A few years ago, I worked a few weeks with a high school geometry class. One of the students was someone I’d been told identified as a male, though this individual had a delicate face, with a feminine jaw line, a nose far daintier than mine and long-lashed eyes, even though the haircut was short and masculine as were the clothes the student wore. To my shame, I too often went on automatic when using pronouns and used “hers” and “she” instead of “his” and “he” from time to time. When I did so in a study group, asking where “she” was today, I was sternly reprimanded by the other students. I was embarrassed and wished I could have done right by the student. I’ve thought about this so often, that maybe it’s the reason a “genderfluid” character made an entrance in my mystery and refuses to leave. So I had to get this character right.
I read post after post and went to every site I could find that was an advocate for people who do not identify with gender the way a large portion of the world does.
First, I was merely searching for vocabulary: is there an accepted set of pronouns I could use for a person not readily discernible as male or female? (The answer is that no, there is not one universally accepted set of pronouns, see: www.warren-wilson.edu/~writingcenter/Gender-Neutral_Language.pdf ). However, in doing this search, I realized that while pronoun use is an important issue, there was far more for me to learn.
What I found is that Facebook is right in adopting its 56 genders (for a list with definitions, see here: http://guardianlv.com/2014/02/all-56-of-facebooks-new-gender-identities-defined/). True, there are shades and overlaps, but so many of the voices I read identified with those shades and overlaps. As with many of the ways we identify ourselves, many individuals are annoyed that the rest of the world wants a simple label to slap on them. Some see themselves as Neutrois, but not Agender or Transgender for example, Transfeminine but not Androgyne. Is Trans* an acceptable abbreviation? I read posts on both sides of the issue. One of the most illuminating posts on being non-standard from the point of view of gender, is this one: a post by Jillian Cottle, blogging at A Fine Line: “By the end of this post gender may not look like a real word anymore.”
It took me some time to carefully consider how my character, Leslie, might self-identify. For one, Leslie is older, about sixty-three. Leslie is the descendant of a wealthy family, and has always lived in a part of the Hollywood Hills that not only tolerates eccentricity, but nurtures it. Leslie burst onto the page as someone who might one day appear in full sheik regalia, the next in Jean Harlowesque pink silk lounging pajamas. The important point is that Leslie is fabulous because Leslie knows Leslie is fabulous. I know a number of amazing sixty-year olds who believe this about themselves anyway–they’ve finally gotten old enough to not care what anyone else thinks about them and they speak their mind and do what they want to do. This fits Leslie perfectly, though in my head, Leslie has always felt this way, having the setting and money to do so.
What got much more interesting was how to introduce this character. My protagonist is Eddie Moon (female, but with a slightly gender-teasing name). Leslie is her next-door neighbor. I write Eddie in first-person, so I now have a chance to learn from my own real life faux pas. Eddie has no idea what gender Leslie is, and at this stage in the story, Eddie doesn’t feel as though their acquaintanceship has reached a level where she can ask. I suspect that in the end, Eddie will realize gender doesn’t matter, and certainly doesn’t apply to Leslie.
For myself, I finally reasoned that Leslie is, yes, Genderfluid, a person who is a mix of traditional and female genders which might change from one day to the next. I also love the definition of “Genderqueer,” the state of being beyond or between genders or a combination of genders. Leslie is definitely beyond.
The last thing I want is to make this character stereotypical. Leslie came into being with a great deal of flamboyance, which might be seen as relying on a stereotype, but I’m working as hard at making Leslie three-dimensional as I am for all my important secondary characters. Leslie, for example, is shrewd at business, adventurous, and has some very interesting anecdotes about the golden age of Hollywood. Though Leslie has a kind heart, a favorite past time is to let Lord Howard, Leslie’s Scottish Deerhound, disperse paparazzi.
I’ll keep reading those non-binary voices out there–and for now, I am avoiding pronouns entirely when it comes to writing Leslie.