Monday, July 21, 2014

Bea*lin I(v): On Explaining My Pronouns to a Five-Year-Old and the Limits of Formal Education

Today was quite lovely.

I slept in a little bit (when do I not) and awoke to the hottest day yet in Berlin: a whopping ninety-three degrees Fahrenheit (still not on that Celsius yet, sorry).

I began my day with a nice sweaty jog in the beautiful park just a block down from where I’m staying. I decided to run sans shirt, because it was hot, because I wanted to hopefully even out the beginnings of a farmer’s tan, because public nudity is somewhat socially acceptable here anyway (in parks, at least, among the elderly), and because sometimes I sacrifice conscious bounds to appear more feminine in favor of personal happiness—in this case, to amaze at the wonder of my body and what it can do (that it can run, that it can jump, that it can move!). I did shave my chest and face before leaving, though.

After showering and putting on a loose-fitting crop top (that I would soon sweat through anyway), shorts, platform sandals, and minimal makeup (it would have melted otherwise) I met my good friend Jacob, who is here for a month studying kung fu. As someone who lived in Berlin for a year previously and has revisited many times since and actually speaks the native language, he has thus far made an excellent tour guide.

We perused a couple street markets without much luck—I of course tried on many pearl necklaces, but none quite did the trick—before resigning ourselves to assorted Haribo candies and a dinner date with some family friends of his, currently staying in Berlin for a month.

The father, Daniel, is a philosophy professor who teaches with Jacob’s father. He is well traveled and fluent in German. His wife, Susan, knows a good deal of German herself (though not so much so as NOT to order twice the intended amount of pizza at dinner), and their son Isaac just celebrated his fifth-and-a-half birthday.

After dinner we retired to the model family’s chic and spacious apartment on the fifth floor of an old building on a quaint street. We were just setting up the empty water bottles as pins for a game of homemade bowling when Isaac turned to me, dressed as I was, but without the secondary characteristics he’s used to noting, and asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?”

An awkward pause ensued as everyone waited to see what I would say.

“Well, for me it’s a little more complicated than that,” I said.

Isaac stared at me. Lord, how do you explain gender identity to a pre-schooler?

“I don’t really feel like a boy, so that’s why I have people call me ‘she,’” I explained, hoping it would work.

“Oh, you prefer ‘she’ pronouns?” interjected Daniel. I had been too self-conscious to introduce myself with that little factoid earlier.

“Yes,” I said.

“I think you’re a boy,” Isaac stated matter-of-factly.

“Well, that’s what most people see when they look at me. But that’s different from how I feel. I feel more like a girl, so that’s why people call me ‘she.’”

“Remember when we went to the Chicago Pride Parade, sweetie?” Susan asked her son. “That was like this: people getting to choose who they want to be and who they want to love.”

“Let’s play bowling!” he shouted.

As Isaac got ready to take the first turn Susan pulled me aside. “He’s at that age when gender becomes the most important thing,” she confided, as if to apologize for his actions. “Now he says things like ‘boys only’ or ‘no girls allowed.’”

“I don’t know where he got it from,” Daniel added.

The evening wore on, with homemade bowling followed by Uno followed by a sudden, running burst of energy born of extreme exhaustion on Isaac’s part. Jacob and I got ready to leave.

“You know, there’s a transgender student in our program at the university,” Daniel mentioned to me as I put my shoes on.

Oh, God, I thought. Please not one of those I-have-a-black-friend things. Be fair, I reminded myself. You told them what you’re researching here in Berlin.

“When—ze?—first told us that ze wanted us to use these pronouns we thought it was some philosophical statement about being able to choose how other people refer to you. But no, ze actually wanted us to refer to…”

“Hir,” I said. “H-I-R.”

“Right. They actually wanted us to refer to hir-self like that.”

“Yeah, there are so many pronouns. That’s a pretty common one. There are some I haven’t heard more than once, though. Like a friend told me about her friend who goes by ‘co’ for all their pronouns. So instead of ‘she, her’ it’s ‘co, co.’ I don’t know if it’s ‘coself’ though.”

“That sounds difficult to get used to,” he said.

“Well, yeah. I think we should all just use one pronoun for all human beings.”

“But then some people are bound to feel that doesn’t fit them.”

“Right, but then the alternative is so many pronouns that it sort of becomes unsustainable. Or we just always use people’s names.”

“Unless your name is Dinkleheimerschmidt.”

“Yeah, language developed pronouns for a reason,” Jacob added.

Isaac interrupted us once more with a bout of running and jumping and screaming. Jacob and I exchanged hugs and goodbyes with everyone and slipped out when Isaac had disappeared into the other room once more.

“It’s funny,” I told Jacob as we descended the five flights of stairs toward the evening street and the journey home.


“The parents only got my pronouns right about fifty percent of the time, but Isaac never messed up once.”

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