Dear Miss Lonely Hearts,
I’ve been dating a non-binary person for a while now and my parents have been asking me about them. My SO doesn’t identify as either the male or female gender. I’m pretty close with my parents but I don’t know to refer to my partner in front of my family. A little neighbor girl in my apartment complex approached me one day and asked if I had a hamster. I said no. Then she asked if I had a girlfriend. For simplicity’s sake I said yes but it felt wrong. I know my SO doesn’t care what I call them or what my parents call them but I find it difficult when trying to explain the complexities of gender to people not as well versed as Reedies usually are. Any advice?
—Gender Blender Defender
I think you’re asking two questions in the guise of one here. That’s totally fine, but I’m going to separate them out and answer them one-by-one.
Question one is: my SO (stands for “significant other,” clueless readers!) doesn’t really care what words I use to refer to them or to our relationship, but I’d really like to know what words I can use, both to make them and myself more comfortable. Blender, it sounds as if by calling them your SO, you’ve already sort of made your decision. You’ve found a gender-neutral term that appeals to you. It makes your relationship with this special someone clear without incorrectly gendering them, which, is obviously a huge part of having a healthy and loving relationship with another person. Whether you’re in a romantic relationship or you’re just passing someone on the quad, misgendering someone when you know their preferred pronouns is like a big flashing sign that says: “I don’t care enough about this other person to respect their gender, their decisions, or their life! I’m a big ol’ butt!” Knowing this, it makes sense that you’d bristle at referring to non-binary partner as your “girlfriend,” even if it seems like they wouldn’t necessarily mind the gendered implications of the term.
If “significant other” seems too formal or clunky for everyday parlance, have you considered other gender neutral terms? “Partner” is common, as are “boo” and (my favorite) “sweetie.” Apparently a couple on the show Glee Project has used the term “goyfriend,” but then you’d risk people assuming that you’re simply referring to your boyfriend, who happens to not be a Jew. Hey, that’s how I took it.
Why don’t you ask your partner what they prefer? I’m imagining this as a fun, romantic conversation – one that’s about finding loving ways to think of one another rather than any kind of formal interrogation or interview. If you’re squicked out by “lover” but they’re into being your “honey,” wouldn’t it be nice to know? Then you can confidently answer the question “do you have a girlfriend?” by saying “I’m dating someone, but I like to call them my sweetie. Isn’t that cute?”
The second, more important question that you’re asking is: what’s my responsibility in explaining non-binary gender (both that of your partner and in general) to the non-Reed people in my life? Ultimately, Blender, this is up to you. If you’re close with your parents and you want them to hang out with your partner in any capacity, I think you owe it to everyone involved to mention to your parents “hey, before we go to Slappy Cakes, just remember that my SO uses ‘they’ pronouns, not ‘he’ or ‘she.’” That’s pretty much as far as I went, conversation-wise, when my old partner began using they/them/theirs pronouns. Though my dad would sometimes have to clarify: “‘they’re’ coming over for dinner still means I should only set one more place, right?” throwing a reminder into casual conversation was enough to make sure that no misgendering occurred.
That being said, not all conversations (or all family members) are that easy. I don’t think that you ever have the responsibility to explain non-binary gender (or any other gender identity) to anyone. Don’t feel like you need to constantly be carrying around a copy of Judith Butler, hollering “gender is a social construct!!” at everyone you pass on the street. If you feel like the discussion would be fruitful and you want the person to understand what it means when someone goes by they/them/theirs, sure, strike up that conversation. But it’s always your right — especially if you feel for any reason that the conversation wouldn’t be safe — to say “I don’t feel like talking about this right now. Hey, how about them [sports team]?”
Blender, your relationship is about the love between you and your sweetie. That’s the best part, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
[that emoji cat with hearts for eyes],Miss Lonely Hearts