Factors Used by Individuals to Determine Their Own Genders


I conducted this research in 2015 as an undergraduate student in a sociology program. I had come out as agender the year prior. After several years of thinking carefully about how other people feel and experience gender, I had come to the conclusion that I must not have any gender to feel, but I was still curious about what exactly people with genders were feeling.

“How do you know your own gender?” is an unusual question but one that I know from my own experience is worth asking. In my survey, I tried to break down the feeling of a gender into more specific potential feelings of gender, while still respecting that feelings of gender might not be fully explainable.

In addition to contributing to our collective knowledge of gender, the survey responses made me feel more confident in my own agender identity. Most of the write-in responses by people with genders were unrelatable to me, while some agender responses felt more familiar.  My own identity and experiences are woven into this paper because I believe that no research is truly objective and that one’s own positionality can be a valuable source of insight.

I received my B.A. and do not plan to continue my academic education in gender studies or continue this research in any institutional capacity, but I still believe my findings and methodology as a trans researcher can be important contributions to our body of knowledge. I thought about trying to get published through an undergraduate research journal to make this paper more “legitimate” and citable, but that’s a long, arduous process, and frankly I’d rather spend my limited time on my artistic writing. I hope that academics will still be able to find and learn from this paper, but it’s most important to me that the broader trans community can access it. On that note, the paper is written in academic language that may be difficult or inaccessible to people without a formal educational background in research or gender studies, but I want everyone to be able to understand it. Please contact me at kaylarosenzines@gmail.com if you have questions about the language or anything else.

One more thing about language: In the survey and throughout this paper, I used the term “gender identity,” a term that is controversial within the trans community. Cisgender (non-trans) people often use the phrase “gender identity” in ways that imply trans people’s genders are just “identities,” while cis people’s genders are somehow more real. I chose to use “gender identities” for the sake of including people like me, who may have identities in relation to gender that are not, themselves, genders. If I were to do this over, I would likely phrase things in terms of “gender” rather than “gender identity,” as that choice seems less harmful for the majority of trans people. However, I have preserved the language of “gender identity” in my paper because that is how the questions were phrased to participants and therefore what the findings address.

Thank you for reading.
Kayla Rosen (they/them)

Continue reading “Factors Used by Individuals to Determine Their Own Genders”

Trans Inaccessibility is Disabled Inaccessibility

My trans, disabled body doesn’t know the line between disability-related access and trans-related access, if the line exists at all.

I’ve been resting for the last 30 hours or so. I napped yesterday evening, got 10 more hours of sleep, and woke up feeling floaty, dizzy, and sleepy. It hasn’t stopped. I spent the whole day lying on the couch, watching TV or playing video games in short bursts while my energy lasted, but mostly doing nothing at all. I’m writing now only because it seemed too bleak to move from the couch to my bed just to extend my streak of sleeping.

It wasn’t this bad yesterday, but I was exhausted and in more pain than usual. The day before, I ran out of energy an hour or two into my work day, got so sensitive I had to turn off the lights, and maintained a piercing headache regardless.

I’m chronically ill; this isn’t new to me. But what set off this flare was transphobia. A couple of my cis coworkers gave mediocre definitions of “cisgender” while I was facilitating a workshop and no one corrected them. I felt trapped, and when it was time for small-group conversation, I froze, giving a hasty explanation before running away to cry in a small, dark meeting room. With support from my boss, I was able to pull it together and work for the rest of the day. But really, I was gone before I even left the room, and to my extreme frustration, I’m not back from this dissociation yet.

It’s an effort not to fault myself for being so weak. Emotional breakdowns and their physical aftermath are tedious, and I wish I could just opt out. My impulse is to minimize the microaggression. I know my coworkers were well-intended, and their errors were relatively subtle. I try to use this knowledge to make myself feel less deeply about it. It wasn’t that bad, I try to tell myself, so I shouldn’t feel this bad.

It doesn’t work. Deeper down, I know it was that bad. My pain tells me so. I feel unlovable and invalid in my agender, and my body breaks down in accordance with my emotions. When I try to erase my reasons for being hurt, it’s not the pain that goes away — just the explanation.

This is what inaccessibility looks like: being made to leave, disengage, cut back, shut down — and suffer anyway. Trans inaccessibility is emotional inaccessibility is physical inaccessibility is disabled inaccessibility. Casual transphobia wreaks horrors on my bodymind, giving me disability that this space and this work refuse to hold.

I’m frustrated at my own weakness. I want to be an unstoppable force of justice, not someone who runs away, cries and disappears for three days.

Capitalism is ableist, and it teaches us that fatigue is apolitical. If you’re permissibly tired, it’s natural, everyone gets tired, you need some rest, take care of yourself! If you’re tired in a way or to an extent that interrupts production or inconveniences others, then you’re lazy, not trying hard enough, and maybe just innately inferior. How pitiful that your body is just so bad and useless — guess it’s time for you to disappear until you’re fixed!

For people who aren’t tired all the time, it’s easier not to question where else exhaustion might come from. It’s easier to condemn fatigued people to a biological fate of exclusion than to resist cissexism, environmental racism, capitalism, and all the other forms of oppression that leave us so frequently burnt out.

But I am exhausted all the time, and I’m sick of self care. I’m sick of having to spend time healing my wounds instead of mounting a resistance. I’m sick of fighting transphobia with tea and baths and sleep. Self care might help conserve my life and energy, but it won’t stop the onslaught.

I need care from my community. I can’t support myself when I’m so tired already. I need solidarity from people who will understand, and the less I have to explain, the better, because talking takes energy too. I need validation in my transness and reassurance that I have a right to be honored in my agender, even if it’s so frequently violated. I need physical intimacy with people I trust.

My needs are barely being met. My friends and community members love me, but love alone can’t sustain us. We need resources. We need time and energy left over after work, school, moving apartments, transphobia, ableism and everything else that demands our labor. We need affordable housing in decent proximity to each other and affordable, accessible transportation.

Hurting more myself makes me hurt more for my community. I’m tired of us so often being targeted, ignored, made to insulate our oppressors from the grief they cause us. I’m tired of us being denied support by those with more power, being forced to draw from our own insufficient resources or, at best, the limited resources of our communities.

I need cis people to do better, to care more, and to stop creating such huge demand for caring labor from people who are already overtaxed. Stop hurting us. Call us by our pronouns, on the first attempt, every time. Quit projecting your assumptions on our bodies. Learn from trans-produced narratives and guides, but do your own research. Pay us for our labor to teach you. Take your collectively vast resources and use them to educate yourselves and each other. Do the prep work to keep from pushing us out of our shared spaces.

Start helping us. Care about us. Care for us. Make yourselves safe for us to trust. Hold us in our pain and our anger, if we will be held. Let us flee if we need to and ease our way back in when we can.

I need care; I demand access. I will not leave my fatigue at home or my transness at the door.


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Nic Masangkay’s “melancholia” holds history and longing with gentle strength


[image description: The front cover of Nic Masangkay’s chapbook “melancholia,” drawn by Raychelle Duazo. A colored pencil, marker, and pen illustration in blues and grays of Nic holding their head in their hands above a Seattle skyline.]

I’ve been impressed with Nic Masangkay’s poetry since I first found slam poetry several years ago, and their first chapbook release, melancholia, delivers on everything I’ve come to expect from them. Nic brings together histories of colonialism and resistance with personal memory and present experience, and the result is immensely powerful.

Two of Nic’s older poems and slam favorites are “Jose Rizal and “My Gender Is For Mothers.” “Jose Rizal” tells the story of a Filipino national hero who was executed as a traitor for resisting Spanish colonization juxtaposed with the ways their mother upholds colonial beauty standards and the silence they’ve adopted to protect her from her pain at Nic’s gender. “My Gender is For Mothers” is a love poem that holds the tension between Nic’s mother’s wishes for them and their queer trans love. Nic’s poems balance strength and vulnerability tremendously.

This chapbook also explores disability through poems about muscle pain, eczema, and trauma. Nic represents chronic pain as a ghost in “This recent muscle pain is…,” and it’s both haunting and healing to hear poetry about the familiar story of wondering why pain returns again and again, only to realize it never quite left. The poem concludes in acceptance, without the common sacrifice of denying the pain.

Nic’s use of imagery and detail makes their poems evocative on the first read-through, but melancholia is also a rich and sometimes abstract collection that benefits from repeated over time. I’ve been hearing “My Gender is for Mothers” performed for years now and I still learn through each return to it and the interconnected stories throughout the collection.

melancholia also features beautiful front and back covers, drawn by queer femme Filipina-American artist Raychelle Duazo and attention to accessibility, with trigger warnings and printed image descriptions of the covers and the artist photos.

True to its title, melancholia brims with sadness both urgent and gentle, but also hope and tenderness. Nic is a master of complexity and a poet whose greatness I aspire to.

To get a copy of melancholia, email Nic at ngmasang@gmail.com. melancholia is available for $10 or on a pay-what-you-can basis.

What ‘Pronoun Privilege’ gets wrong about supporting trans students (and how we can do better)

In September, the New York Times published a woefully irresponsible article by City University of New York gender studies professor Elizabeth Reis, entitled “Pronoun Privilege.” Reis’s short, 530-word article outlines her concern that by asking students to state their pronouns, well-meaning professors such as her are actually harming transgender and gender-nonconforming students. In publishing this article, Reis has resolidified her status as a well-meaning but dangerous professor.

I didn’t want to write this essay

I didn’t want to write about “Pronoun Privilege.” Since the day of its release, it has haunted me in my life as a transgender person who recently graduated college and has been on both sides of pronoun check-ins many times.

A few weeks before Reis’s article came out, I had emailed my former colleagues at my university social justice job to provide them with resources for supporting trans and gender-nonconforming students as the academic quarter began. Since I’d graduated out of my job, no one was paying me anymore. But I’d already written up the resources, I still had access to the all-staff mailing list, and I knew that if I didn’t bring up pronoun check-ins and other forms of support, no one likely would. It didn’t seem like so much free labor to send one email.

My decision reversed instantly when a professor replied to my email asking what I thought about Reis’s article. When I clicked through her link and read “Pronoun Privilege” for the first time, what I thought was that it felt like someone shouting at me out a car window as they drove past. It was a painful mess, and as much as I wanted to help trans students by replying, I wasn’t going to hurt myself by dissecting the article in detail for a college that was no longer paying me.

It’s now December, though, and this atrocious article still won’t leave me alone. I feel forced to confront it directly.

This publishing opportunity should have gone to a trans writer

My detailed breakdown of everything wrong with “Pronoun Privilege” hits a snag almost immediately: Reis does not adequately identify her positionality in relation to her article. If she’s trans, I still have many points to contend with her, but if she’s cis, both she and the New York Times are wildly out of line.

In the section of her article that most nearly addresses her own cis/trans status, she writes, “My appearance matches my preferred pronoun, so I don’t worry about anyone misstating it. But some of my students are transgender or gender nonconforming.” The first half of this seems likelier for cis people (particularly because she doesn’t even worry), and the latter part implies some contrast between her trans and gender-nonconforming students and her. This description and her casual transphobia throughout the article lead me to tentatively assume Reis is cis, but without her identifying herself, I can’t know for sure.

My most fundamental objection is that if Reis is cis, her article should not exist in the first place. Cis people cannot advance dialogue about how best to support trans people. To paraphrase and adapt a quote by Kelley Temple about men in feminism, cis people do not need to be given a space in trans advocacy; they need to take the space they have and make it more trans-friendly. Reis should work to make her classroom more trans-friendly, but if she is cis, she should not be cissplaining in the New York Times, nor should the New York Times have given her the platform. Trans people are the ones who innovate ways to balance visibility with safety for our communities. Give us, particularly trans women of color, the opportunity to write for money and a large audience about how to meet trans people’s needs. That being said, the rest of my complaints apply regardless of whether Reis is cis.

Pronoun check-ins aren’t as common as Reis suggests

Reis describes pronoun check-ins, the practice of asking everyone to state their pronouns at the beginning of group meetings, as common at some colleges and universities. Pronoun check-ins are common at liberal higher education institutions in the same sense as shooting stars are in the night sky: just because you’re unlikely to see them elsewhere doesn’t mean you should hold your breath for one.

Here, I suppose, is where I should give you more background about myself. I’m agender, meaning I have no identification with womanhood, manhood, or any other gender. I dress, behave, and speak in ways that are usually interpreted as feminine — not because of or in spite of my gender, but because those matters are what I genuinely prefer. My pronouns are they/them/theirs, xe/xyr/xyrs, and any others beside he, she, and it.

I have a round face and an hourglass figure. I’m consistently assumed to be a woman by all but the most committed trans radicals and allies. The accordance between my body and how people expect me to look, along with my whiteness, makes me an unlikely target for street violence but a very likely candidate for accidental misgendering.

I come out whenever space is made for me through practices such as pronoun check-ins and sometimes elbow my way out of more stubborn closets if I think there’s a chance I’ll be gendered correctly on the other side.

I went to a liberal university in a liberal city in a liberal state and planned my educational path around whose classrooms would likely have pronoun check-ins, and still pronoun check-ins weren’t common for me in classroom spaces. It’s hard for me to imagine that pronoun check-ins are “common” in classrooms for any trans student at any school.

The article itself is casually transmisogynistic

Reis explains that her fear that pronoun check-ins do as much harm as good is motivated particularly by a pronoun check-in she facilitated that brought scrutiny upon a student of hers, who would have preferred not to share her pronouns. Reis is right to be concerned for her trans students’ well-being and especially to listen to their individual concerns and preferences, but every conclusion she draws is flawed.

Reis writes that her student, who used a traditionally female name and uneasily shared her she/her pronouns, “looked like any other guy in the class.” The phrasing “other guy” implies that the student, too, is a guy. While someone who adopts a traditionally female name and she/her pronouns may be a guy, Reis being casually transmisogynistic seems more likely in this case. As a writer, she should know better, and as a respected publication, the New York Times should do better. This isn’t just a matter of grammar; it’s a matter of respecting people’s identities in an article about respecting people’s identities.

Asking students to opt into pronoun check-ins based on comfort can leave trans students uncomfortably exposed

After her experience making a student uncomfortable asking everyone to share their pronouns, Reis’s alternative approach was to share her concerns, asking students to share their pronouns only if they feel comfortable doing so, and saying that her class will refer to people by their first names or the gender-neutral “they.”

I don’t think this is an altogether bad approach, but I believe it gives cis students too much latitude to opt out rather than questioning their understandings of gender. Challenging preconceptions about how the world works — such as the existence of only two genders and only two sets of personal pronouns — can be uncomfortable, especially for those whose cis identities are decentered as a result. In my experience, many cis people will take every available opportunity to return to the status quo. This  means they will avoid sharing their own pronouns even though they would be safe to do so, and they will fall back on their gendered assumptions rather than following through on their names-or-”they” commitment.

I treat sharing pronouns as a practice to opt out of, more than a practice to opt into. I don’t want to force trans and gender-nonconforming students to out themselves, but I want to encourage everyone to participate. As a trans person, I felt hypervisible when cis people rely on the assumption that they will be gendered correctly, leaving me as one of few students who did share their pronouns. Similar to Reis, though, I tell participants that we will use names or “they” for anyone who doesn’t share pronouns.

My own method for facilitating pronoun check-ins

My approach is similar to Reis’s new one, but with more focus on long-term follow-through. During introductions, I explain that we will be doing a pronoun check-in, a process in which we share our pronouns with everyone to learn how to correctly refer to each other. I give a succinct explanation of the gender binary, how pronouns fit into it, and why it’s important to create new ways of handling gender and pronouns. I explain what pronouns are, because not everyone was taught or remembers. Discussing parts of speech and challenging how they work can be especially difficult for students who aren’t fluent in English, and I don’t want to marginalize them in the process of creating space for trans and gender-nonconforming students (particularly because these groups overlap). I’ve learned not to skimp on the background information to save time. Every omission increases the potential for misunderstanding and error. Explaining details of pronoun check-ins between introducing the concept and asking students to share their pronouns also gives them time to think about how to handle the situation.

Accidental misgendering is confoundingly persistent

Describing her mistaken thinking about how to create a welcoming space for students such as the one she accidentally harmed, Reis says, “Once she identified herself, no one would accidentally mis-gender her in class.” Only someone whose pronouns are always assumed correctly could be so naive. Throughout my years in college, nothing I tried ever resulted in a class consistently gendering me correctly, and I tried everything I could think of.

In one class — in which I’d had my pronouns on a nametag on my desk all quarter, explained trans and nonbinary identity every way I could (generally and personally, through outside resources and my own writing), and worked with groupmates to conduct archival research about a local trans organization — my groupmates misgendered me repeatedly while giving an earnest presentation about how to be allies to trans people.

I’m curious about what happened with pronouns and gendering in Reis’s class after their initial pronoun check-in. Based on all of my prior experience, I can only imagine they quietly slipped back into their familiar assumptions of gender for the most part. That’s what happens without ongoing intervention, and it’s easy for cis people not to notice.

Preventing misgendering requires ongoing intervention

Spoken pronoun check-ins work best when they’re repeated with the same group. Repetition not only helps with memorization, but also provides students opportunities to update each other and the instructor if their pronouns temporarily or permanently change. An alternative or supplemental option is to ask students to create name and pronoun tags for their desks. This makes their pronouns visible for reference, reducing the need to memorize, and you can invite students to update their names and pronouns if they change throughout the quarter. You’ll need to remind everyone to put them out at the start of each class session. Again, habit is a strong force to counter.

Expect and anticipate misgendering if anyone’s pronouns differ from what other people might assume. I recommend inviting students to you how they’d like you to respond if you hear someone misgendering them, because that’s not something you’ll want to guess at in the moment.

One last insulting mistake in a cissplaining mess of an article

In the transition from describing her new practice to concluding her article, Reis also jumps from being naive but reasonable to being outrageously damaging. She writes, “Divulging one’s gender through an announcement of pronouns at best contradicts the reality that our gender may be ambiguous, and at worst forces students to reveal a potentially vulnerable part of themselves.”

Sloppy writing makes this even worse than it might otherwise be. Here Reis places the blame not even on asking for disclosure, but on disclosure itself. By telling you my pronouns are they/them, ze/zir, and any others besides he, she, and it, and I prefer for people to vary them, I am actually cementing harmful ideas about gender. Who knew.

I know this all sounds bleak. There is a lot to be concerned about while trying to create safer, more inclusive spaces for trans and gender-nonconforming students. Before we can solve the problems of cissexism, we first must reveal them, and seeing them in their multitude can be alarming.

And yet, there’s hope

But for all my questionable experiences with pronoun check-ins, I believe they are a necessary part of creating more welcoming spaces. I take comfort in the knowledge that even when some people repeatedly get it wrong, others are learning. When my groupmates misgendered me to the class, several classmates and my professor corrected them because they knew that was what I wanted from them as allies. I’m frustrated at constantly having to be a gender educator just because I’m trans, but I’ve gotten pretty good at it through practice. If you want to know how to respect trans people, we’re the ones to learn from.

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