Two nights ago I had a dream that featured my being stuck in the body of an eleven-year-old in a middle school, being rounded up into various activities that I myself remembered from middle school: assemblies, standing in lines, mandatory attendance at classes where I felt uncomfortable either answering or sitting silently. Finally, I attempted to explain to one of the adults near me what was happening.
“Listen,” I said. “I am not supposed to be here. I know I look like a child, but I am an adult with multiple masters' degrees.” She gave me an understanding look and told me that she remembered feeling that way when she was my age, and no amount of explaining could shake from her the belief that I was a real child, experiencing a kind of deja vu, rather than an adult who had found myself in an uncomfortable and seemingly interminable dream.
I'm no stranger to the high-school dream: I have previously had dreams where my life was being held hostage while I completed a high school level math class, and what I felt then was shame and annoyance at myself for being so bad at math, for being stuck in this situation. This dream had a different character. This was a dream about having found the confidence to declare that one was accredited, but not having the power to impress others with one's own accreditation.
It is by no means a coincidence that I had this dream the night before I decided to ask people to start calling me “they”, in lieu of the usual “she”.
First on the docket: my spouse, night-prowling housecat and muse of seven years, the little-seen Other so reclusive that even my mother, who has met him several times, says he doesn't exist. I told him that I was planning to ask other people to start using “they” pronouns for me and that I would like him to do so. He immediately opened an inquest into why I needed to involve other people in my sense of self. He knew I was nonbinary; my other loved ones knew it too. Why did I need to force casual acquaintances to affirm for me something which I understood intrinsically?
Let me say here that this kind of questioning is both admittedly taxing and a big part of why I am so enthusiastically married. Still I was pretty upset by his characterization of me as needing others' approval, given that I am very unlikely to get it by telling people I use “they” pronouns. I said that to the Other, at volume, several times. I tried to explain to him that the issue was not about making other people conform to my worldview, but about trusting my own feelings. Eventually, we put the matter (and him) to bed for the time being, and I went to work.
Later that day, I told my other companion of seven years, the equally feline but significantly more diurnal Beloved, while we got ready to host some dinner guests at her house. She was unfazed, although while I emptied her dishwasher she kept insisting she was going to make mistakes and call me the wrong thing, which seemed to me like an odd caveat to make so early in the game.
“Do you start everything this way?” I asked her, trying to figure out how to stack her many irregularly-shaped bowls in the cabinet. “Do you begin every new relationship by saying 'I'm going to hurt you repeatedly, and I will expect you to forgive me'?”
“Yes, I do!” she said. “So how do you want me to handle it when I get it wrong?”
“As though you'd misgendered a dog,” I said. “Like with as little fuss as possible.”
Later that night, I practiced explaining it to our guests, over cocktails. They were much more interested in the high school dream, which is understandable: people's genders, like their dreams, are of far more interest to themselves than to anyone else.
I spent the night with the Beloved; the Other periodically texted me from his night job admonitions about being wary of replacing my personality with a pronoun. I told him I'd have to get back to him on it, but the thought stayed with me. I'd been feeling celebratory and full when I'd woken up that morning, and now I was going to bed plagued with doubt. Why did I feel compelled to share something about myself which most people were likely to forget, misuse, or misinterpret badly, forever? I'd been thinking of myself as nonbinary for at least the last five years. What new thing did I expect to get out of being called “they”? Was it any different than trying to ask someone else to listen to a recitation of your dreams?
When I picture myself, in my head, I often actually am picturing Lord Byron in one of those paintings where he's wearing a little turban: dashing and a little pouty. To most people in real life, I look like Velma from Scooby Doo. The truth of myself is suspended somewhere between my fantasy of it, the meat I'm made of, and people's feelings about those things. For a long time, I only took into account the last two things; all my thoughts about being nonbinary revolved around how I might alter my body so that other people would understand it without me saying a word. My body, and their impressions of it, seemed indisputable in a way that my own feelings didn't.
The Beloved dropped me off in the morning. A crew has been doing construction on my street, tearing up the pavement and patching it back up with no apparent goals. They have a fire hydrant on the back of a flatbed truck, waiting to be—what? Installed? I hopped over the steaming asphalt and climbed the steps to my apartment, and settled into my usual spot on the couch to watch the Other play video games. We shared a longish silence.
“There's a kind of map that a person has of themselves, a glowing net,” I said at last. “I feel like mine is bigger than my body. It doesn't line up. I can feel that net as though it's my body, but it's not. And I used to think that it was a silly thing to tell people about. I don't feel that way anymore. I want people to understand my experience.”
“And what does that have to do with pronouns?” he asked. “How do they explain that experience?”
“They don't,” I said. “But I've been thinking of myself as they, and feeling really gleeful, like I found something. And I want to call myself they, and invite other people to join me, and then we can talk about experience.”
“Ah!” he said. “That wasn't what I thought you were saying before.”
I told him that maybe it wasn't. It's hard to distill out what is really most important. It's easy to want other people to do things that you are not ready to do for yourself.
I am exhausted now; it's been a long forty-eight hours of trying to explain myself to interlocutors real and imaginary. Right now, the sensation of not being able to keep my eyes open is my most defining quality. But I feel, in my heart, that I am a tired Lord Byron and not a tired Velma. That's not nothing.