Op-Ed: The Language of Identity

By Kirk Ericson, special contributor

I am 59 years old, and I only recently learned that I am a cisgendered straight male. It seems late in the game to learn such a fact about one’s self, but awareness of such matters sometimes comes late, especially if you’ve failed to pay adequate attention to changes in our world.

My ignorance startles me sometimes.

I came to this knowledge about gender and sexual expression after getting fixated on a fragment of a sentence I read last week in a story in The Olympian about a 22-year-old author who lives in Brooklyn and who was in Olympia recently to visit home and promote Out of Salem, a novel in the young adult category that has the following uncredited blurb on the back cover: “The best teen zombie witchy werewolf faerie fantasy murder mystery you’ve ever read!”

There’s more than one teen zombie witchy werewolf faerie fantasy murder mystery?

According to the newspaper article, the author of Out of Salem, Hal Schrieve, identifies as a “gender- fluid gay trans man.” I knew what most of those words meant, but not “gender-fluid,” and I definitely didn’t know what those words meant when they were stacked up in that order.

I asked a handful of people I know, including a 20-something graduate of The Evergreen State College, what they thought “gender-fluid gay trans man” meant. None of them were quite sure. A couple of those people were reluctant to even have the conversation with me, as though they were afraid of expressing a misconstrued thought, but I wasn’t interested in judging the morality of what the description meant or judging what those people thought it meant. I just wanted to know what it meant.

So I contacted Schrieve’s publicist in New York City, who connected me with Hal and we set up a time to chat. But first I read Hal’s 439-page book, and what a pleasant surprise that was. I went in thinking I had no interest in a teen zombie witchy werewolf faerie fantasy murder mystery that’s populated with characters that inhabit the edges of gender and sexual expression.

The main character is Z, a 14-year-old genderqueer, which is a word for people who find that conventional gender distinctions don’t express their sense of who they are. Z is the sole survivor of a car wreck that killed Z’s parents and siblings, but “survivor” is not the right word because Z is a zombie whose body is rapidly decaying.

The setting is Salem, Oregon, in the 1990s. Z is having trouble in school, as one might expect for a 14- year-old genderqueer zombie, but Z forges a justice league with two classmates, one of whom is a werewolf and lesbian, and the other is a boy who gets beat up repeatedly in school because he’s suspected of being gay. They all have magical powers. The story is rich in metaphor, the pace of the plot is frantic, and the characters tell a story about our culture’s treatment of teens, sexuality and self-expression that only fiction can tell.

It also tells a story about an author who read Harry Potter books as a kid. Out of Salem is a story of Hal’s experiences and insights, filtered through the phantasmagoria of magical realism. You might come out of Out of Salem with an altered view of the wide, wide world of human beings – and zombies and werewolves.

I met Hal over coffee Monday, although we might have met before. I know Hal’s mom – we worked together in the 1990s – so maybe I met Hal in passing as a youngster, and when Hal was a girl. Hal medically changed sexes as a teen and now appears and identifies as male. We got my “genderfluid gay trans man” question out of the way.

“My genderfluid identity is linked to the idea that I don’t feel comfortable being linked to a traditional sense of manhood,” Hal said. “In a practical way, sometimes I wear skirts. I generally try to embody an attitude that I feel is opposed to traditional masculinity.

Practically what it means is that I live as a gay man and I’m trans, in that I transitioned from female to living as a gay man, and I have these complicated feelings about what gender means.”

I have a label too, but it’s one that creates far fewer obstacles in life. I was born a male and think of myself as male (cisgendered) and I am attracted to women (straight). It’s the vanilla milkshake of identities. Or as Mrs. Ericson, a cisgendered straight woman, calls it: “I’m square.”

If you’re not up on these emerging words, perhaps you’re acquainted with the growing practice of people expressing what pronouns they want used for them. I received an email last week from a Thurston County utility employee that included “she/her” under the employee’s name.

Hal prefers xie/hir (pronounced “Z” and “here”), which is a set of gender-neutral pronouns that gained popularity in the 1990s. It’s more common to use the gender-neutral and plural pronouns they/them as a singular pronoun, which seems disorienting, but the main character in Out of Salem is referred to as they/them. After the first couple of instances of they/them, I was able to read it naturally as referring to the main character.

This pronoun matter trips up a lot of people. I asked a friend who just started at Evergreen whether he was having trouble with pronouns out there.

He sighed, because he was having trouble with it. He’s a friendly and emotionally generous fellow in his late 20s, and I can’t imagine him having malevolent intent in his use of the incorrect pronoun, but some people get prickly about it. Habits and conditioning die hard. My friend said his solution is to focus on using a person’s name and avoiding pronouns all together.

“If you know that you’re unlikely to remember someone’s pronoun or remember to use them, avoiding pronouns is fair practice. But it’s a sign of respect to use someone’s correct pronouns if you can,” xie said. “But when you first assert your identity and people ignore it and continually call you the wrong thing, it can be upsetting because it’s a lot of work to be trans in the world, even without the trauma of being harmed and abused because of one’s identity.”

I’m generally skeptical about additions to the language, but I see the merits in this change. Even if you don’t see the merits, you have to recognize it’s happening and it’s not going away. It’s in the hands of kids now, and they get to decide these matters.

We’re humans. We can change.

This article appears courtesy of The Shelton-Mason County Journal.

Skip to content