Written by Mari Wrobi .
Art by Lou Nollaig.
My partner and I are alike in so many ways that it’s easy to lose track of everything we have in common. For one thing, we’re both nerdy. We play the card game Magic the Gathering, do at least one cosplay together a year, and are both readers of comics and graphic novels. For another, we are both ex-baristas and specialty coffee aficionados who used to compete in latte art competitions together. Aside from being goofy and in love, we share a city, we share a home, and we share a culture. One thing we don’t have in common, however, is that I’m trans and my partner is cis.
For those who don’t know these terms, allow me to explain. “Transgender” (or “trans”) refers to someone who identifies as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Alternatively, “cisgender” (or “cis”) refers to someone who identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth. If the doctor said the words, “It’s a boy!” when you were born and you identify as a man, you’re cis. But if you identify as a woman or as another gender instead, you’re trans. And if you do happen to identify as a gender other than a man or a woman, you can also claim the term “nonbinary”—a subcategory under the trans umbrella for people who identify as neither a man nor a woman, both a man and a woman, or somewhere in-between.
I’m used to explaining my gender and pronouns to people because it’s something that I need to do every time I meet someone new. I mean, I don’t tell the person bagging my groceries who calls me “ma’am” that I’m actually not a woman because I probably won’t see them again and they probably don’t care. But if I intend to have a long-term relationship with someone, I need to tell them that I’m nonbinary and use they/them pronouns because if they can’t respect these things then we can’t have a relationship. Something I didn’t realize would happen, though, is that my partner also needs to explain my gender and pronouns to people. And in his case, he explains it a lot more. For him, it’s not just his family and friends that he needs to explain my gender to—it’s his coworkers, his Magic buddies, people he knew in high school, people he meets in passing, his distant relatives, and so many other people that I decide not to tell.
I’m used to explaining my gender and pronouns to people…. Something I didn’t realize would happen, though, is that my partner also needs to explain my gender and pronouns to people.
Why is this so different for us? Well, when my partner talks about me for the first time he of course uses my pronouns and refers to me as his partner—at which point people typically assume that I’m a man. Why else would a cis man use vague, gender-neutral pronouns when talking about their partner with someone new? But the longer they talk with him and the longer he continues to use my pronouns, the more people start to get confused. Sometimes people follow his lead and use my correct pronouns regardless. But other times, they ask more questions first. Like, “Why do you refer to your partner as they?” Or, “Who are they? Who are you talking about?”
Once we both realized that these conversations were happening regularly, we figured out how one should best go about introducing their nonbinary partner to cis people.
First, my partner starts by telling people that I’m nonbinary.
My identity as nonbinary is very nuanced—I don’t define my gender in terms of closeness to or distance from the gender binary, but instead as an identity that exists beyond our conception of the binary. But, for clarity and simplicity’s sake, my partner and I decided that telling people that some people identify as men, other people identify as women, and that I identify as neither is much easier than getting into the intricacies of my gender.
A big part of my partner being my ally is correcting people when I can’t.
Second, he explains that I use they/them pronouns.
And for people who have never used they/them pronouns before, he also explains how to use them properly. This includes either sending them conjugation resources or simply using a quick sentence as an example like this:
He went to pick up his dog.
She went to pick up her dog.
They went to pick up their dog.
Third, he tells people how to correct themselves if they mess up and accidentally misgender me.
This is the easiest part. All I—and most nonbinary people—want from cis people is effort. When they mess up, the best thing for them to do is correct themselves, apologize, and move on. We understand that they/them pronouns require a bit of a learning curve, and neither of us are trying to get people in trouble or punish them for their mistakes if they’re genuinely trying their best.
Fourth, he corrects people if they mess up and don’t correct themselves or change their behavior.
A big part of my partner being my ally is correcting people when I can’t. Whether it’s because I’m not around, I’m too anxious, or I don’t feel safe, he has taken on the role of asserting my pronouns with cis people as many times as he needs to for them to get it right. This is extremely important because it conveys the message that trans people’s pronouns are not optional—they’re mandatory.
Finally, we recognize that this guide, what works for us, and what we’re both comfortable with is always subject to change.
If we ever find that we need to adjust the process, we do. At the end of the day, the best way to be aware of how any nonbinary person wants to be introduced and addressed is to always ask them what they prefer, who they’re comfortable being “out” with, and how you can be their best ally. If more conversations like this were happening, we know that the world would be a much safer and more comfortable place for nonbinary people.
About the Author
Mari Wrobi is a queer, trans and intersex advocate living in Sacramento, CA. They currently work at a shelter for LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness, intern at the Gender Health Center, and speak across the nation on intersex health and advocacy with interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth.