What does it mean to be genderqueer or nonbinary?
Hannah Holloway knows most people don’t put a lot of deep thought into introductions.
It’s a simple exercise, right?
People exchange names, maybe shake hands, make basic-enough pleasantries and somewhere along the way make an assumption — based perhaps on appearance, clothes, jewelry and name — about gender. They decide if the other person is a male or a female and select a pronoun. The words — he or she — are so deeply rooted in American vernacular that sometimes the word goes unnoticed.
But Holloway catches it.
The 24-year-old identifies as nonbinary — someone who doesn’t view themselves by a particular gender — and prefers the pronouns “they” or “them.”
“I’ve never really thought to myself, yes, I am a girl. Or, yes, I am a guy. I’m Hannah. That’s it,” Holloway says.
The term nonbinary is hardly new, but it’s getting more attention. In January, the American Dialect Society voted “they” the 2015 Word of the Year, in part for its use as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Some newspapers are starting to use gender neutral pronouns as well.
The momentum made the transition easier for Holloway in Middle America. In fact, the University of Kansas pharmacy student said coming out to family and friends was almost a nonevent.
Holloway began asking friends and family to use they/them pronouns about two years ago.
“I just said, ‘Hey, I think I might be nonbinary. So is it all right if you guys could use they/them pronouns for me just to see if it feels all right?’ ”
“And then I just rolled with it,” Holloway says.
It’s been overwhelmingly positive since.
Of course, that’s not everyone’s experience. Holloway emphasizes that because, too often, people want to generalize. Friends have shared drastically different stories and Holloway doesn’t want to reduce their experiences. But it’s also worth sharing that not every story is heartbreaking.
The 2009 graduate of Shawnee Mission North takes a disarming approach that has worked.
“Since my folks are from an older generation they still occasionally slip up on using they/them pronouns,” Holloway says. “I just say, ‘they/them pronouns’ and then they say ‘all right.’ And then we just move on. They’ve been really supportive. I love my folks.”
But there are moments of frustration.
“The only time I ever get frustrated is when I correct someone on the pronouns and then they kind of dig in their heels about it.”
People will demand: “But they is plural.”
“No it isn’t, it’s a singular. Shakespeare used a singular they,” Holloway says. “I understand that it takes some getting used to, but it really does help me out. And if you slip up and just say sorry and move on, it’s all right.”
Holloway knows they’re probably not arguing about grammar.
Holloway relishes the chance to educate people on the subject and gently remind people that some questions step into private matters.
“One of the big mistakes I see when talking to transgender people in general — binary and nonbinary — is a lot of times people will ask them questions about what gender were they assigned at birth. What is the old name that they don’t use? And even more cringe-worthy is they ask about if that person has had any medical procedures,” Holloway says. “Just because someone identifies as a certain gender does not mean you are automatically entitled to private information regarding it.”
Holloway doesn’t feel the need to divulge deeply personal information, including sexual orientation. And gender is a thing of the past for someone who identifies as nonbinary.
But the question of gender is “everywhere if you look for it,” Holloway says. There’s the subject of unisex bathrooms at schools and nongender toy aisles at Target.
Nearly all goods are classified by men and women’s products, right down to shampoo and deodorant.
“We all have sweat glands,” Holloway says with frustration.
Holloway recently encountered a form for a contest to create a new video game character that posed a dilemma.
“You can write in an answer, but they only have guy and gal gender options on there,” Holloway says. “Those itty-bitty little things that are very, very tiny little irritants and they kind of build up over time.”
It’s something that Holloway, who has accepted a job at Safeway grocery in Denver, Colo., plans to keep in mind upon entering the workforce after graduation in May.
As a pharmacy student, Holloway has spent time in small towns working alongside pharmacists and helping customers. Small changes could help nonbinary patients feel at ease. Holloway refers to patients solely by their last name. In a hospital setting, where bedside manner counts, Holloway plans to use a patient’s full name and ask them which pronoun they prefer.
Holloway has a plan for sharing the pronoun preference with co-workers, but it won’t come up with customers.
“If I’m going to be working with a group of people a lot for more than a month or so, then I’m like, ‘Hey, just by the way,’ ” Holloway says. “But if you’re just a customer who is just coming in once, I don’t mind.”
Since making the pronoun change, Holloway said the experience has proven how friendly and accommodating even conservative Midwesterners can be. When they know someone, it’s a lot easier.
“It does take some unlearning,” Holloway says. “It doesn’t mean you can’t work on it, though. Some people will say, ‘This will take forever.’ Well, you might as well try.”