Listening to the Minority Voice and Inclusivity as a function of biodiversity.
This long-form article is co-written and arose through conversations with Chris Breedt.
See below for details as to how we identify.
I met Chris online some time ago now and to be honest, things were a little tense when we first started out. I co-admin a fairly large community online, and we considered inclusivity a core quality of our group. Yet we, as the admin team, collectively found ourselves subject to a thorough reprimand from Chris for our inability to be fully inclusive. It wasn’t easy to hear and comprehend that we were simply not seeing how it is for the ‘others’ among us, even despite our diversity within the admin team. It prompted us to look deeper at the subject of white, able-bodied privilege. We had to take a long look in the mirror. Chris held up that mirror, and it was Chris who enabled me to take a very revealing and educational journey through the rapids of decolonialisation, understanding privilege, and our systemic and individual blind spots. For this I am and will always be deeply grateful.
Recently Chris joined me again in a wonderfully diverse group of incredible people as a part of our Cooking Up Dialogue pilot sessions. They enabled all the participants of the group to witness their life as a neurodiverse, queer, non-binary person living in a conformist and discriminatory world.
We found ourselves struggling with their pronoun. I’ve have been noticing that people state their preferred pronoun during introductions lately, which is presumably allowing more flexibility for people like Chris. At least we don’t just assume people’s gender based on appearances alone anymore. We consider now that whatever people’s appearance, they may prefers to be addressed as a he, she, they, zi or some other pronoun and the best way to know is to ask, or offer your own pronoun as an opening for them to give you theirs in return. For many of us this feels like a minefield and may seem very inconvenient and confusing.
Sometimes people find the usage of neutral pronouns like the one Chris uses awkward or unexpected, and they have often been met with the critique that as a plural pronoun, they might create a confusion since it seems to refer to the group, not a singular person.
Below is the transcript of a conversation between Chris and I, you can see me trying to be very constructive with my attempts to make the pronoun thing easy, but you can also see how Chris gently introduces me to the subject in a deeply informative way. This degree of informative exchange is NOT the obligation of the minority person to have to perform, it is the obligation of us all to inform ourselves. So, it is with this intention that I share these words in the hope that they will be useful to the many others like me who presume themselves of inclusive mindset but aren’t quite there yet.
“The thing is with using "they" is that it causes confusion between singular and plural.
In Turkish we have one non-binary pronoun instead of he and she.
It is "o"
O is going.
O is coming.
I'm meeting o for lunch.
You wanna try it?
It's much better than:
They are coming.
They is going.
I'm meeting them for lunch.
When referring to a person in the singular.
Wouldn't it be fab to be an ‘O’ and get a movement in the non-binary community to adopt O or any other preferred new word as the chosen pronoun.
…..I'm not sure how the Turkish language institute will feel about donating their word to the non-binary world.”
Using the given name instead usually resolves any issue with tenses btw. "Chris is coming", "Chris is going”, "I'm meeting Chris for lunch".
It takes thought but that thought is the work of inclusion, of creating belonging for minorities.
Let me explain:
We need to learn to think about how others differ from ourselves and then modify our response to them based on their needs profile rather than our needs profile.
That is coexistence, that is conservation to me.
It's like animals - it takes forethought to accommodate a leopard and a goldfish and a butterfly in the same habitat simultaneously...but that's the work of regeneration of our earth. We must restore the equilibrium of diversity.
We are all unique creatures, and endangered species of sorts, the only one of our kind - you too!
Making room for people this way is about offering everyone a tolerable habitat, not their favourite habitat...and some creatures are catastrophically incompatible and should be kept apart; such as fish from the deepest pressure in the oceans will never be at home in a tidal pool and can't even visit! But those tidal pools offer a very wide variety of creatures not just chosen sanctuary, but the middle ground of diversity. There you may find a land-dwelling mammal, a sea anemone, fish, some amphibians... tidal pools are tolerable habitats for a wide variety of creatures.
Cooking Up Dialogue is a tidal pool.
Did you know some tribes have no collective name for anything living? They consider all things unique individuals. They describe each tree by its location and traits and unique features, not it's group or species.
Brené Brown, in her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, says of belonging: "Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are."
To me, that's true inclusion. When I feel safe it is when everyone I'm with belongs, because everyone is only exactly themselves. That experience is however rare for a creature as sensitive to my habitat as I am. Indeed, I don't know where I belong.
It's OK, though, not to include everything and everyone as if this is their own home place. It's literally not physically possible to bring bacteria that survives only on a sulphur vent in the ocean into a room full of oxygen.
Make peace with your inevitable exclusion of some and inclusion of others. You're not able to alter the physics of the universe to create a universally inclusive habitat...but it's not too impossible to create a very diversely TOLERABLE one, and for me that is the goal of including people.
The questions I ask are these:
Can you be made comfortable ENOUGH that you can stay in this community?
What would that look like?
What are your habitat requirements as a creature in the world?
My self, at present, is ambivalent about pronouns. They are not an essential element of my habitat. I tolerate (though it is uncomfortable) being misnamed. I find pronouns inelegant descriptors of my person, so while I broadly use ‘they’, ‘them’ at times I will, for convenience, to fit in, yield to ‘she’, though I slightly prefer ‘he’. But it is not the correct term for where I belong. It's a misfiling of my person under the incorrect categorisation. I am not of that group.
I have as yet no term I find a comfortable habitat. But I find most pronouns tolerable. Even they/them is an ill-fitting shoe that's simply LESS ill fitting.
As a result of this failure to have a comfortable habitat, I do not really belong anywhere.
Let that settle. It's a tough understanding and may be upsetting to internalise.
That's just how it is though. As the saying goes "It is what it is". I am a creature without habitat.
That is why I came to the mountains to find a home. Nature, after all, does not require my pronouns. :)”
“I am astounded by your eloquent clarification. Love your metaphors.
Love your inclusiveness. Inclusive even of the fact of exclusion!
I've got to go have a lie down after reading this!
I'm sitting with the fact of my privilege of having you share this with me.” And here is a second exchange, from another conversation, that really got me thinking:
“For me using a newly invented pronoun for a group of people who have been neglected by the English language seems like the kind of work we should be doing?
Using ‘O’ for example would be a distinct point of acceptance, recognition and comprehension.
I'd go for it. Officially accepting new pronouns for non-binary would be like granting the right for same sex marriage.
But then, in the layers of discrimination, maybe some people wouldn't want to share the new pronoun with various others and therefore one pronoun would not be enough?
But it's a pondering area for me from my perspective of being bilingual and enjoying the nuances of a non-binary pronoun language.
I wonder if the native American people had a pronoun for the non-binary folk who they actually even revered but mostly accepted within their society. Do they even have gender specific pronouns or are they like the Turks? And what about the French? They even gender specify their nouns such as table and cat!” For further thoughts on this subject see: Robin Wall Kimmerer explaining the use of Ki and Kin as pronouns for living entities rather than using ‘it’ (Click here for a wonderful YouTube video about this)
The conversation continued between Chris and I, and we talked about artificial languages and whether the success or failure of these has any relation to the success or fail of adopting new pronouns.
“Pronoun usage in queer communities is more akin to sign language in deaf culture in terms of their origin and usage and prevalence. There's nothing "artificial" about them and they are in general enough circulation to have been included in the Merriam Webster and other dictionaries of late.
The perception that they are "artificial" or "not in use" is similar to the perception that only disabled people use sign language fluently.
It's only true in discriminatory or isolated cultures where such inclusions are rare.
In other cultures there have been spontaneous uses of third gender or other pronouns for millennia, and it's actually a peculiarity of English that we do not have them... just as there are some cultures where the entire community speaks a sign language and deaf or other non-speaking people are not even considered exceptional for using it, such as with Adamarobe (about ten percent of their people were deaf, so the whole community developed sign language). See below *2.
Hebrew, as spoken today, is a wholly artificially reconstructed language. It was dead before Israeli Jews launched a concerted effort to revive it. Unlike Esperanto it has been a roaring success. Attempts to shift language are not universally as poor as Esperanto.
In reality, the level of prestige attached to a language is most predictive of its adoption. The more people value the language, the more likely it is to flourish.
I think it's apparent we are seeing a surge in the popularity and prestige of the dialectical introductions of the queer community... and unlike Esperanto there are hardly only a few thousand users or little acceptance: according to Pew research particularly into this topic about one in six people know someone gender queer, and half or so of youth polled are comfortable using these terms already (Click on this link for research on this)
Furthermore, even in America 42% of all adult people polled already agree a third gender should be included on legal documents. Most who disagree are Republicans well known for their unusual degree of social conservatism and yet even there something like 44% would concede the need for neutral third pronouns. (Click here for research on this)
Queer culture used to be a swearword... it is going to be mainstream culture rather soon whether that is comfortable for the older generation or not.
Much like climate change, there is evolutionary change occurring in human culture that cannot be halted.
The experiences of non-binary genders are, I'm afraid, no longer a matter of debate but matter of fact. Much like climate change, only the misled or the bigoted perceive the scientific debate on this to be unsettled. In academia the ethics committees and general medical consensus has been for the queer position for over a decade... culture is just slow to catch up.
Stats and empirical observations have no political or ideological position... they only tell us that our children are already queer inclusive and many more are openly identifying as queer now that the stigma is receding.
To quote the Wikipedia entry on non-binary genders: "The majority of reported discrimination faced by non-binary individuals often includes disregard, disbelief, condescending interactions, and disrespect. People who are non-binary are also often viewed as partaking in part of a trend and are thus deemed insincere or attention-seeking. As an accumulation, erasure is often a large form of discrimination faced by non-binary individuals." (See this link for full article)
Quite literally, to be sceptical of the prevalence of, validity of and usefulness of non-binary language IS the prejudice.
We're really not that rare at all, and the notion that we are just a little tiny special interest group is propaganda not reality.”
Chris added this further advice: "When folks don’t know how to incorporate they/them as a singular pronoun in everyday language, they typically feel awkward about it, but too anxious to ask. You should ask! Asking is exactly the right response, because it immediately shows that you are concerned for the other’s comfort and well-being. Asking for help with how to restructure an awkward passage such as “They is going to the grocery store” or “I was going to pick him and they up from the market” is a great way to show solidarity with non-binary people. This can often means a lot more than you might expect."
I saw a meme that, I guess, encapsulates the situation for a non-binary person, it went something like this… “when my sister got married our relatives and friends were thrilled to call her Mrs. So-and-so, her change in status, title and name caused delight. Yet when I came out as a ‘she’ rather than a ‘he’ this was impossible for them to deal with and difficult to adapt to.” Chris adds that “this meme perfectly encapsulates why often the excuses people make for not making the effort of making queer people feel accepted don’t really hold up under closer examination.” Cultural norms and force of habit have often paved the way for prejudice to remain, and though I’m far from being an expert or even familiar enough with what trans and non-binary or fluid gender people must deal with, I want to share a few facts relating to the subject that might shed some light on how they experience the world we live in and why making these efforts are important and life giving.
Rates of violence against trans people are very high, specifically for trans women and trans people of colour. (see link) The suicide rates are also very high, with lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth attempting suicide up to four times more than their heterosexual peers. (see link) Employment rates are low, financial instability and the social oppression all add up to higher rates of mental illness and depression as well as a predisposition to chronic illness and premature death by all causes. You can research your own local statistics, but life as anyone outside stereotypical binary or cis gender affiliation is mighty hard. (see link)
Yet this is not true in many cultures, or even historically in our own. To quote the Wikipedia article: “On nearly every continent, and for all of recorded history, thriving cultures have recognized, revered, and integrated more than two genders. Terms such as “transgender” and “gay” are newer constructs that formed in response to a culture that assumes three things: that there are only two sexes (male/female), two sexualities (gay/straight), and only two genders (man/woman). Yet hundreds of distinct societies around the globe have their own long-established traditions for third, fourth, fifth, or more genders.” (link to full article below *1)
How we identify:
Chris identifies as neurodiverse, white, queer, non-binary and disabled. I am white, cis gendered, straight, female and able bodied. Though it seems like a simple listing, the implicit prejudice in this one sentence is huge. I have spent my entire life happily oblivious to my own labels and identity, because this society considers my way of being to be the norm. The assumption among mainstream global north or western culture has always been that of course I would be white, able bodied and cis gendered and I have rarely been expected to explain my pronouns, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability status to anyone. This is privilege manifest.
If you’ve read this far and are thinking, “I don’t know any queer people” and/or “what does this have to do with me?”, then I’d ask you to consider some simple facts:
1. Change is coming, if it hasn’t already arrived yet. The only way humanity will survive the challenges ahead or overcome the ones we presently face is if we create resilient communities.
2. Resilience is impossible without diversity. Every ecosystem depends on it.
3. Diversity means inclusivity. That means we need the ‘others’, all of them to be able to thrive.
4. The minority Voice! If you haven’t experienced listening to the minority voice, I sincerely suggest you do, much wisdom often lies exactly there, and we must learn and grow with it.
Maybe if you had a chance you might find that there is a part of you that has been so far repressed. I’m not suggesting you might be queer (though you might be, of course), but identity is a wonderful multifaceted thing and we all deserve to be able to express, live and fully own the diversity of our own identities. (*4)
Chris Breedt has an account on Patreon where we can make much needed and appreciated contributions towards their work and creative output and in return we get access to some seriously inspiring stuff. I sincerely urge you to join me there.
Or follow Chris here on Facebook.
*1. Highlighting the difficulty of finding common language and of oversimplification and cultural appropriation of people whose identity is extremely nuanced, diverse and rich. This Wikipedia entry
Other articles that can be useful and show mainstream portrayal of this subject:
*2. Adamorobe Sign Language or Adasl is a village sign language used in Adamorobe, an Akan village in eastern Ghana. It is used by about 30 deaf and 1370 hearing people. The Adamorobe community is notable for its unusually high incidence of hereditary deafness. (Wikipedia)
*3. Quote from this article plus a worldwide map showing how other cultures see gender diversity
*4. When I state that we all deserve to be able to live our identities to the full, it must be clarified that I only stand by this as long as those Identities reflect behaviours that do not harm others and are experienced between consenting adults.
The painting is by Linda Olsen.
Used with permission. Here is a link to her art shop.
I found the image here: