Stick It To The Man!! ...Symbolically
The perks and penalties of refusing a label
There’s an essay that’s been making the rounds in my internet milieu lately — probably because it seems to augur a turning point in popular culture. The essay is Brock Colyar’s “They, Then and Now,” a brief retrospective on Colyar’s journey with they/them pronouns — all that they hoped the pronouns would achieve for them, and all that they (the pronouns) failed to do. In the essay, Colyar traces the subtle but unmistakeable shift of attitude they sensed in themselves and their nonbinary peers as they/them pronouns became more widely used and understood: from the early days of punk satisfaction — my gender is your problem, not mine — to a more recent energetic plateau, a combination both of political disillusionment and corporate buzzkill:
Is something that has become enormously widespread actually a failed queer experiment, less a civil-rights triumph than a trend that blew up too quickly and makes us all feel persnickety? If this is a step toward some other utopic, gender-blurred society, when did it start to alienate me?
In the essay, they explore two central sources of this alienation: the first, social inconvenience:
There is nothing enjoyable, in other words, about being a small-talk roadblock. “I can’t relax because you can’t relax. It makes it not fun for me,” said Beau, talking about their experience with pronoun culture at work. Sam, another nonbinary person present for the conversation, told me they don’t always insist upon their pronouns in the office for exactly these reasons: “Although the people I work with are very nice, they’re also 45-year-old women who are gonna fuck up and make it super-awkward when they fuck up. ‘Oh my God. I didn’t mean that.’ ‘Oh my God. I’m so sorry.’ ‘Oh my God. Are you offended?’ I don’t want to deal with that.”
The second, which is even more slippery than the first, is a general sense that what began as an edgy political declaration — “What box to put Brock in?”— has ended up consumed and co-opted by the very homogenizing corporate machine it was meant to resist:
Yes, part of what I’m personally upset about is the fact that this thing I loved isn’t so alt anymore. But more than that, it feels as if pronoun culture has contributed to nonbinary becoming just the third gender after male and female, more static and concrete than its original fluid intentions… I can’t help but think that the walking-on-eggshells battle for pronouns is turning my gender into a human-resources-approved corporate product, more neutered than neutral, and, maybe above all else, profoundly unromantic. Next time, just use my name.
I was struck by Colyar’s piece, not only because it is one of the first attempts to “take stock,” as it were, of pronoun culture from a progressive perspective — but also because it feels strangely incomplete. As they inventory the various forms of loss that they experienced in the project of insisting on their own pronouns, I expected they would go on to propose an alternative — or at least to sound a rallying cry for a different way of relating to the tyranny of labels, one more inflected with joy or purpose. Instead, the piece ends on the troubling note above — basically, on a disappointed shrug.
I wanted to begin, then, where Colyar left off — on the other side of the shrug. What do we want when we refuse to be labelled? What happens when we insist?
The first thing I want to acknowledge is that Colyar seems absolutely correct about the allure, even the “romance,” of resisting a label. There is a romance to refusing to define the self. It is a romance, I think, in at least two senses of the word. The first is a relational sense: because I refuse to concede to your pre-existing concepts, because I resist your every attempt to limit me, I stand apart in my mystique; my oddness has become interesting, alluring. The second is a personal sense, as in a fantasy or a bout of daydreaming — as in the glorious feeling that one could become anything at any time, unwritten and untameable. If the first sense is about others falling in love with you, the second sense is about you falling in love with your own life. In other words, it feels good to be indeterminate — and to have others hold your indeterminacy as well.
For this reason, I sympathize with Colyar’s sense of loss throughout the essay. At the same time, there is a part of me that notes that this arc of feeling was perhaps inevitable; that perhaps any political intervention that operates primarily in the register of the symbolic is doomed to premature extinguishment. Language exists in order for humans to relate to one another, after all; as new forms of language proliferate and gain prominence, they are both fulfilling their function as a means of exchange and eroding their function as containers for specialized, local meanings. In order for nonbinary as a word to make sense to a broader group of people, it must in some way become fixed — and in that process, its very accessibility may be what renders it useless to its own inventors.
But there is something else that I feel when I read this essay — something that cannot be parried off with linguistic analysis or cultural critique. It is a worm of a feeling, small and distinctly selfish; it lives in my belly and eats what I eat, only occasionally making its grubby presence known. I think… I might venture… that it’s a species of envy. And it is a strange envy too — that covets even the ambivalence of a botched language experiment. What is there to envy in that?
I wrote earlier that Colyar’s essay seems to mark a turning point in popular culture. In one sense, this seems true enough: through their work, they they seem to have concretized the experience of an entire generation of nonbinary folks who have experienced a similar disillusionment with their project of remaking the world. In another sense, however, Colyar’s experience is anything but new — beginning with the desire, the very originary desire that they describe, to resist categorization. It is a desire that I recognize, both because I share it and because I note it in my friends. It is also a desire that I code as particularly white, and particularly masculine — as in, belonging to those whose legibility is not central to their very survival.
For example, I think now of an instructive text conversation I had with a good friend, the white and male M, who has earned a Masters in History at a vaunted institution abroad. Discussing some shared fancy or other, I remarked that his intellectual position made sense given that he was a historian — to which he replied playfully:
I am not a historian 😤
Don't 😤 box 😤 me 😤 in
He went on to explain that this very exchange mirrored one that he dreaded at parties, in which strangers would seize on some small aspect of his being or intellectual output, and assume it represented his entirety. Yes, he had formally studied history, but he was also an accomplished musician, and fascinated with industrial transport, and performed improv in a travelling band, and so on, and so on. Protective of his kaleidoscopic ambitions and eager to be known in full, he had learned over time to introduce himself by name — first and last, and nothing more; without label, without country, without God.
At the time of this conversation — this was August, the heat dripping off the windowsills; I had installed myself by my window A/C unit — the majority of my feeling was a stiff skepticism. I prodded my friend; was it really necessary to insist on one’s entire self in every social interaction? What was so wrong about being mistaken for one aspect of one’s self — even if said aspect was limited, even distorted? Wasn’t this process of distortion more or less inherent to social embedment — to belonging itself?
My friend was not convinced. He had had experiences in which he had successfully represented himself without curtailment; raw, uncompressed as a hefty computer file, he had succeeded in conveying his own nuances in a way that compromised nothing. It was these experiences he recalled when he thought about what he wanted out of social encounters in general — experiences in which the other party walked away with the correct sense that he was an intriguing oddity, a committed outlier whose next move could not be predicted. (To recall Colyar: he spoke of the double romance of remaining fundamentally unknowable.)
M wanted to know then, of me: what would I do in the same room?
I told M the truth, which is that in such rooms — rooms full of potentially fascinating strangers — I often did the very opposite. I would seize upon some label that described one piece of my life (say “teacher” or “writer”) and offer it modestly, as though the work of making myself legible to others was chiefly my own responsibility. What’s more, I often chose a label that was particularly grounded and accessible, even unremarkable; instead of “Lecturer at the Stanford d.School,” I would say “teacher.” Instead of “performance artist-slash-writer-slash-singer-songwriter” I would say “musician.” Unlike M, I was not energized by my own mystery, but rather made anxious; driven by habit or need, I was always searching for the twinkle of recognition in my interlocutor’s eye, the signal in miniature that somewhere in their mind, I belonged, I made sense. I did not want my image to stand alone.
And why not? The simple answer was that for me, a Chinese-Canadian woman, to be unknowable was often to be seen as a threat. Not because I was potentially dangerous, but because my inability to be parsed could represent an imaginative quandary — a kind of existential queasiness that could present in the listener as extreme discomfort. This discomfort could then be discharged in various ways: as dismissal, as contempt, or even in rare cases, as full-on hostility. For me to be unknowable, then, was to flaunt my departure from a domesticated reality; it was to mark myself, on some level, as a non-participant, even a non-entity.
Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.
—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Of course, not all of my attempts at projecting my own indeterminacy have ended in violence. It would probably be most accurate to say that most of the time, I am received well as exactly who I am; at the same time, however, this assertion cannot be faithfully rendered without its sister assertion that I am always, always thinking about how I ought to be received. If I have mostly moved through the world by the begrudging grace of others, it is because at key moments, I have received the harsh lesson of too directly showing who I am. There was the time that I showed up to give a lecture at UC-Berkeley, and was instead replaced last-minute by a professor who had not fully understood I would be delivering said lecture alone; there were the times, uncountable and now exquisitely funny, in which my mid-twenties buzzcut and boyish slacks became a fatal source of fascination during a workshop or presentation, overshadowing even the material I was being paid to deliver. In these moments, moments unplanned and hardly intended to be educational, I learned the same lessons that Colyar learned in asserting their gender pronouns to an audience mostly petrified of messing up: I learned that a perfect rendition of self rarely went unpunished. One won, by sometimes being seen; and one lost, in ways uncountable and impossible to know in advance.
Still, Colyar’s article installed in me that old envy — the envy that for some, the assertion of difference is seen as a kind of birthright. When M introduces himself by name, refusing to play the games of labels, I believe that he is mostly well received. I believe the same things about my friends W and B, neither of whom much beholden to labels — for gender, sexuality or otherwise — but both of whom presenting, to the unenlightened stranger, as white and male. When these friends of mine say to the world that they do not belong, that they are outsiders, that they simply refuse to conform — in a strange way, they still do conform: to the pernicious idea that white men are trendsetting innovators who must not be limited by tradition. Yes, it’s provocative when someone white and male-presenting wears a dress. But the fact that it’s provocative… is normal. To some degree, we celebrate being provoked by some bodies — and respond to other provocations with disgust.
I say all of this not to denigrate the project of staking out one’s own refusal — semantic or otherwise. We need people like Brock, like my friends various and motley, to be the stolid resistors in a system that otherwise would grind on smooth and unchallenged. But at the same time, I believe we must practice other forms of refusal — forms beyond the merely semantic. Forms that are collective and materially different from what came before; forms that are dirty and quizzical and imperfect. I would rather have that than a party where I can introduce myself by my name only. I would rather what we could have created together — materially! — with the energy we now put into self-representation. As Colyar wrote in their original piece:
Republican politicians are passing legislation targeting trans youth and their parents, censoring classroom discussion (a.k.a. “Don’t say gay!”), and even trying to ban minors from attending drag shows. Could all of the energy put into enforcing pronoun culture among people already generally sympathetic have been better spent elsewhere?
But where is “elsewhere”?
The leftist cultural critic Vivek Chibber writes in The Class Matrix that we have suffered a “cultural turn” on the left — that is, bought into the very dangerous idea that the most real and powerful forms of resistance are symbolic or narratological.That we should confine our resistance to tearing down statues and changing how language is used; that we ought to focus on firing teachers for saying the n-word and de-platforming conservative lecturers. What happened, Chibber seems to lament, to the root of leftism — the idea that class is real, that it is a description of material reality: of who has access to what resources, and how these differences are reinforced by force in society? To 油 盐 酱 醋 — oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar — the necessities of life, and who can afford to have them?
Perhaps it is time, as Colyar faintly seems to suggest, to re-ground ourselves in a site of resistance that is meaningful beyond merely the words we use.
And perhaps, too, we can learn to be less precious about how we are seen — not to tolerate hatred or bigotry, but to recognize that the quest to be understood for our infinitude is neverending — and perhaps also a political dead-end. Perhaps some misunderstanding is inevitable in any form of collective work — and it is a sign not that we are unloved, but that we are in genuine relation to another human being. Perhaps to be together, then, is to surrender to being misunderstood — but to be together well is to be conscious about who is worth that surrender.
A prayer, then, for a different future:
Let us not think about “liberation” as something we achieve as individuals, each perfect in both form and representation. Let us extend the grace of being misunderstood, of being simplified, wronged, misrepresented — to our friends, our allies, our comrades, our chosen family and those we want to protect. Let us trust that we will eventually be known in our fullest: not because the words can cover it right now, but because any genuine relationship over time yields deeper and deeper layers of self-disclosure, layers that contradict, that erase themselves, that bend over and begin again. We will be known. We will be seen. Not perfectly, but enough.
It is on these grounds — on our insistence that no matter what, we belong to each other — that we learn to truly disobey.
This has been Issue 22 of Chasing the Sundog. Thank you for reading — and as always, if you liked this essay or previous essays, I invite you to support the work by signing up for a free or paid subscription. ✨
If you liked this essay, and you live in Toronto, you might enjoy coming to a loose book club event I am hosting on Nov 12 with my dear friend and collaborator Ross. We will be discussing Jenny Odell’s anti-captalist-manifesto-disguised-as-a-self-help-book, “How To Do Nothing,” at the wonderful Danu Social House. You are cordially invited! No need to have read the book, we’ll be reading excerpts! (To RSVP, please reply to this email.)
Feel free to reflect by yourself, with loved ones, with other readers in the comments, or in the weekly reading group hosted by firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is a label you resist? Why?
What is a label you embrace? Why?
Tell me a story about a time you tolerated being misunderstood. What happened in the end?
To be clear, I am not saying that only white men can enact semantic disobedience. I am saying that when white men do it, they are less punished than the rest of us — and that for that reason, given that the perks and the perils fall differently in different contexts, it is reasonable to seek alternative forms of resistance.
For another example of this, take the case of Yoko Ono, whose indeterminacy she has never once yielded on, but who has been repeatedly denigrated, dismissed and mocked in her career. When her husband did it, it was revolutionary; when she did it, it was insane.
This is also said, more hilariously than I will ever be able to render, by the scintillating comedian Chris Fleming.
NBs: “you can’t put us us in your boxes!”
Everyone: *places them in a “don’t box me in” box* ✅
I think it’s reasonable to want society to prove that it’s engaging with our non-normy-ness.
But I also think if you give us a social way to signal it, then the signal will become the target. And, as brother Goodhart taught us, then it’s not a very good signal anymore.
I see pronoun culture as a great example of how the internet has brought speed but not depth of engagement with ideas. And I think you’re right: what we ultimately want is depth of engagement with us, with the room to be messy in the expression and the reception.
And if we truly want that, I think we have to also not put others in “good person”/“evil person” boxes, and leave space for complexity of understanding.
I know so many people who use pronouns carefully, but care little about the person behind them.
I know others who see non-binary as an abomination of what God intended, but who also see and care for people with incredible depth.
Cancel me for saying this, but I see much more overlap between those engaging with gender nonconformity and many in deep “conservative” religions, than with performsrive liberal culture. The former are both trying to connect with something beyond labels and words, and pushing against a mainstream culture that wants to commodity ideas.
I think they’ve just been pitted against each other BY THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA
This was such an insightful perspective for me (a normie). I'm struck by the thought that, especially as we age and collect more identities (daughter, girl, dancer, Irish American, woman, student, English major, graduate, wife, editor, mother, at-home parent, reader, etc etc etc) that every single one of us chooses which aspects of our identities to share at any given moment, based on the situation. Why do some people feel pigeonholed by that, while others don't?
The "you don't/can't know the multitudes of me" reminder reinforced by pronouns and the confusion or discomfort for others changing them can bring seems isolating rather than liberating. Maybe at first it feels liberating. Perhaps the limits that choosing different aspects of the self to present are self imposed. I can't think of anyone, normies included, who believes any individual is reduced to only one or two things. In that way, "nonbinary" seems like a rebellion from being known, even in part.