Last night I was at a Zoom birthday party. In our introductions as we went around “the room” we were asked to identify our pronouns. It wasn’t the first time I encountered such a request. Last year when I was training for a political fundraiser on another Zoom call, it was the first thing we were asked to do. That time I had no idea what in tarnation they were talking about. Soon after, a close friend told me she was now going to be a “they.” Huh? I remember saying. She said, “Nance, some people don’t neatly fit into the categories of male or female. Some don’t identify with any gender. Some people’s genders change over time. It’s just respect we’re asking for.” I started to understand but as we kept talking, I kept making mistakes which “they” kept correcting.
At first I had a lot of trouble processing how to navigate the language. My feelings were not the problem. The grammar abuse was. How could I say “they” are coming to visit when it was one person? I asked her (they) why “they” couldn’t come up with a better word. She was able to laugh with me and I was able to suspend any judgement.
After I hung up from the celebration last night where we were also asked where we lived and who the indigenous peoples were, I felt old. A fabulous kind of old. I thought, look how far we’ve come. And look what these kids care about.
My first encounter with a gay person was in 1954, when I was in seventh grade. After school everyone went to Maxwell Drug for rootbeer floats and potato chips while we waited for the city bus. There was a mirror that ran the full length of the shop and stools that lined the full length of the mirror. I was standing behind a girl whose reflection I could see clearly. I must have been staring because she turned with such venom and said, “What you lookin’ at?” I couldn’t say I was looking at you because you don’t look like anyone I’ve ever seen before. I couldn’t say you are a girl but you look like a boy. I couldn’t say it, not because I was afraid of hurting her feelings or what she would say back. I couldn’t say it because I didn’t even have the language.
In my family I had heard the yiddish word “feggilah,” which was used to describe a boy who was feminine. It was never spoken in derision, maybe in hushed tones now that i think of it, but it seemed like it was just a description. But I had never heard of the opposite gender with any kind of word. So this situation I found my 13-year-old self in was brand new.
But being taunted for being different was not new. I was tall for my age and was called “lanky lew” and “stretch,” and when they really wanted to hurt me they called me dirty Jew and kike. The snowballs had stones in them, and walking home from school was often a scary ordeal. Kids who wore glasses, anyone with a limp, kids who were chubby, kids whose parents got divorced, anyone who had anything different had to be on guard.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds but it can’t help itself when it comes to paradigm shifts. And in my old age, the age I am cherishing now, I have seen a bunch of them. For one tiny example, how did we manage to go from smoking on airplanes to being forced to stand out in the cold in front of our workplace building in such a short time? And indigenous people? I don’t think that was in my consciousness until I was a grown up and read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”
Last night most of the partygoers were young. And when I hung up I thought about what I cared about when I was their age. How I hated my curly hair. How many calories a scoop of mint chip ice cream was. If the cute guy who had asked me for my geology notes would call me. It’s embarrassing.
I also realized (not for the first time) that it’s those young people’s (did I ever think I would use the phrase “those young people”) job to teach me to move forward. I thought I was the teacher and I also thought I was always ready to learn. But I have been noticing I do not always like being taught.
My grandparents saw the advent of the car, the telephone, the television, women doctors, the polio vaccine, the WPA, the atomic bomb, jet planes, transistor radios, antibiotics, using Ms. instead of Miss and Mrs. (maybe the “they” of it’s time).
So if my Gram and Pappy could adapt to all those changes, certainly I can figure out a way to say “they” without wincing. Respect for my fellow human must win out over my love of Strunk and White’s perfect-sounding grammar.
At least I knew and was proud to answer, the indigeonous peoples of my home where I now live, is Wampanoag.
Unfortunately, I still think about the mint chip ice cream.