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First Person

How I realized I was ‘they’

Gender, pronouns, and the power of the right definition

By Jama Shelton

There was a time, when I was a graduate student in New York in the early 2000s, when I found it difficult to get dressed, especially for “dress up” situations. I would try to find a balance between what would be considered masculine and feminine — like a suit with heels. Or a suit with earrings and a touch of mascara. The suit stayed consistent; the “feminine” expressions varied over time. I never felt fully confident, though, until I stopped feeling the need for some aspect of femininity in my outfits. Wearing a suit, a bowtie, and quirky socks felt more like me.

Everywhere I went, people asked, “Are you a boy or girl?” Or worse. One day I was walking my dog in Brooklyn, a school bus stopped at the light, and a kid screamed out the window, “You need to fix your fucking hair, faggot.”

 Another kid yelled at me, then all the kids were screaming. People on the street stopped and looked. The stoplight stayed red for an eternity. I thought, “I’m not going to walk away. I’m not going to say anything because they’re children.” I went home and had an utter breakdown. 

And I tried to understand why not knowing someone’s gender could make people so hateful. This school bus full of kids had learned that anger from somewhere. Like me, perhaps, they had been taught that there are two genders, nothing more, and that everyone just is one of those two.

If you don’t know anything else besides the narrow definitions you’ve been given, how do you know what’s missing?

As much as I would like to be more like David Bowie, the truth is that knowing the word ‘androgynous’ didn’t solve anything.

I was born in 1975, and I grew up in a small, super-religious Christian town in Mississippi. When I was 16, I was the class president and the homecoming queen. I knew nothing about gay people or gender identity. I didn’t even understand what it meant to have a crush on a girl in my high school.

Then one night, I was driving home from church in my stepdad’s pickup truck. “Rainbow Connection’ was playing on the radio. There’s a verse about a voice that calls to the sailors: “I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it. It’s something that I’m supposed to be.” And in that moment, I thought, “That’s what I am. I’m gay.” 

When I finally came out to my mom, I was 22. She gave me the keys to her car and told me to leave. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone, drove to my girlfriend’s home in Houston, and stayed in Texas for five years in a lesbian bubble. I lived in the gay part of town, worked at a lesbian coffee shop, and was part of the gay art community. When my girlfriend got into art school in New York in 2002, I moved with her.

In New York, outside of my bubble, I started to realize that “lesbian” didn’t describe who I was. I was going to graduate school for social work at the time, working with transgender youth. I attended a transgender conference. That’s where I heard the term “androgynous” and thought, “Oh, that’s what I am. I’m like David Bowie. I’m gender elusive.”

But as much as I would like to be more like David Bowie, the truth is that knowing the word “androgynous” didn’t solve anything. While it accurately described how I felt — a combination of masculine and feminine — it didn’t come with instructions about how to make the world see me and respond to me like I wanted it to. And then I learned about “they” as a pronoun. It was 2010 and I was working at the True Colors Fund, an organization aimed at ending homelessness among LGBT youth. Each week we would go around the room and give our name and a pronoun when we introduced ourselves, and one of the new staff members said they used “they.” I hadn’t heard of this before, but I liked the way it sounded, so I started to say, “You can use ‘she’ or ‘they.’”

Still, I was afraid to use “they” widely. I thought people wouldn’t take me seriously or would think I was only using the term because it was a hip thing to do. It was the Advocate, the LGBT magazine, that forced my hand. They were interviewing me for an article about the True Colors Fund, and they asked me which letter I used — L, G, B, or T — so they could identify me for the story. I said if I had to choose something, it would be T for trans — in a broad, gender-fluid way.

That question forced me to categorize myself: to realize that neither “she” nor “he” feels right. So last year, after I married my wife, I started using “they.” Because it’s me. Nothing else fits. 

Humans are smart. We learn new things all the time. When people get married, if they change their last names, we adapt to those new names. Still, some people have a hard time wrapping their heads around “they” as a pronoun to refer to one person. They might say, “That doesn’t make sense! ‘They’ is not singular. It’s grammatically incorrect.” I point out that we have and continue to use “they” as a pronoun when we don’t know someone’s gender. I just did it a few sentences earlier. See, it’s not that hard!

Now, I feel the need to tell everyone about “they” — to be visible, vocal and shameless about who I am, because there are so many people who have never seen an adult like them. I wear a button on my jacket that says “They/Them.” I include my pronouns in my email signature and on my syllabi. When giving lectures or trainings, I always introduce myself with my name and pronouns. This is a process that should be normalized.

I’ve found that it’s important to have allies, because it may not always be comfortable for me to correct someone, depending on the circumstance. And safety is a real concern for transgender people. At restaurants, if someone comes to our table and calls us “ladies,” sometimes my spouse will have a quick educational conversation with them before we leave. Sometimes I leave a note. I’ve gotten really positive reactions when I’ve returned to a café after leaving a note for the server. If they’ve never had to think about gender or pronouns in this way, how could they know?

I’m 43 now and I know what I am: a transgender non-binary person who uses gender-neutral pronouns. I didn’t have a framework or the language to explain that before. Now I do. 

As told to Alix Strauss.

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Jama Shelton, MSW, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and the Chief Strategy Officer for the True Colors Fund. They are shown in the photos at top as a child and an adult.

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