The Queer community knows well that even the smallest words can have big impacts, positive and negative alike. Our own language as a community evolves the more we learn, grow, and expand to include the vastness of those under the queer umbrella. Too often though, LGBTQ+ folks learn to speak defensively, existing in the overwhelmingly cisgender-heterosexual, allosexual world around us. The pre-emptive apologies we don’t even notice that get worked into the language we use to talk about ourselves can slip in unnoticed. How many nonbinary people keep one particular pronoun available for cis folks to use just to avoid the conflict of correcting people? It’s a quiet, “but no worries if you can’t remember” addendum to “my identity is” that allows our fear of rejection to override our need and our right to be seen as who we are.
I realized my least favorite iteration of this when another nonbinary friend referred to herself as “masc-presenting.” She said “Well, I know that as a masc-presenting person”, and my brain became stuck on this wording for days. To me, to present a certain way is an intentional action. Something actionable that you do. They do everything in her power and intention to present fully as who she is, so in what way could she possibly be masc-presenting?
It took several rounds of mulling this over before I realized that, of course, I did this all the time. When talking about my experiences with misogyny, instead of putting the onus of that behavior on society, and on misogynists, I pre-emptively apologize. Explaining, “as a femme-presenting person,” as if it is a justification for why I’ve encountered this treatment. Once this clicked I saw it everywhere. T for T or bisexual couples wondering if they are welcome in queer spaces because they are “straight presenting.”
I feel that ultimately, we do this to try to protect ourselves from the reaction we have gotten all too used to receiving. At best, rejection or dismissal of our identity that might even come from within our own queer spaces. At worst, outright hatred, disgust, disrespect, or violence. So we issue these subtle apologies; When I hear myself slip and say out loud “oh, I know I’m pretty femme-presenting” when someone is surprised I identify as fairly masculine, I now hear it in my head as “I’m sorry I am asking you to see me this way.’ And that is so tragically unfair to me. But sadly, we aren’t immune to the damaging views of the world around us, and it’s not uncommon that we learn to turn those anti-queer biases inward, reinforcing them and holding us back in the process.
By definition of the word, you cannot present in a way that you do not intend to. As someone who is fully gender fluid, the only time I will ever be “femme-presenting” is when I fully wake up and choose to do so. Which I happily do on days when it sits right in my soul. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that any other time someone assigns masculine or feminine to a trans person either passively or directly, I truly feel that the onus lies on them.
So, as a small experiment that has worked not a small amount of healing magic, this past year I’ve changed the language I use out loud, and in my head, from “presenting” to “perceived”. At first glance, this might seem like a silly, insignificant change. I believe though, that the power of words should not surprise us. For instance, the first time someone used “he” to describe me, I felt simultaneously dizzy and like I was walking into a lit room for the first time ever. Such a small word, only one letter different from its counterpart, could have the voluminous emotional impact of a marching band. Every single time I hear my friends talk about me, effortlessly using all pronouns, I feel verbally hugged in a way that feels so utterly safe.
So, I should not have been surprised when switching this language from presenting to perceived, even just within my inner monologue, healed quite a bit of damage I did not realize I was doing to myself. Every single “femme-presenting” I used to refer to myself was another little paper cut I was causing to discredit my own identity, and it reinforced the idea that somehow I was failing to present nonbinary enough to be seen as who I am in society.
Well, disrespectfully, society is already unkind enough. The cis-het world does not need my help making me feel unworthy of my own identity or existence. And the feeling of protection I might have been looking for is completely moot, since being queer at all is enough to put us at risk. So, for myself, I started saying “perceived” instead. It might be a small difference, but what I was doing was mentally shifting the responsibility off my shoulders, and onto the societal biases which are actually responsible. The power of that shift led to feeling more empowered to stand up for myself and insist that people recognize my whole identity, and that defaulting to she/her pronouns for me (even though I do embody them in part) is not seeing all of me.
I can feel that this small shift was somewhat like the beginning of another in a long line of queer snowballs for me, and I can’t predict what it will look like the more snow it gathers. All that I know is that my queerness and my identity - how I present to the world, and how I perceive myself - are stronger than before. All because of a few little words.