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Shortcuts That Cut

Updated: Mar 10, 2021

I’ve been obsessing over pronouns. For years now, to be fair. But these pandemic days are finally making the space to really listen to the hum in my head.

I grew up in a multitude of languages, countries, and cultures; I got a bachelor’s degree in English and Women’s Studies, I went on to run a newspaper during my Saturn Return, and have always been some sort of poet. I better know what a pronoun is.

I see it as cultural shorthand.

Tiny words - some only two skinny letters long - are used to refer to whole, complex human beings, to entire groups, physical objects, and abstract concepts.

We need them. (There are two in that three-word sentence alone.)

These shortcuts are essential to reference established elements when making a point succinctly.

But what happens when, in the reduction towards efficiency, the words left misrepresent the people they are meant to identify?

In this culture, and most of the dominant cultures I’ve experienced first hand in North and South America, Europe, and Australia, there are only two options when referring to singular individuals in the third person: she/her/hers or he/him/his.

A binary choice: one or the other.

What’s more, this choice is rarely given to the person being addressed; often, it is an assumption made by the speaker.

The recipient of the assumption also has a binary choice: to accept or to reject. Acceptance often keeps the peace, while also keeping an individual’s wholeness secret, while a rejection often comes with struggle: from the tedium of re-education to a real vulnerability as violence against all kinds of minorities is a part of the behemoth that is dominant culture.

Olga Chwa's face and shoulders, they are wearing a beanie hat and looking slightly off to the side. There is a two-toned wall behind them. The photo is captioned 'Olga Chwa 2021'

For myself, I can accept and allow the cultural shorthand for me to be “she” because that’s what is expected of me based on a biological marker I was born with. Assigned female at birth (afab) for a significant majority, means they grow up to be women. Or, in the least, not male.

This feels true for me in a way I know is not true for some of my transmasculine brothers, who may have been assigned female at birth but grew up to be men.

I personally can live my life with a baseline sense of coherence enrolling completely in the identity of ‘woman’ - something I have often felt compelled to do, and defaulted into, over the years.

But as I listen in, to my internal hum and go through my days without being asked to perform my femininity in the ways our pre-pandemic social living expected of me, my heart is beginning to beat a bit differently.

I’ve been diving into some of the deepest trenches in online conversations, with other queer people and folx who call themselves enby (n.b./non-binary). We discuss identity and gender, denouncing the binary as we seek to find agreement between our inner experience - and our physical, lived embodiments. Time and time again, our stories fall somewhere beyond and outside of the paradigms that create and appear to uphold this society.

What’s more, the closer I look, I can see how some of the deepest ingrained beliefs contribute to much of what is wrong with heteronormative patriarchy and the white supremacy it colludes with.

This, in turn, awakens in me a desire to defy: denounce the binary and demand a language with a broader spectrum of human gender identities.

I feel lucky to be able to live my adult life in English, which is known for its linguistic plasticity and ability to create new words for new concepts easily, and therefore makes defiance and re-definition of culture actually possible.

Olga Chwa is carrying a 2-foot long, 18-inch diameter log towards a pile of logs on the ground, at the edge of a wooded treeline. She has short dark hair and is wearing a dark green tank-top, loose, faded jeans and black gloves. The photo is captioned 'Olga Chwa 1999'.'

Even luckier, to know I am not alone in my frustrations, as I meet more and more people like me - born in female bodies but living somewhere somewhat exiled if not totally alienated from the mainland of ‘womanhood’ and the demographic popularly known as ‘she’.

Given the binary options, ‘she’ or ‘he,’ I do choose “she”, however incomplete it feels. And I blame language for this polarization of gender. Maybe if I had more words to choose from, the culture would better accommodate me and my many gender-nonconforming siblings.

From a linguistic grammatical perspective, using “they” as a singular pronoun has always made very good sense to me.

Historically, there were more pronouns in the English language, although not necessarily for gender diversity. From the 13th to the 17th century, the words ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ functioned ubiquitously in reference to a singular person. ‘You’ and ‘your’ were also in use, but reserved for addressing a group, the way some dialects use ‘ya’ll’ or ‘all’ya’ll’ today.

These days, modern English no longer differentiates between these singular and plural second-person pronouns. ‘You’ addresses one person or many. The language is simplifying. Following this progression we’ve also got the royal we (pluralis majestatis) - with which a singular individual can refer to just themselves by a plural pronoun.

And there it is. ‘Themselves’ - one person. They can call themselves whatever they want really, and grammatically we understand.

In the English language, this third-person plural, ‘they,’ has long functioned in tandem with the singular third-person pronouns ‘she’ and ‘he,’ but recently, it might be receiving some extra attention, as it has one most handy feature: it is gender-neutral.

It is this neutrality that allows for the non-binary to exist.

At all.

I feel especially sensitive to the way language shapes our lives and how we see the world because I grew up as an immigrant child, speaking 3 languages fluently by the age of 12 and going on to learn a few more just out of momentum.

I witnessed firsthand how having words for anything created the possibility of its existence. And I saw, how, culture to culture, people's lives were shaped by the words available.

Maybe it was my international upbringing, or perhaps my astrological chart, with Mercury in Virgo, that makes me fixate on language the way I do. Possibly, it is also some degree of who I am, physiologically - something I’m just beginning to lean into, on a more complex and subtle level, that has me seeking out these trenches where folx are conversing about pronouns in the first place.

When I taught English as a foreign language in Poland, I often told my students that the smallest words bring the biggest challenges.

My challenge with the ‘she’ and ‘he’ pronouns is that they enforce a binary - offering only two options for living beings: female/feminine and male/masculine.

Olga Chwa is standing on a quiet city street with on foot up on the curb. She is holding a bathroom mirror, balanced on her thigh, which captures a reflection of the photographer, sitting on the sidewalk. Olga has short, messy hair and is wearing baggy beige cargo pants and a black jacket.  The photo is captioned 'Olga Chwa 2001'.

Meanwhile, my experience with humans is that we are far more diverse than that. Some of us find our footing in the binary with more ease than others, and most of us have learned to navigate this culture and language as best as we can, even if it doesn’t quite encompass or recognize the wholeness of who we are.

These recent months of digital living, showing up on screens, have offered the invitation to add the details of pronouns as part of a consistent name-tag on platforms like zoom, slack and Instagram.

For many of us, this is a no-brainer. Most people can quickly identify how they refer to themselves in the third person. I was born female, so my initiation into what it means to be a female in my culture began before I had any language of my own.

As I moved from country to country, the codes for feminine and masculine shifted a bit but mostly held common threads. I was handed my pronouns and ushered through various cultural rituals like gym classes and social dances - placed in a category based on my biology.

Looking back, I can find memories from as early as five or four years old, where I began to question and sometimes defy the expectations of who I was to be as a little girl.

I imagine my immigrant family wanted desperately to fit in more than they wanted to discover and cultivate the unique individual I was becoming - and in a world without a language to step outside of gender convention and still be whole, there was little room to do so even if they had been invested.

These days, I think of gender in geographic terms. I have lived in the land of “woman” and I know how to walk many, though not all, of those paths.

There are times when I feel exiled from that land - feeling that I can’t belong there because I don’t quite meet the criteria. Other times, I insist that I am a full citizen there, even if I sometimes feel like I live elsewhere. In my early 20s, I played with and made some attempts to visit the land of “man” with a more masculine outwardly presentation and, while some of that footing felt familiar and comfortable, no part of me wanted to be /or become/ a ‘man.’ I knew and know I do not belong to that continent either.

Olga Chwa is standing shirtless in a bedroom, hands on the hips and head turned to the right. They have short dark hair and are only wearing a pair of baggy jeans with a black belt; a pair of boxers sticks out from the waistline. The words "queer & hear" cover Olga's naked chest and below, the photo is captioned 'Olga Chwa 1997'.

So where is my home?

The usage of “they” has made sense to me not just grammatically, but as an option to opt-out of the binary and express that in my embodiment.

So I’m putting it in my mix - and coming out in the public eye of social media and my name-tag in digital spaces.

Adding 'they' to the pronouns I use has three main implications for me:

Firstly, it acknowledges my lived experience.

Which, admittedly, is an experience for which I don’t have a satisfying language. Mine is not a transgender or intersex experience, although I have questioned and experimented with gender expression and identity as far back as I can remember; most openly in my 20s.

These days, the more I steep in my questioning, the umbrella terms gender non-confirming (gnc) and non-binary (nb/enby) offer some shelter.

I do wonder how this might have developed for me if I had chosen an environment which supported gender diversity as opposed to what happened when I chose to move back to conservative and repressed, binary, homogenous Catholic Poland in my late 20s.

But it was there, at least, that I got medical attention for the ongoing discomfort I had had with my menstrual cycle and learned that my body produces elevated levels of testosterone, low estrogen, and high androgens. These chemical markers explained my dark, coarse facial hair, natural resistance to subordination, and wonky moon cycle.

The doctors called it an imbalance and suggested putting me on synthetic hormones to - I guess, make me more of a woman, and particularly to make me fertile, which, according to their lab work, my body wasn’t.

But I have met too many people with characteristics like mine, my whiskered sisters, and the bearded ladies out there, to call this many of us a naturally occurring imbalance.

We are balanced - differently.

Speaking for my funny-wired self, born female, but growing up into a chemical soup that just isn’t quite like the other sisters...I am a woman (she/her) - and I am also beyond the binary (they/them).

Secondly, the choice to be public with this use of pronouns is a signal within my community of queer and genderqueer peers. It is an open door to others who might share aspects of this experience and find a sense of relief in the company of those, for whom some things need no explaining.

Thirdly, the use is also a signal to the greater community that I am versed in this subject; prepared, and able to speak about the landscape of gender as a complex, non-binary biological, cultural and social phenomenon that desperately needs a new language.

I feel a particular passion to answer the call of reweaving culture, work for the liberation of all people -- with a revolution of the smallest words, starting with pronouns.

There is a world of wisdom and vibrant communities creating brand new language - blending words and sculpting new ones so that there is a wider range of choices. This resource from the University of Milwaukee’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Plus (LGBTQ+) Resource Center offers nearly a dozen options including the traditional two/three.

Pronouns--A How To Guide - this card shows five grammatical categories: subject, object, possessive, possessive pronoun and reflexive, with context examples for pronoun placement. Below, it states that the list on the reverse is not an exhaustive list.

I celebrate these innovators and the cultural shifts their work brings, recognizing it might take generations to properly weave into society’s momentum.

There are two things that each of us who care about this, who are invested in creating a new world that acknowledges a plurality of human gender expression, can do right away.

This is the second part of the Pronouns -- A How To Guide from UW-Milwaukee LGBT Resource Center. It is bright yellow with 9 blue horizontal lines across the length. There are 5 columns, one for each grammatical category and each lines offers variants of pronouns for gender conforming and non-confirming people.

One is to offer our own pronouns in our digital name-tags, profile bios, and email signatures. This normalizes the matter and signals a level of understanding which, for those of us in the struggle, can mean the world.

And two, developing the confidence to ask, rather than assume, how someone identifies.

It is a social norm to ask someone’s name and in context, family role or job title, so with those can come the question about which pronouns that individual uses (not prefers!), or just simply, “How may I address you?”

On Wednesday evenings, I hold a special online class called ‘Queer Nidra, yoga nidra for queer & trans bodies everywhere.’ This yoga nidra session is different than traditional nidra only in that the facilitator and the participants belong to the queer community and therefore have a lived, embodied experience of the non-binary.

Yoga nidra has long been a tool to access the spaces in between: between sleep and awake, between body and mind, between here and there. It is a practice that leverages the power of contrast and opposites to help integrate the paradoxes of life.

In queer nidra, besides offering the rest and reset that all bodies alive now in this difficult time on Earth so desperately need, we also dive specifically into our inner queer knowing, our capacity to define ourselves somewhere outside of mainstream culture, be it our gender, sexuality or both.

I now believe that this special place that we occupy, as non-conforming people, as non-binary people, can be a wealth of resource to move our culture into a greater love for the diversity of humanity.

One pronoun at a time; one yoga nidra at a time.

If you are curious about these classes, but perhaps do not identify as queer, trans or non-binary, you are encouraged to visit my YouTube channel and watch the recordings there, as well as THIS short video in which I speak about how I’ve been queering nidra, and why.

Olga Chwa is looking at the camera, smiling. They have thin shoulder-length hair and are wearing a light gray vest over a white-and-black cardigan. Behind is their online teaching studio with a salt lamp, yoga bolster and chakra banner hanging on an open door. The photo is captioned "Olga Chwa 2021."

Thank you for receiving my story, your ongoing support and for your love of humanity. Please add your email to my list if you haven't yet, follow me on Instagram (@olgachwa.wellness), subscribe to my YouTube channel and I look forward to seeing you in any of my public classes, workshops and collaborative special events. ( Let's weave a new language together.

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