I don’t know what to call my partner when I’m talking to you.
I know what you expect to hear, but that’s not right. Out of “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” girlfriend might be more appropriate… or at least I know it will be one day, but right now that would only make things more confused. So I say, “my boyfriend” even though it’s wrong, because it’s what you expect, because that’s the only way to avoid outing them, me, us, to you, a near perfect stranger. It feels like switching languages, or maybe just dialects. Out of my own insular, subcultural one and into your larger more universal one, a language that makes inaccurate generalizations about people, a language in which there is no right word for us, but using my words would lead you to make assumptions and ask questions. Questions about my life that, as a stranger, you don’t really have any right to the answers to, but I don’t even want to hear you ask, so I hesitate and just say “my boyfriend”.
Pronouns and Passing
By now I must certainly be a dialectical expert, switching easily between “they” and “he” as we navigate the alternatingly safe and unsafe spaces in our lives. I have become quite practiced at pronoun gymnastics, I can change your gender in one breath, obscure you with my words and cloak you in the safety that comes with passing.
I’m acutely aware of what passing means now in a way I never was before. The moment before I speak I feel as though I’m balancing on the edge of a knife. I want to speak truthfully of us, because I am proud and we are beautiful, but I know that passing could be all that stands between us and unemployment. or assault.
I know that being able to choose safety is a luxury and when I lie with your pronouns I feel like a traitor, because I know that somewhere out there are so many others like us who cannot hope to hide behind the safety of false pronouns anymore.
We too are losing that luxury. For now the language gives me room enough to pass, room enough to keep you safe, but that space is shrinking in steady increments. And I am ever so keenly aware of how quickly that space is dwindling, every time I’m speaking. A million times a day I have to make that choice and every time I remember that one day there won’t be any decision to make. Part of me is relieved to know we won’t ever hide again, and the other part of me is dreading the living with that danger.
There are very few words for people like us, mongrel gendered as we are, and the words we have we made ourselves. We subsist on our own queer dialect, growing on the outskirts of a language that cannot satisfy us. We are lean and hungry and desperate, but words grow slowly. So we savor every last morsel of our meager harvest and imagine ourselves feasting gloriously as we muddle and struggle and toil here on the margins for the words to feed our souls.