she, them and em

The first news reports about the people who died in the fire in Oakland often featured a portrait of Em B with a dog. She looked familiar — fierce and feminist. I did not, at the time, recognize her.

A colleague sent our department an email a couple days later: a former student had died, Em Bohlka. When she was on our campus, she had not yet transitioned. She was enrolled under another name.

Em was a shimmering presence in a 2012 class on literature and sexuality. Looking for traces of her in my files, I find an email correspondence about a couple of conversations during office hours. I find and read her final paper. I open a desktop file, “notes on participation 122.doc.” At the top of a list titled “outstanding contributions to class” is the name, “Bohlka.”

That course was centered on intimacy, as a problem. We read Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood for three weeks, and followed that with Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. We read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s very challenging essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay, or, the War on Effeminate Boys,” and lots of Monique Wittig, including “One is Not Born a Woman” and “On the Social Contract.”

Octavia Butler’s trilogy emerged as the course ur-text: the world she imagines centers on an otherworldly species with complex reproductive and attachment practices. Reproduction in this novel requires 5 participants, and is facilitated by a sex/gender called “ooloi” — ooloi mediate sexual interaction between species-pairs (in the world of Oankali sex, “pairs” are not attached to an all-powerful binarized gender grid). Ooloi amplify attachment and pleasure. They are also healers who are turned on by illness (from which they learn, and which they cure). Once you mate with and through ooloi, you can’t and won’t do it any other way. When you reproduce with the Oankali, you participate in the creation of new species-beings. Beings who are not entirely recognizable, not entirely knowable by their parents. Each generation is a different species.

Butler’s narrators use “it” when referring to ooloi characters. The students went right for this language problem: it dehumanizes.We talked about this for ten weeks. We started using ooloi to describe certain kinds of characters in other novels — mediators, triangulators — characters who are defined by, in, through and who get “off” on relationships which they, in essence, author.

But what to do, students wondered, with this linguistic entanglement of gender and recognizable personhood — especially when referring to a character who feels so much, who enables and enhances feeling for others? “It” felt wrong.

(In 2010, a man assaulted a trans student at a nearby campus. He carved the word “it” onto this student’s chest.)

In those sometimes challenging class discussions a group of students informed us that they had been using “they,” as a way around the binary pronoun problem. These students gave a quick lesson in the use of “they/them.” I learned with the class. I’m not sure, however, that I took it as seriously then as I should have.

“They” does not get rid of gender binaries. But it creates a possibility. It forces you to listen to the pronoun’s context. In all of the things it does not tell you, it communicates some of the things that these pronouns can never be adequate to. Is this one person, or more? What of this person is in this word?

Until the winter of 2012, I had thought of genderplay at the pronoun level as a quite particular, local action taken by individuals — until then, I had never heard people use alternative pronouns fluently in conversation and in writing, with nary a snag. Teachers have watched a new discursive community take shape right before their eyes. This is the privilege of being in the classroom for a long time — you really see change. That change, however, is not necessarily one in which you can participate — at least not in the same way that your students do. You bear witness to all kinds of transformations, and this can be humbling. This feminist professor of sexuality studies did not expect to feel so clumsy around gendering — but, around about 2012, I most definitely was.

When we talked about the gender binary in the 1980s and 1990s, he/she was it. It felt like all there would ever be. Experiments with new pronouns were utopian. Of course I have used pronouns quite fluidly when speaking with and about people in my life — for some, gender is so context-specific, so mutable, so relational — one might need a “he” for one context, and a “she” for another. It was a big deal to use both about the same person — oneself, or another. That felt utopian. But of course, this she-to-he-and-back-again was never right for a lot of gendery people who are non-binary. In fact, for some people, this is as negating as “it.”

I look back on this time of linguistic transition, and I am sure that in conversation I misgendered especially younger trans people. In the classroom, those people would not be empowered to tell me so. When faculty are really wrong, students are in the worst position — it is such an awful feeling — sitting in the classroom after you’ve been hurt, humiliated, or when you are stewing with rage because what you are being taught is just violent. It is on the teacher to know this, but one does not always know it at the right time.

The pronoun expansion to they is quite practical. The English language has long made room for this singular use of they/them. Pronoun proliferation, in fact, feels good — it is good — in some contexts, it can be joyous. Look at what a sentence becomes when that sentence is about Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, whose preferred pronoun is v/vself. V invites us to meet v’s dendrophilic qualities at the level of the sentence. Sometimes, I see v referred to as them. And, word is they are also open to she. With her, we cross (mx.) and branch out (v)!

Them creates a wonderful possibility. As a word, it enacts a proliferation — a confusion — it unsettles the oneness of things; it makes room in the sentence for a plural sense self.

For if there is something real in the ideas of Rousseau, it is that we can form “voluntary associations” here and now, and here and now reformulate the social contract as a new one, although we are not princes or legislators. Is this mere utopia? Then I will stay with Socrates’s view and also Glaucon’s: If ultimately we are denied a new social order, which therefore can only exist in words, I will find it in myself.

So Monique Wittig concludes her essay “On the Social Contract.”

Voluntary associations. Mere utopia. Only exist in words. There is nothing “mere” or “only” about them. Or her.

People are always learning to negotiate with each other. What negotiation is, what it means, and how we recognize the requests made within negotiations change. Language changes all the time: it is a living, fluid thing — we negotiate with this. Gender itself — as a felt aspect of one’s being, as a set of institutions and codes — is a living, fluid thing. We negotiate with that.

In 2012, I met a group of students who were successfully putting these living things together to make more room for themselves and their friends. In a sense, these students were very ooloi in their awareness of the material nature of this interface.

These linguistic protocols of sex/gender feel alien only (only!) because in our encounters with new and different protocols — new and different practices of what is said and not said, new and different ways of welcoming each other — we stumble over our own and each others’s experiences of our foreignness; our own illegibility — the not-fully-translatable nature of what sex and gender are for us, as they become for us.

This, to remember Em, whose final paper for that class was, of all things, about the problem of gender and consent.