The Genderqueer Language Learner is neither nor

This is a language blog. This is not a blog about being genderqueer. And yet I am genderqueer, and that impacts how I exist in the world and my experience of language study. So I’m writing about it.

I realize lots of readers may not be clear on what being genderqueer, or non-binary, means (some people use the two terms interchangeably; others don’t). Google is your friend! But here for starters, because I’m feeling nice, are a few links that resonate with me in some way:

Right now I study French and German. I’m a native English speaker; for me, it is not automatic to gender objects, and as I’ve grown to understand myself as a genderqueer person, I’ve become more and more uncomfortable being gendered myself.

Using gender-neutral phrasing in English is easy and has become standard in many situations. There are still lots of times where I can’t — being made to choose needlessly between Mr./Ms./Mrs. to register on a website, for example, and of course all the instances during daily life where I gender myself to all the people I’m not out to.

But comparatively, English makes this simple. With French and German, not only do I have to remember the gender of a table or a bus, I must assume a gender — one of two — as soon as I introduce myself. I end up saying, “Ich bin Amerikaner…in,” real fast and reluctant at the end: I’m saying this because I know you expect it, even though it hurts. Or “Je suis américaine,” and I bite down on the ending, my resentment at having to say it — or not say it (claiming to be “américain,” which firstly no one would believe, and secondly would just put me at the opposite pole of a system I don’t fit into) — inadvertently emphasizing it.

Every time I have to choose one path or another, one form over another — multiple times per conversation, per lesson — I wince. Sometimes I wonder if people notice my hesitation and assume I’m just not conversant enough to gender myself “correctly” and smoothly when I speak.

Finnish, which still feels very comfortable and cozy to me even though I’m no longer actively studying it, is a relief because there aren’t any gendered pronouns. Someone in my Finnish class once complained that this was frustrating; she hated not being able to instantly tell if someone was a man or a woman. That’s beautiful! That’s safe and freeing for me!

For those of you who are cisgender, you may not understand the simple, but profound, grief this causes me and others in my situation. My gender friend mentioned having a similar experience when learning French: that it just itched every time the teacher used the feminine ending towards them and required the same from them in return.

I’m used to saying, over and over, that I’m something — a woman — that I’m not. Like I said above, I’m not out as genderqueer to most people in my life (certainly not at work!). But at least fluency in English means sometimes I can spit out those terms quickly, trying not to think about them. Because getting gender right is such a focus of learning French and German — and highlighted as a specific challenge for native English speakers, which means it gets a lot of attention — I can’t do that. It’s not automatic. I have to hold my breath and brace myself pretty much every time. It’s a special, quiet, persistent kind of pain.

Like depression and mental illness generally, I think that genderqueerness is not something with much visibility in the language blogosphere. This too makes me feel like the odd one out. Where are the other genderqueer/nonbinary people out there learning a language that forces them to misgender themselves? Get in touch!

I remember seeing links a while ago discussing gender-neutral pronouns in German (I didn’t bookmark them, partly because my German wasn’t up to reading them at the time) but I don’t think I’ve seen anything about this in French. I’d love to see these discussions — in French, German, or English — if anyone can point me at them!