Though I have written for publication since 1965, I had never run into the use of gender-neutral pronouns until a couple of weeks ago and then I blew it.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

To begin with, I was not told that the subject of my article used “they/them/theirs,” not “she/her/hers,” but when we did try to make the requested corrections I still messed up and referred to the person as a “gay woman.”

“I am not a gay woman, nor am I any kind of woman,” they wrote back. “I am a queer person who identifies as non-binary. I would appreciate these changes being made immediately and respected in the future.”

Initially, I was defensive. I certainly understand and applaud the desire to use gender-neutral pronouns, just as I understand and applaud using inclusive language in the Bible, but I certainly meant no disrespect and, frankly, I found the use of plural pronouns to refer to a single individual rather awkward. I thought about eliminating pronouns altogether and just using their proper name, which I now understand is an option some non-binary people prefer.

“Frankly, this is incredibly upsetting,” they complained as I struggled to get it right. “This kind of ignorance surrounding the queer community is very hard to deal with.”

The first person I turned to for an explanation of what is called “preferred gender pronouns” was daughter Tess, 29, an environmentalist and a more “woke” individual than I. (Not sure I used “woke,” meaning sensitive to injustice, correctly as this is my first time. I’m from the 1960s. I prefer “hip.”)

Tess, who leads and participates in a lot of conferences, told me it was routine for people to state what pronouns they use when they introduce themselves. People also will list their pronouns on emails, websites and letterheads. I guess I thought when people did so it was because they had names like Alex or Chris that could be male or female.

Tess told me I was conflating sexual orientation (gay) with gender identity (queer) when I told her I wasn’t sure I knew the difference. She also scolded me for suggesting that members of the LGBTQ community needed to educate the rest of us. Constantly having to explain themselves is part of the problem of marginalization, she said. Do I expect Black people to explain racism to me? No, I need to educate myself.

So I contacted Gia Drew, a trans woman who directs programs for Equality Maine. Drew (she/her/hers) teaches seminars on “How to be a Transgender Ally” that include an explanation of preferred gender pronouns.

“You’re not the only person struggling with this,” Drew assured me.

Drew explained that in addition to “they/them/theirs” some people use “zie/hir/hirs” or “xe/xem/xyrs,” neo-pronouns I would not dare to use in conversation or print for fear of getting them wrong.

In a bit of good news, Drew informed me that progress was being made on the gender identity front. Maine recently joined a handful of states where parents and individuals 18 or older have the option of a non-binary designation on birth certificates. Maine residents have had the option of F, M or X marks on driver’s licenses since 2018, and have been able to change their gender marker on licenses without a doctor’s signature since 2019.

“These changes are really exciting,” wrote Drew in an Equality Maine press release, “and will make a significant difference in the lives of transgender folks like myself, and people whose gender identity is neither exclusively male nor exclusively female.”

I’m happy for them.

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