to use they/them/theirs when referring to me.
I am radically at home in my body—a tremendous privilege that myriad folks of all identifications do not have—and accept neither the mythologies that seek to determine what can or cannot be female, nor a designation of the female or feminine as secondary or lesser than. Still, I have never really identified as female, because when I take in the broad range of available presentations of others who identify as women, none of them seem to reflect me. There are cis women far more butch than myself who firmly and proudly identify as women, something I find beautiful and powerful. But I don’t identify as butch, or femme, and feel instead like I’m on a totally different gender planet than the one on which that continuum resides. There is a courage to staking out one’s space underneath, or tacking one’s own space onto, a particular sign that I would love to say that I have, and am using to create a space for me and others like myself to be our own brand of feminine or woman, but have begun to suspect that I fundamentally lack.
If, then, I dismiss identification with the masculine out of pocket, and also lack the courage or conviction to put myself forth as of a piece with the feminine, the logical conclusion is that I reside in between (or beyond) the gender binary. By rules both social and linguistic, my pronouns should follow suit. I have a growing number of friends who are legible in a wide range of ways who may or may not identify as trans, gender non-conforming, or in another way that moves boundaries or goes beyond binaries and seem to feel very at home with being addressed with they/them/theirs pronouns. I find them beautiful and powerful and yet, in the wake of my rigorously scientific spring testing, I’m still unsure if those pronouns are right for me. Among my friends, they feel no more right than do she/her/hers. Importantly, it is slightly different to be referred to gender-neutrally by folks beyond the queer community, but only because their deployment of that language makes me feel like they see and respect me and others like me, and distinctly not because that language connects with something fundamental and immutable inside of me.
I feel most at home as a woman in a space like LBTQWomen, where I am surrounded by a veritable cornucopia of different people who congregate, however heterogeneously, under the sign ‘woman’. But events like that are few and far between, and the further I stray from queer spaces, the less comfortable I am with how I am read by others.
We tend to think about pronouns as important to people who are queer or trans, but they are important to cis folks, too. Yet someone who is legible in a way that matches their pronouns might not immediately understand the tremendous stakes for those who are not so privileged as to move through the world in that way. We’re slowly shifting our consciousness away from “preferred pronouns” to an understanding that pronouns are not about preference, but rather about identity and identification. We’re also beginning to understand that, when someone asks you to use certain pronouns for them, it’s not something one can opt out of in good conscience, but rather one of the easiest, and most impactful ways one can support, and show respect for, another. Language, like gender, is a deeply flawed system meant to order the world around us in ways that makes sense to the human mind. Given its integral role in structuring the world around us, grammar must not be exempt from scrutiny. If one can accept that a change in another system (police, government, capitalism, what have you) might be necessary to improve the lives of many, that same logic must be applied pronouns, grammatical convention be damned.
When Lister responds to the boy’s question, her language is circuitous, full of pauses and omissions, but finally comes out “so no, I am not a man. I’m a lady. I’m a woman, I’m a lady-woman” and, after a longer pause, “I’m a woman.” I strongly identified with this moment, because it reflected the feelings I have when my presence in a women’s bathroom is challenged, as it so regularly is. The desire to stake out my right to be here—I am a woman—competed with an urge to refute that person’s right to police gender—I am not a woman, but I have every right to be here. Most resonant in this scene, however, is the utter exhaustion of having to defend oneself, when one believes there is nothing to defend. But Lister’s response also, more subtly, performs the place at which language fails to be able to describe some of us. She can clearly state what she is not, but struggles to say what she is. That she finally settles on ‘woman’ may as readily be the result of a resignation to the constraints to language as it is the staking of a claim to that term as descriptive of herself.
As with the way Lister is portrayed in Gentleman Jack, I believe that I am absolutely fine the way that I am, and I draw immense strength from the fact of my difference. My relationship with language, however, is profoundly more complicated. When I come in contact with certain words, I am reminded that I am part of a culture that may or may not have room for me, even as I do the best I can to make room for everyone else. The closest I can come to saying what I am is to lay a claim sous rature and state that I am a woman. Until such a time as language and culture can make space for me, I will continue to bespeak my ambivalent gender—and my ambivalence to gender—through ambivalent pronouns.