Beyond ‘he’ and ‘she’ : pronouns, gendered languages and trans identity.


By Emrys Travis



I’m writing this speeding across the north of France, with my back facing the engine of the train, leaving behind my nine-to-five – well, my nine-to-six-thirty; the French love their long lunch breaks – for two weeks in Brittany with my family.

Going backwards makes me feel sick, usually, but this time it seems alright.

I’ve been living in Paris for almost six weeks, sharing an apartment in the eighteenth arrondissement, taking the metro every day to my lovely (though terribly paid) internship, and squeezing in as much touristing as I can on the weekends.

I’ve been living in Paris for almost six weeks, and part of me has been invisible for almost six weeks.




Coming out as non-binary – neither male nor female – and explaining that I take the pronouns ‘they/them’ is rarely an easy task, even when speaking my native English. In a language like French, where every adjective is gendered and no commonly understood gender-neutral pronoun exists even in the plural, I still haven’t managed to string together the words in my head, let alone out loud.

Every trans person I know has been asked what it *feels* like to be trans. How you *know*. It’s a question that’s easy to give essentialist answers to – I feel right or wrong wearing certain clothes, being attached to certain parts of my body, being referred to in certain ways. For many of us, variations on these answers are important parts of our experience, our wish to avoid universalising this essentialism notwithstanding. For the majority of us, though, these answers are by no means concrete or immobile.

My French is pretty bad, but given I can now argue with customer service on the phone for half an hour it’s definitely not beyond my reach to translate words like “elle” or “les filles”. I noticed myself being misgendered, sort of the way I noticed flies in the office – a little annoying, but mostly just there, where I’d rather they not be, but where they weren’t bothering me enough to swat them.

Spending an evening at a work dinner, where almost everyone was speaking English, was more like being forced to sit still in a buzzing cloud of “she”-wasps.

They stung.




Trans people are often accused – by people who have never actually sat down and listened to a trans person for five minutes – of enforcing the “innateness” of gender. Of creating our own kind of gender essentialism; not one based on physicality, but on who you Really Are, your deep-down immutable gender truth.

For the most part I’d wager the people who accuse us of this are the ones for whom the idea of genuine critical engagement with us, with transness, with the constructedness and ephemeral nature of gender, is fucking terrifying. It’s classic politics: veil your own closed-mindedness by situating yourself as superior to someone else’s, real or not.

Obviously, trans people aren’t a monolith, but for the most part, we see through the lies better than anyone. Our identification isn’t about an “inner feeling” that we process as objectively The Truth. Our identification is about locating ourselves in relation to a violently constructed male/female binary. How can we move through the world with the least internal pain, the least discomfort?

For me, the answer is something close to genderlessness, androgyny, refusal – where possible – to be marked with gendered language at all. So why, when “she” gives me the feeling of missing a stair in the dark, does “elle” hardly register? My brain has flipped through a hundred possible answers. Plenty of them, of course, boil down to “you’re a fake” – a lie that keeps every trans person awake at night sometimes, because being trans means going against every message the gender binary has ever indoctrinated us with and that’s a fucking difficult thing to do.

Sometimes it feels like I’m going backwards. The meagre representation of trans people in media shows us one story: there’s a “before”, and there’s an “after”. We’re never shown an in-between stage, a stage where you identify one way but are read as another, a stage where the words to explain have hardly been invented. We’re never shown reality.




Just as there’s no answer as to why calling me “she” is wrong – other than how it feels to me – I don’t have an explanation for why “elle” stings less. My relationship to gender, like all of ours, is complex. Perhaps the layer of a second language removes me a little from the trauma of coercive gender assignment. Perhaps gender is completely dependent on language, our experience of it changing when we use different words to speak about it.

“It’s complicated” is a pretty loose conclusion, but it’s the only one I have. We’re generally presented with trans narratives that gel with our binary understandings of gender, that we can fit into our boxes without too much cognitive dissonance. But being trans, for the vast majority of us, isn’t like riding a high-speed train from one destination to another. It’s more like taking the Paris metro: navigating delays, strikes, and closed stations, working out which route requires the fewest line changes; and trying to figure out, with all this taken into account, which stop is closest to where you want to go.



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