June is Pride Month, and this week’s podcast features three members of the LGBTQIA+ community in a discussion about gendered language, the importance of chosen names, and the use and misuse of neopronouns. Our guests, who each write and teach professionally, share how their experiences as people identifying as transgender and non-binary have changed their relationship with – and use of – the English language, and how small changes can make our communications more inclusive.
Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of GENDER: BEYOND THE BINARY:
Mark Van Streefkerk: From my own personal experience of when I first came out and before I quote “passed”, I was misgendered constantly.
Ari Dennis: Binary, gendered language is everywhere in how we speak and we don’t really realize it.
Tisse Mallon: The intrusive nature of questions by strangers. So people wanting to know and it’s almost like as if we’re a thing, “What are you, are you a man or a woman? What are you?” Almost like an accusation, like, “You shouldn’t have to make me work so hard for this!”
Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to the second episode in a series of podcasts reflecting topics from Bigeye’s 2021 national study, GENDER: BEYOND THE BINARY. Hello. My name is Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye, a full-service advertising agency based in Orlando, Florida. Thank you for joining us. Today marks the start of Pride Month, a time to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community. That’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual people, plus all other orientations and genders. June was chosen for Pride Month to commemorate the Stonewall riots of 1969, which kicked off the first major demonstrations for gay rights in America. But the idea has spread around the world. In today’s podcast, we’ll hear directly from people whose gender identities reflect the “T” and “Q” in LGBTQIA+.
Mark Van Streefkerk: My name is Mark Van Streefkerk. I am a freelance writer, journalist and social media manager. I am a man of transgender experience, and my pronouns are he, him, and his.
Adrian Tennant: Mark, at what age did you first suspect that how you experienced gender was different from other people around you?
Mark Van Streefkerk: Probably around age four or five.
Adrian Tennant: Did you know any other transgender folks growing up?
Mark Van Streefkerk: Absolutely not. I grew up in a very conservative home and we lived in a very small town. So I did not see any people who I knew were queer or transgender. And so when I got out on my own, I gravitated towards places where I could fully understand who I was. And for so long in my childhood and growing up as a teenager, I always had this feeling that there are parts of myself that I had to shelve. And at some point, later on down the road, I would be in a safer place where I could take those parts of myself out and fully unpackage them. I always joke and say that I’ve lived many different lives within my one life. There was a time where I lived as a lesbian and then as time went on, I discovered, “Well, this actually doesn’t really feel right either.” And that’s when I really began to explore what my gender was. And I was really grateful that at that time I was living in a place where I could explore that safely.
Adrian Tennant: So Mark, did you decide on surgery to support your transition? And if so, did you struggle with the decision?
Mark Van Streefkerk: Yes. Yes I did. I’m the kind of person who I want to be absolutely 1000% sure about anything before I jump in. And so for years leading up to when I publicly came out at 34, I was thinking about these things. I was thinking about what path I was going to take. You certainly don’t need to have any kind of procedure to quote “be trans.” But from my own exploration and research, I knew that this was something that I was gonna want. And so as soon as I was in a position where I could pursue those things, it was a no-brainer. Like I definitely just shot off and I have had absolutely no regrets.
Adrian Tennant: You write about Seattle news, LGBTQIA+ topics, and workers’ rights. Last year, you interviewed people for an online series about non-binary identities in coffee. What were some of the things you learned from those interactions?
Mark Van Streefkerk: Many people who identify as non-binary express, time and time again, their frustration with being mis-gendered. And for me, from my own personal experience of when I first came out, and before I quote, “passed”, I was mis-gendered constantly. And so I understand what that is like. And so, my biggest takeaway from talking to non-binary folks in coffee is that when somebody comes out to you and they tell you what their pronouns are, it’s vitally important that you believe them, cause it is a really big thing to talk about who you are and disclose parts of who you are and have that be accepted and not questioned.
Adrian Tennant: The English language lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with “everyone” or “someone”. And as a consequence, “they” has been used for this purpose for over 600 years. There are many options to refer to a person whose gender identity is non-binary: in our quantitative study, one half of respondents identifying as non-binary indicated their preferred pronouns are they, them, and theirs.
Tisse Mallon: My name is Tisse Mallon, I’m the founder of a school that teaches the science of connection and my pronouns are they, them, and theirs. I still can remember very clearly around four or five years old, really feeling strange, awkward about how boys and girls are divided. When you’re at school, you know, it’s boys against girls for games that you play, when you line up to go outside, or to go to the bathroom. Again, the lines were, in my experience, often gendered and it seemed strange to me because I was being grouped and not feeling like I identified particularly with that group that I was being lumped into.
Adrian Tennant: At what age did you fully identify as non-binary?
Tisse Mallon: Well, I want to separate two things here. One is my own internal clarity in terms of my gender, which came about 28 years old, kind of later on in life after doing some, you know, reflection, and introspection, and experimentation. But the language of non-binary, I didn’t really own that until about 38. So it’s still very recent for me because I feel that our society, our culture, newly has language for what I was experiencing all along.
Adrian Tennant: Tisse, what was the process of coming out as non-binary to your family and friends like?
Tisse Mallon: In one word: awkward. But you know, I don’t feel like it was anything really formal. My close friends and family already kind of know that I’m a little different. I’ve had a shaved head for, gosh, maybe now about nine years. And I don’t dress particularly girly or masculine, it’s just kind of just very neutral clothing. So I think that instead of it being like, “Hey, I’m non-binary!” it was more like, “Hey, there’s a language for this thing that I’m really appreciating now.” And I’m excited that the conversation is finally coming to light.
Adrian Tennant: You were born in Mexico. How different do you think your experiences might have been had you stayed in Mexico, versus moving to the US?
Tisse Mallon: Oh my goodness, I think it would have been extremely different! To begin with, our language is extremely gendered. Every single item has a gender. So, you know, if I’m thinking about my mug, my mug is “la taza”, which is feminine. And if I were talking about the sun, “el sol”, that’s masculine. So it’s so intertwined with everything. I think it would have been a lot more challenging for me. Now I hear that it’s being addressed by adding an “e” at the end, instead of an “o” or an “a” that would give the gender. And so that’s really interesting. They’re not doing it for items per se, but certainly for roles. So if you were to say teacher in school, that’s “maestra”, so that’s the feminine version of it. And if it’s a man, then you would say, “maestro”, which is male or masculine. And now they’re using “maestre”, as like that neutral, middle ground. And I’m excited to hear that that’s changing as well.
Adrian Tennant: So if we wish to look at an English equivalent, rather than a “fireman” or a “firewoman”, we just simply have a “firefighter.”
Tisse Mallon: Yes, exactly. Yeah. So a fireperson or a councilperson, for example.
Adrian Tennant: Ari Dennis, an educator who also identifies as non-binary, was featured in episode one of GENDER: BEYOND THE BINARY. Ari explains how adopting a gender-creative approach to parenting with their child, Sparrow, impacts their use of language.
Ari Dennis: Binary, gendered language is everywhere in how we speak and we don’t really realize it. And it was while pregnant with Sparrow and having Sparrow in those early months that I realized how often I was unnecessarily gendering the people around me. “Do you see that lady over there?” “Oh, that boy he had this”, you know, and just using these terms that while they’re not maybe incorrect, and they’re certainly not offensive, they are unnecessarily ascribing gender assumptions onto these people. I don’t know that kid across the street. I don’t actually know how they identify. I can just call them a kid. And so a lot of times words like child, kid, person, friend, these have replaced the binary terms that I used to use. And it’s now what I model for Sparrow, but also how I’m able to refer to Sparrow. So Sparrow is a sibling. They’re not a brother or a sister, you know, and they’re a kid, you know, it was really easy when they were a baby because baby‘s super gender-neutral. But we now call them a toddler as well, and just really rely on the correct, but inclusive language.
Adrian Tennant: It’s interesting that you feel more aware of the language since you’re now modeling it for Sparrow. Is that part of gender-creative parenting, do you think, a kind of greater self-awareness?
Ari Dennis: Oh, yes. I believe that one of the fundamental parts of gender-creative parenting is to be critical of one’s unconscious bias. I actually teach a lot about unconscious bias and gender deprogramming and gender deconstruction, because it’s so valuable, not just for people who are parenting, but for anyone who wants to have a more equitable and inclusive understanding of gender.
Adrian Tennant: Bringing up a child doesn’t happen in a bubble. Ari, what concerns, if any, did you have about Sparrow first attending daycare?
Ari Dennis: School was a huge fear for us. And originally, you know, in an ideal world, we were going to avoid it as long as possible. When we did eventually need to utilize childcare, we were very lucky that the first facility that we used, the pronouns were immediately respected and our family was very much honored. They came with good questions, you know, “How do I refer to this?” ” Is this word okay?” Even instructors that, you know, English was their second language, they would try very hard to utilize gender neutral and oftentimes coming from a Spanish background, which is even more language binary with gender. And one time we got a note that said “They hit they’s head”, and, you know, just every time it wasn’t “they, their, them”, it was just “they” for every single conjugation. And I was so appreciative that they were pushing themselves to their linguistic limits to try and respect us. And I thought that was really great.
Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.
Adrian Tennant: How do you identify?
Voices: Female, male, genderfluid, cisgender, genderqueer, nonbinary, transfeminine.
Adrian Tennant: Society is constantly changing and evolving. To understand how Americans feel about gender identity and expression, Bigeye undertook a national study involving over 2000 adult consumers. Over half of those aged 18 to 39 believe that traditional binary labels of male and female are outdated and instead see gender as a spectrum. Our exclusive report, Gender: Beyond The Binary reveals how beliefs across different generations influence the purchase of toys, clothes, and consumer packaged goods. To download the full report, go to bigeye.agency/gender.
Voices: Nonconforming, transgender, two-spirit, transmasculine, genderfluid.
Adrian Tennant: Gender: Beyond The Binary.
Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. We’re discussing topics from Bigeye’s national study, GENDER: BEYOND THE BINARY. In our qualitative study with non-binary and genderfluid individuals, seven out of 10 participants had changed the name given to them a birth to one that they feel better reflects their gender identity. For transgender and non-binary individuals, changing the name is an important rite of passage – yet often an administrative nightmare, as changes of their name have to be reflected on driver’s licenses, social security cards, birth certificates, and credit cards. I discussed this with Mark Van Streefkerk, and the impact of MasterCard’s “True Name” campaign, which just last year announced that customers could use their preferred name on the company’s credit cards.
Mark Van Streefkerk: First I saw a print ad for it, and I was like, “Oh wow! This is really cool.” And it’s something that trans people really have to deal with, because whether it’s going out to buy groceries or whether you’re going out to buy a cup of coffee, and if you pay with your card, there are many trans folks who use a name that’s different to the one that’s on their card. And that can be a particularly tricky situation because what if you have a name that is traditionally associated with the gender that you are not, and you’re definitely not presenting as that gender? Then how do you talk about those kinds of situations? And it can be really uncomfortable for trans folks to be put in that spot. So to go back to that ad, I think it was such a wonderful way to be inclusive of many different trans folks. And also, there are many people, not just trans folks, who use a different name than what they have on their drivers license, than what they have on their credit cards. So I think that being trans-inclusive in that way, it also makes it better for folks who aren’t trans too.
Adrian Tennant: United Airlines offers passengers non-binary booking options and 12 states have introduced gender-neutral IDs. The importance of these policies is deeply personal: being able to use their chosen names and gender markers, sanctions trans and non-binary gender identities. Starbucks in the UK captured this perfectly in its award-winning TV campaign, “Every name’s a story”, depicting a trans man using his chosen name for the first time.
Mark Van Streefkerk: Actually, I will let you in on a little secret here. So trans folks have been doing this for quite some time. When I saw that TV spot, that made me think about how – and this was a few years ago and I was online and I was in some Facebook groups, right? And I was talking with other trans folks and there was one post where people were talking about finding a way to explore what kind of name that they would like. And because a really big part of exploring your gender could be playing around with what kind of name that you would like to go by. There are some trans folks who choose to keep the name that they were given at birth, but for many trans folks, they feel a lot of dis-ease when being called by their birth name. And so what one commenter has said on that post was, “If there is a name that you like and that you would like to experiment with being called by that name, the easiest thing that you can do is to go to a Starbucks. And when they ask for your name to write on the cup, you give them the name that you’re trying to try on. And when your name is called out, then just take note of how it feels when you’re called by that name. And then, depending on how you feel, that can give you important feedback as to if you’re on the right path.”
Adrian Tennant: So Mark, as a writer, has your identity as a trans man made you more sensitive to instances of gendered language, do you think?
Mark Van Streefkerk: When I write a n article, I make sure that whoever I interview, I always ask them what their pronouns are.
Adrian Tennant: What about the publications? Are they equally respectful of the use of preferred pronouns?
Mark Van Streefkerk: You know, every publication is different. Most all of the publications that I’ve worked for are very respectful of whatever pronouns somebody has. There was one publication that I worked with. I was working on one story and somebody who I was including in that story, they went by a different pronoun than he/him, she/her, they/them – they went by Ze/Zir. And the publication that I worked with at that time, they came to me and they said, “You know, as per our Style Guide, basically we only recognize three kinds of pronouns and we would love to have this person’s part of the story, but maybe you could ask them if they could go by they/them.” And I thought that that was not the right response. And the way that I looked at it, I thought that this would be an incredible opportunity to learn and to be able to update their Style Guide, because pretty much everybody has been able to update their Style Guide as they/them came into increasing use. And so I feel like we’re going to see the same movement as more people, specifically young people as they start to gravitate more towards – people call them “neopronouns”.
Adrian Tennant: In a collaboration between The Elar Institute, Peer Support Space, and MeetUp, Tisse Mallon facilitates the Genderqueer MeetUp group in Orlando.
Tisse Mallon: The year before I started it, I happened to be taking some workshops: one in Asheville and one in San Francisco. And in both of these workshops, I was asked about my pronouns – and it was the first time that I had been asked in a space like that about pronouns and I didn’t think that it would make much of a difference to me because I’ve come to peace within myself. Like I know who I am. I don’t need other people to know about that. Because they just don’t get it. And that’s fine. They’re where they’re at. But when the space was created for me, all of a sudden I’m like, “Oh, well, should I, should I claim this? Should I not?” and I did. And I recognize that I really did feel this sense of being seen and understood, or at least like a desire be understood, came newly. And, it was really special for me. And I, I wondered, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, are there other non-binary people in Orlando who would appreciate a space to connect?”. So when I came home from those two workshops, I went to the LGBTQ Center downtown and I spoke with Joelle and he was super supportive. “Absolutely”, he said “yes,” right away. And so I started doing the meetings there and then I learned what Peer Support Space was up to. And I spoke with them about like, “Is this something that would fit under your umbrella because we really need to get the word out there” and they welcomed me in, and this is kind of how we, all three of us merged together.
Adrian Tennant: What are some of the issues that members of the Genderqueer MeetUp consistently want to discuss?
Tisse Mallon: One thing that often gets talked about are the intrusive nature of questions by strangers. So people wanting to know first of all, like, “What are you?” And it’s almost like as if we’re a thing, “What are you, are you a man or a woman? What are you?” Almost like an accusation, like, “You shouldn’t have to make me work so hard for this!” and then also, even if you respond by saying you’re non-binary “Yeah,” but like pretty much like “What’s between your legs?” And so it’s like this topic of respect, of acknowledging that there’s private information and wanting people to recognize us as what we are communicating. Also sometimes, requesting to be called by a certain name and using the pronouns and a lot of times, there’s just a lack of a willingness do so. And probably the last thing that I’ll mention quickly here – because there’s plenty more, right? – but the last thing is sharing our name. Somebody asking me for example, “Yeah. But what’s your real name?” As if a name that I have claimed for myself is not real. And only what’s on legal papers constitutes real. All of these things, I believe over time, bit by bit by bit – obviously not just like one scenario, not one isolated incident – but over time, become heavy and difficult for people to process, having to explain themselves and who they are and why they dress the way they dress or like… A lot of times people asking me if I have cancer, is that why my head is shaved? “Do you have cancer?” And it’s a very direct, upfront question, without taking into account that there could be a million reasons why somebody would choose that.
Adrian Tennant: LGBTQIA+ people are especially vulnerable to discrimination in healthcare: from humiliation and harassment, to denial of necessary medical care, and as a result, are more likely to delay or forego it, which increases their risk of further physical and mental health conditions like depression, cancer, and chronic diseases. According to a 2018 study, 18% of LGBTQIA+ people reported avoiding medical treatment out of fear of discrimination. While an older study found that more than 50% of transgender individuals reported having to explain certain aspects of transgender, specific care to their medical providers. Mark, you live in Seattle, a major Metro, however, 63 percent of people who identify as LGBTQ live in the so-called “flyover” states, the South, the Midwest and the mountain states. And over half – 54 percent – of trans adults live in majority rural states. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen much broader adoption of tele-health and virtual counseling services. Do you feel this is a welcome innovation for trans folks living in more rural areas who may not previously have had access to these kinds of services?
Mark Van Streefkerk: Absolutely. Yes. I feel like some of the changes that we’ve seen that have been a response to the pandemic have been good ones in terms of increasing accessibility. As you pointed out, It can definitely be especially useful for trans people who live in smaller towns and live in places where they might need to drive a very long ways to see a physician. And in particular, to see a doctor who is competent in transgender care, which is a whole other story.
Tisse Mallon: Accessibility to mental and physical support is much lower in those areas. Not to mention the societal mindsets and perceptions tend to be a bit narrower in rural places. There’s just less exposure to diversity. And so it makes sense that the mindsets are narrower.
Mark Van Streefkerk: We’re seeing companies like Plume and Folx who have been using tele-health. And, for a trans person, when you want to pursue different things, whether it’s getting on testosterone or on estrogen, depending on where you live, there can be a lot of gatekeeping that is associated with trying to get these treatments. And so companies like Plume and Folx really make it easier and take away a lot of that gatekeeping aspect.
Tisse Mallon: I think also just overall with mental, emotional support that has brought in this new wave of virtual support. And it’s filling in gaps that were huge before that just let people kind of not having that support, not having accessibility. And I believe that every challenge brings forth its own gifts, its own understandings, it’s new strategies. And so I am grateful now for this new approach that many people, whether it’s through mental or, you know, like wellness health sorts of, dynamics are getting this new support because we are learning how to bring things into a virtual platform.
Adrian Tennant: One of the things that we highlighted in the report was the fact that the 2020 Census only gave two options for gender: male or female. No other options. Thoughts on the census, please Tisse. Missed opportunity?
Tisse Mallon: You know, the Census is something that is quite formal that goes out to ideally every single person in the United States. So with something as new as this, I can see their hesitation in putting that in. I can understand it. I think that, really the media, our general culture coming first in understanding that and embracing more awareness around people who are trans or non-binary can be more effective leaders in educating for that. So, a missed opportunity? Yes and no, it’s already challenging sometimes for people to fill out the census. It might’ve just added another obstacle. Uh, yeah, that’s fine. And I also want to say, I worked on the 2010 Census, so I got to work firsthand with people filling out that census form.
Adrian Tennant: Okay, you speak from a position of authority, I’ll give you that. 2030 will be the next Census. Expect that question to be different by then?
Tisse Mallon: Yes. Yes, please. Absolutely.
Adrian Tennant: In our report, just over one half of all respondents agreed that in a decade we’ll associate gender with stereotypical personality traits, products, and occupations, much less than we do today. Mark, what kind of a world would you like to see in a decade from now?
Mark Van Streefkerk: I would love to see a world in which everybody’s gender is affirmed and celebrated and supported.
Tisse Mallon: Well, I would really like to see our focus shift away from gender roles and expectations , and more towards values, such as appreciation of diversity, a celebration of individual expression, support of basic needs such as healthcare, housing, and education for all human beings and really this recognition of how we’re so much more alike than not.
Adrian Tennant: You’ve been listening to GENDER: BEYOND THE BINARY. If you’d like to read the full report on which this podcast is based, please go to Bigeye.agency/gender . In addition to downloading the report, you can watch an on-demand webinar that highlights some of the key findings. And here’s how to learn more about our guests, Mark van Streefkerk, Tisse Mallon, and Ari Dennis.
Mark Van Streefkerk: Find me at my website, which is MarkVanStreefkerk.com or find me on Instagram @MarkTheWriter.
Tisse Mallon: For my fellow genderqueers or gender-questioning peeps, come visit our supportive gatherings at go.ElarInstitute.org/gq – “GQ” for genderqueer. And for anyone who would like to understand more about the human brain, how to nurture amazing relationships, or who is ready to experience more satisfaction in their lives, go to ElarInstitute.org.
Ari Dennis: So I educate, on social media on Facebook AriNotSorry. And @AriNotSorryEd on Instagram and Twitter as well. And you can always find me at AriDennis.com
Adrian Tennant: Thank you for listening to GENDER: BEYOND THE BINARY, produced by Bigeye. You’ll find a transcript of this episode on our website at Bigeyeagency.com/insights. Just click on the button marked “podcast”. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next time, goodbye.