In the summer before my third year of graduate school I drive 767 miles from Wilmington, North Carolina to Northampton, Massachusetts to visit my friend J—. I leave at 4:45 in the morning and at 7:35 PM, I arrive in front of their house.
Before I drive up, in a phone conversation J— asks me which pronouns I want them to use when they introduce me to people. I ask for a couple days to think about it.
Up until now, with the exception of a semester in undergrad, I have always gone by the name and pronouns given to me by my parents. Going by anything else feels too difficult. If I am unwilling to change my name—a decidedly feminine name to which I am, perhaps stupidly, attached—it seems unlikely that anyone is going to hear my name and ask about pronouns. My name literally means “lady.” When I introduce myself to people, more often than not they will tell me things like, “I have a great aunt named Martha!” As a kid, this was mortifying to me—to be compared to someone’s older relative. My great aunts loved crocheted doilies and refused to serve orange juice after breakfast. They put their hair in curlers and wore costume jewelry. In my eyes, they were the ladies.
Despite the fact that now I sort of enjoy making people think about their great aunt Martha, it sounds exhausting to be constantly responsible for correcting people’s assumptions. Thinking about it—the sheer number of times each day I would be required to educate people—makes my stomach turn. It feels heavy on my chest. I leave it at that and content myself with feminine pronouns.
Hate isn’t always something you can see.
Sometimes it is a rip current, yanking people out to sea. The inability, or the refusal, to recognize gender as a spectrum feels kind of like that.
Sometimes hate is the constant accommodating queer people give to self-proclaimed allies. Hate is the amount of time queer people dedicate to educating cis-het people without losing patience. It’s that cis-het people require queer people to speak candidly about their experiences. Hate says, “Prove your queerness.” Queer people consent to this because to do otherwise would dis-endear us to straight people and perpetuate stereotypes of the “angry gay” as if we do not deserve our anger.
What we do not tell our allies is, “We owe you nothing.”
When I get back to J—, I say, “Could you use they/them please?”
I phrase it as a question because I still can’t shake the feeling that this request is an imposition. I can’t convince myself that I deserve this.
At my request, J— replied, “Of course!”
J— has, for some time, been referred as my gender friend. About six months after they came out as genderqueer, I followed at the age of 20 during our sophomore year of college, finding that the word felt good, felt right. Since then, saying gender friend became an easier way to define our identities. There is nothing complicated about either “gender” or “friend” at the surface level, and so for a brief moment, we become uncomplicated. Uncomplicated only in the way that we do not have to explain ourselves.
Language is just another way to physicalize gender. Another way to own our bodies and our identities.
After gliding under the radar, it is easy to forget what validation feels like.
It feels like floating. And, like floating, there is the awareness that it is happening but nothing has really changed. The act of validation doesn’t change anything. It just takes away some of the weight.
J— and their girlfriend E— take me to a bar a few blocks from their house. My impression is that J— knows everyone in town. Working at a coffee shop has its advantages. They greet the bouncer at the door who smiles and takes our IDs from us.
“Enjoy,” she says.
We head to the back and sit down at a high top. The light above us casts a hazy orange glow, just bright enough to read the menu.
When I hear my pronoun for the first time, I think I blush, and my eyes grow wide, and I am grateful for the dim lighting and the alcohol.
It is the ease with which validation is possible that surprises me. Outside queer communities, pronouns feel large and cumbersome. Something to battle for. The secret is that they are not. We’ve just been convinced everyone else’s comfort should come before our own. Be as small as possible. My gender is an inconvenience.
Hate makes me choose between self-affirmation and safety.
In Northampton, it feels like I don’t have to make that choice.
When I visit, it is only a week after the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida and memorials and rainbow flags line storefronts in Northampton. In Wilmington, I don’t see a single pride flag. Instead, I see Confederate flags. And “Make America Great Again” bumper stickers. These are portraits of a country. I am a part of a portrait divided.
Hate requires grief to be private. Hate says, “Get over it. Pull yourself together. It could have been worse.”
There is the sense that Northampton grieved collectively. I don’t know what that feels like. It has been too many years since I’ve felt part of a community. I only know how to grieve privately. I am uncomfortable looking at the memorials, and the melted candles on the sidewalk. I don’t know how to access the support available at the moment when J— points out a chalk heart on the sidewalk, says, “I drew that.”
To be queer and numb feels better than to be queer and feeling too much. J— has the support to feel too much. They have the ability to be worried about the safety of all their friends. I am stuck pushing the anxiety back and back and back.
It is hard to not be bitter.
Northampton gives me the opportunity to feel too much. It is exhausting to cry, to mourn my active choice to live in the south. But I try to take comfort in the reminder that places like this exist. Places where my gender is not inconvenient. Places where strangers don’t stare at me, or if they do, it isn’t obvious. There are places where mothers in coffee shops refer to me as a person instead of a lady, or woman.
I remember Wilmington is not permanent.
When people in my graduate program ask if I am staying, they are surprised when I tell them no. And I am surprised that they are surprised. Then I remember that for many people, this beach living is paradise. And paradise trumps so many other things including questionable politics.
They say it’s their job to stick around to change the policies.
“Be the change,” they say.
“I’m tired,” I reply. I don’t have the stomach to challenge the system. I am too afraid. And I am unashamed to be afraid.
“We’re fighting the good fight,” they say. And they all say this. They want me to join in—stand on the street corner holding signs, start up a rally, hold a pride, start a petition, sign a petition, call my representatives. “There’s power in numbers,” they say.
“That’s good,” I tell them. It is good, but I don’t really care if they are fighting the good fight, or just making it through the day. More often than not, I am only making it through the day. When I see more Confederate flags than American ones flying outside houses, I am only making it through the day. And this is a fight. But sometimes, it takes a reminder that existing is a political act, and in those moments, I wish that existing could not be a political act. Sometimes I need to be told that my fight does not, and should not, look the same as every other person’s fight.
When I leave Northampton, and return to North Carolina, my gender neutral pronoun stays in the North. I come back to ma’am, and lady, and woman. It would happen regardless of what I wanted. It will continue to happen.
Gender isn’t on cis-het peoples’ radar. It doesn’t have to be. Pronouns are taken for granted, lumped in with pants that fit, and shirts that fall the way they’re supposed to, and bathrooms that don’t require IDs to enter.
When I moved to North Carolina I was told that “ma’am,” and “miss” were signs of respect. The implication, of course, is, “Don’t be upset about this.”
“Don’t make a fuss.”
“Don’t talk about it.”
The implication is, “Just be glad no one is harassing you.”
I am not glad.
I tell my students to call me by my name and nothing else. And even though I say this, on every one of my students’ assignments, “Ms.” comes before my last name at least once.
When I told J— what pronouns I wanted them to use, I didn’t tell anyone else for months.
When I asked J— to refer to me using they and them, in the back of my mind I thought over and over that I would not be able to keep these pronouns. I thought I couldn’t.
A few months after my visit to Massachusetts, I go to the counseling center on my school’s campus to get counseled for a whole bunch of stuff, but mostly to talk through my gender. In small places—safe places—I begin using gender neutral pronouns. In my therapist’s office, I go by “they.” During one particularly difficult session, after having talked through a rough workshop when I got “lady’d” more often than usual, my therapist tried to comfort me by saying, “Martha, you are such a wonderful woman, who has so much to offer her classmates.” She didn’t even realize she was doing exactly what my classmates did.
Not enough people use singular-they pronouns in Wilmington for it to be in the common vernacular of either my graduate program or the community at large. “They” as a pronoun is still novel here. It sticks in the back of people’s throats in the same way that ze and hir caught on my tongue when I first started identifying as genderqueer.
I feel very small when I am in Wilmington. And the smallness makes me say, “I’m not an activist.” I’m not here to change the world. In high school, that’s what I thought I wanted, but that’s not what I want now.
Maybe in twenty years, I’ll want that again.
While living in Wilmington, people ask me again and again why I am uncomfortable.
A short list: the state passed the most regressive LGBTQ law in the country. House Bill 2 is a hate bill. To pay for former Governor McCrory’s lawyer fees, $500,000 was diverted from the disaster relief fund.
The bill was passed in March of 2016. Since that time, the state has lost more than $395 million from protests against the bill. Since that time, a hurricane ripped through the state, and forest fires consumed the western half of North Carolina for a month, and there is half a million fewer dollars to repair the damage.
Since that time, the country elected Donald Trump.
Swastikas are being spray-painted on buildings, and chalked on sidewalks.
In Wilmington, I hear the phrase “white pride” more and more frequently.
On my campus, “Build that wall” is scrawled all over in chalk and we haven’t had a rainstorm in weeks, it seems. “Make America great again” is painted on signs and boulders in garish white and red dripping text.
On my campus a professor targets a queer, Muslim, woman of color on social media, and when students complain, he says oversensitive; he says PC culture is ruining freedom of speech. When students complain, the chancellor tells the campus community that nothing that was said was “threatening.”
It sounds more like, “Just be glad it isn’t you.”
In a final act as governor, McCrory held a special session to repeal HB2. Congress didn’t repeal HB2, though. Representatives sat in that room and capped minimum wage and veteran benefits and believed they were protecting women because trans people can’t go into the bathroom.
My queer siblings feel unsafe. My queer siblings are being harassed. My queer siblings are getting killed. And we all have action plans and emergency contacts listed in our phones and our wallets, and we have those for when we attend parades that are supposed to be a celebration of love.
Hate tells us, “Don’t get shot.”
Hate tells us, “It could be worse.”
Hate tells us, “It’s your job to fix it.”
Hate tells us, “You’re not in danger.”
I want to tell hate that there is a student in my classroom who bought their first binder. I want to say that I am the only teacher they have who asks what pronouns they use. And in another class, I have a student whose parents put her in ex-gay therapy, and she wrote her story and let me read it. This matters. I want to tell hate that, in these moments, I am not tired. In these moments, I remember why pronouns matter. Why stories matter. And it is in these moments, I want to tell hate I’m not going anywhere.
Martha Lundin is a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington’s MFA program. Their work appears most recently in |tap| lit mag, and Ninth Letter Online. They live and work in Minnesota.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative, the coming-into-language story. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.