Growing up without gendered pronouns
April 27, 2014 2:04 AM   Subscribe

I didn’t know I was a boy until my younger brother called me one. -- Meredith Talusan talks about her childhood growing up in the Philippines without knowing her gender. (Trans 101.)
posted by MartinWisse (29 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
See also: her blog (blog? website?), and another piece she wrote recently: ’Coming Out’ Doesn’t Begin to Describe It: Message from a Trans Survivor
posted by and they trembled before her fury at 4:15 AM on April 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


A quote from the bf Johnny on her blog made me spit out my coffee laughing:
“My mom makes this anchovy dip everyone loves then they ask her what it’s made of and she says anchovies and they say oh no I don’t like anchovies.

You’ve already had the dip. You like anchovies.”

- What Johnny Thinks of Men Who Reject Women They've Already Slept With After Finding Out They're Trans
So true! You may not have thought you liked "anchovies", but why not embrace the fact that you just learned the category of things you like has gotten bigger?
posted by lesli212 at 4:27 AM on April 27, 2014 [38 favorites]


That also made me laugh! Lovely link - thank you.
posted by rtha at 4:31 AM on April 27, 2014


That is a great article. This sentence really struck me:

And in November, I went to a therapist who was part of the team that made the rules that said I needed to go to a therapist, and told him that to assume I was mentally ill for wanting to be a woman is to treat me like gay people were treated in the 1970's.

That was in 2001 and hopefully things are at least a bit better now, but I'd bet that there is still a lot that can be done to restore dignity to the bureaucratic side of the process.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:30 AM on April 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


There's a West African language, Twi, that doesn't have gendered pronouns. Sometimes English conversations with native Twi speakers was tricky, because they'd switch pronouns at will.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:17 AM on April 27, 2014


A lot of languages do not have gendered pronouns. I speak Hungarian, which does not identify a difference between 'he' 'she' or 'it', and further it often embeds the second or third person inside a special grammatical verb form. But everybody knows if they are a girl or a boy or a chair.

Especially the chairs.
posted by zaelic at 7:28 AM on April 27, 2014 [10 favorites]


There's a West African language, Twi, that doesn't have gendered pronouns. Sometimes English conversations with native Twi speakers was tricky, because they'd switch pronouns at will.

It would be really interesting to see if people like that, such non-native speakers, use the differing gendered pronouns truly randomly or if they might intentionally vary, and what would be the subjective basis for variation.
posted by clockzero at 7:40 AM on April 27, 2014


There are no gendered pronouns in Malay too but Malaysia isn't particularly trans-friendly.
posted by divabat at 7:54 AM on April 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


It would be really interesting to see if people like that, such non-native speakers, use the differing gendered pronouns truly randomly or if they might intentionally vary, and what would be the subjective basis for variation.


There's a whole field of study devoted to this and phenomena like it, called second language acquisition. The most studied language on this front is Chinese, which also only has a single, genderless personal pronoun.

Here's an honors thesis, and an article, and a book! found through a quick Google/Google Scholar for "Chinese acquisition of English pronouns"

The TL;DR answer is, the variation is non-random, but it's non-random according to things like linguistic structure and how much input and exposure you get to the language you're acquiring.
posted by damayanti at 8:46 AM on April 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


That was a great article, first and foremost, and secondarily, I had a bit of a shock when I saw the adult photos of the author presenting as male and I realized that I had known her, in a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend sort of way, and I'm so glad to hear she's doing well.
posted by jaguar at 9:00 AM on April 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


Discussions of pronouns and their presence or absence of gender seem like a good time to suggest Ancillary Justice. The narrator is used to a language where everyone is "she" and settings include cultures where the style of dress doesn't clue us in, so figuring out the gender of some characters gets interesting.

And then you wonder why/whether the gender of that character matters so much.
posted by Foosnark at 9:14 AM on April 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm finding this hard to believe. A good posting on medium.com? Oh well, I guess anything's possible. Thanks, MartinW.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:09 AM on April 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


And then you wonder why/whether the gender of that character matters so much.

My own take on Ancillary Justice is that not so much gender doesn't matter in the Radchaai culture, but rather that it's a matriarchal/default human being is a woman society in the way ours is patriarchal; most of the people other than the protagonist do not seem to have problems telling the gender of people.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:35 AM on April 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


Well, sure -- I meant why do I, as a reader, care about the gender of characters so much. There's a kind of tension until the issue is resolved (and sometimes it isn't).
posted by Foosnark at 12:02 PM on April 27, 2014


Hi everyone. I'm Meredith the author of the piece and longtime Metafilter lurker. Can't tell you how amazing it is to see people responding to my work. I'm here to answer any and all questions about anything the piece brings up for people, and also respond to some of the things that have been said so far.

First off, I don't mean to say that people in the Philippines are generally unaware of their gender, but more that those of us who don't feel strongly about belonging to one gender or another, or feel like they belong to the other gender, are much more able to navigate through the culture without being reminded or policed. My family is also super-tolerant even by Philippine standards. I wish you could all see my grandmother pointedly correct people from my hometown who use my birth name. It's precious and I get teary-eyed about it.

Second, I don't think non-gendered pronouns is a guarantee of trans-inclusiveness but just that it has an effect. With countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, I'm sure Islam has a huge influence on LGBT repressiveness, just as Catholicism has a negative effect on the Philippines as far as that goes. It's instructive that Thailand, which has never been explicitly colonized by the West, is well-known as being the most trans-friendly country in Southeast Asia, where there's an underlying indigenous culture of trans-inclusiveness.

Regarding the quality of Medium pieces, while anyone can post on the site, they also hire editors to commission pieces and my piece is one of those. I'm not sure if there's a list of commissioned collections but if you follow Archipelago all of the pieces in that collection are curated by Jess Zimmerman, who's totally amazing. I'll be publishing another piece for her in the next couple of weeks and am super-excited about it.

TL;DR: Thanks so much for reading and responding to my work. I'm deeply honored!
posted by mandonlym at 2:11 PM on April 27, 2014 [48 favorites]


Welcome, mandolym. And thanks for the advice on Medium. I guess it's kind of like Reddit; there's good stuff in there if you know where to look. (And I really liked that picture of your big-ole family.)
posted by benito.strauss at 3:00 PM on April 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Waaaah!~~ You're SUPER RAD, Meredith. Thank you for this.

A few years ago, I visited the home of one of my Filipina friends and met her awesome family. Her dad (who was in a bad way) spoke so proudly and lovingly about her -- but used her birth name and a male pronoun, while the rest of the family did not. I just used the proper terminology without further comment, as in, "I'm so proud of my son" "Yes, she is an unbelievable musician!" To this day, I don't know if that was the right thing to do, or if I was reading too much into it and he was just blanking out.

Either way, I gave her a huge bear-hug afterwards, and said her dad loves the hell out of her, and I do too. Just thinking about navigating that kind of uncertainty as an everyday, unavoidable experience, both in and out of family situations, makes my stomach do backflips. I hope it's not even "a thing" in the future, and writing like yours is helping to chip away at it, bit by bit.
posted by jake at 3:38 PM on April 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Thanks so much for the welcome benito and jake! Jake, in response to the whole son / gender thing, a lot of first-gen Filipinos tend to find it hard to switch to new gender and pronouns because the distinction isn't as meaningful to them, having grown up with non-gendered pronouns. I'm kind of the same way... I don't really react emotionally to being he'd (this happened more when I had short hair) unless the person is clearly doing it to hurt, which hasn't happened to me in a looong time, at least five years. I just correct the person and usually they apologize instantly.
posted by mandonlym at 3:56 PM on April 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


You may not have thought you liked "anchovies", but why not embrace the fact that you just learned the category of things you like has gotten bigger?

Growing up I was told that if I ate seven olives I would come to like olives. This proved to be true. I think of myself as heterosexual cis-male but I can't help wondering if (in my case) my thinking so is just narrowmindedness that a little experimentation would clear away.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:30 PM on April 27, 2014


Yeah, I've often wondered if it's important that in Thai, you choose the pronoun for "I" or "me", but the pronouns for other people are non-gender specific... So you are the one who chooses whether to be male/female in language...

(Within reason, of course - obviously, like in any language, if you specifically want to refer to someone as being male or female, there are syntaxes which can do this).




but I can't help wondering if (in my case) my thinking so is just narrowmindedness that a little experimentation would clear away

Yeah maybe, but I don't know if that can be extrapolated widely across society - as couldn't that reasoning be employed to tell gay people they'd learn to enjoy heterosexuality if they just did it more? As you say, we can only infer from our own cases...
posted by Sedition at 5:31 PM on April 27, 2014


The allusions are getting a bit opaque, but I think it's important to differentiate between a heterosexual man, for example, "experimenting" with sex with another man versus a hetero man having sex with a woman who's trans -- in the second case, that's not experimentation, that's keeping in line with the hetero man's preferred gender.
posted by jaguar at 6:41 PM on April 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Meredith: Wow. That explanation actually makes a ton of sense, and helps me move past a sticking point in my attempts to be a good ally over the years. He clearly meant no malice, I wasn't sure if he'd fully accepted her transition or not, but his eyes lit up when he talked about her. It's fascinating to think that it might be as much a cultural / linguistic issue as an absent-minded lapse. This made my day, thank you.
posted by jake at 7:09 PM on April 27, 2014


I had no idea Thai has gendered first-person pronouns! That's fascinating.

Jake, I deal with this with my dad and grandma all the time. They're super-strong allies, my dad even grew his hair out and wore headbands during my transition period to feel what it's like to be trans, but they have trouble with pronouns and daughter/son in English because they don't make a mental distinction in Tagalog.

I also want to note that the whole notion of gender and sexuality being separate is highly Western and isn't universal, certainly not in the Philippines. There's a strong association there between gay and trans, so that a major gay rights issue is the right for men who "look" like men to identify as gay. So for me personally, I don't have a problem with a guy feeling like he's dating someone "different" because I'm trans. I like having been socialized to have a sense of both male and female social positions, and bring that experience to bear in my interactions. So I think it's totally fine to acknowledge trans preference and experience to be treated like people's preferred gender, but also to note that there's a danger of that kind of thinking being binary-centric.

Also, as someone gay-identified as a man and bi or more like pan-identified as a woman, I would say that I've also experienced a lot of bi and pan-phobia in the gay community. There's even the notion of "gold star gay," that it should be a badge of honor for a gay person never having slept with a person of the opposite gender. So the notion that some gay people might want to consider experimentation prior to making firm decisions about their sexual orientation can, I think, apply equally to both straight and gay people.
posted by mandonlym at 8:09 PM on April 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


So the notion that some gay people might want to consider experimentation prior to making firm decisions about their sexual orientation can, I think, apply equally to both straight and gay people.

Oh, yes, I agree. I didn't mean to imply otherwise.
posted by jaguar at 8:34 PM on April 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wrote a long-ish comment here when this first went up, but then my phone died and I lost it. It's exciting to come back and see that the writer is in the thread! Hi, Meredith. I really liked your piece.

I think everyone has moments in childhood when something crystallises in our understanding that we hadn't known we knew, and this was a wonderful description of how that feels. What also makes it special is the perspective of the writer, looking back on a realisation that wasn't quite as simple as it seemed at the time. It seems like Meredith's family and the less-insistently-gendered language she grew up with gave her space as a child to be without worrying about her gender, which sounds like a very good thing.

I'm in a sort of exploratory phase w.r.t my own gender right now -- thinking back to the moment in my teens when I decided I would have to be a woman because I would never pass as a man. I wish I'd realised back then that there was more than just the two options. (And, from a desire for accuracy rather than necessarily to have made that leap, I wish I'd known the transforming power of testosterone.)
posted by daisyk at 11:40 PM on April 27, 2014


Oh yes, I also meant to say that the article linked to by and they trembled before her fury above is very, very good.
posted by daisyk at 11:43 PM on April 27, 2014


Sometimes English conversations with native Twi speakers was tricky, because they'd switch pronouns at will.
Really? I knew about Twi and Twi pronouns, having lived in Ghana and learned the basic politesse of Twi, but I never had this kind of encounter where the pronouns were treated indiscriminately. Perhaps it is to some extent a geographical issue - I spent most of my time in Accra and Tema, though I didn't notice this in Akropong or Akosomba areas, either.

On the other hand, I DO have this problem a lot with native speakers of French and Romanian, both of which have genders all over (2 and 3, respectively). In addition, until reaching a certain level of English, they both have a tendency towards "she" and "he" for inanimate objects as in their native languages. Come to think of it, the same can be said of Spanish and Portuguese speakers.
posted by whatzit at 4:32 AM on April 28, 2014


daisyk: Thanks so much for the kind words and yeah, coming to terms with non-binary gender has definitely been a fascinating challenge challenge for me as well. I've always known and publicly expressed that I think of myself as being of two genders, but putting that into practice isn't something I completely know how to do right now. Ironically, it's because I am read so strongly as female even though it's not my gender assigned at birth. The good thing is that it's all fodder for writing, and I hope to express a more nuanced notion of these issues than what's out there right now. Speaking of, a friend forwarded my article to an agent and I have a meeting with her today about turning my experiences into a book! Wish me luck!
posted by mandonlym at 6:21 AM on April 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


Meet the First Transgender Person to Play in a World Cup Qualifier

She's from American Samoa and talks a bit about how that culture handles trans people.
posted by Corinth at 2:16 PM on May 2, 2014


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