Last spring, I clicked on the Instagram story of a boy who, in the interest of brevity, I’ll call an acquaintance. I hadn’t seen much from him in a while, so I was surprised to discover that, some time over the harsh Toronto winter, he’d moved overseas. I went to his profile to look for further evidence confirming this change and was confronted with another: his bio now read, simply, “he/they.”
It’s not just them. Over the past year, perhaps egged on by isolation-induced intense self-reflection, “he/they” has gained a startling ubiquity. Friends of mine who once confidently called themselves gay men expressed apprehension and uncertainty over their gender identity. Non-binary friends began experimenting with more masculine self-descriptors and talked about passing comfortably as men. The hes are certainly they-ing. And the theys? He-ing.
It’s hard to track something like this, and admittedly, my immediate circle skews extremely transgender. Still, androgyny is certainly en vogue, and there’s a noticeable uptick in feminine and gender-neutral aesthetics even among straight men. Non-binary identification is also rising. In 2021, one in four LGBTQ2S+ Americans between 13 and 26 identified as non-binary. Masculinizing mastectomies (what people usually mean when they say “top surgery”), previously marketed exclusively at “FTM” trans men, are now available for “FTX” or “FTN” non-binary patients. “Microdosing testosterone” as a method of achieving more androgynous masculinizing results has also grown in popularity. Gender-neutral pronouns no longer generate the same reactionary aplomb as they did in years past. Across the board, queers seem to be more playful and flexible with how they identify, and the pronoun “they” helps express that openness.
Charles, 24, is a transmasculine person based in the D.C. area. Like other trans masc people I talked to, Charles leans on “he/they” to name their particular position as someone who presents as male, but doesn’t see their gender as anything akin to a cis person’s. In their words, the configuration of “he/they” indexes the dual nature of their gender—how they perceive themselves, and how they are perceived by others. “I present myself as someone who is both visibly queer and visibly Jewish… so the presumption that most cis strangers have of me is that I am a ‘man,’” they write via email. “‘He’ is what the world usually sees, but ‘they’ [is] how I internalize my gender.”
Charles began transitioning thinking that they had to be a man, in a binary sense of the word; they’re now much more ambivalent. “The question I kept asking myself was: ‘Am I a man? What does that mean? Is manhood something that is embodied or projected?’” they say. “I came away from that inner monologue often feeling as though I was not a man, even though I had so desperately clung to that label when I first began my transition.” Charles feels they have access to and can participate in masculinity, but they choose not to—even if transitioning has made it so that strangers on the street may now see them as “male.” They’ve embraced femininity as a more authentic part of their gender identity and expression. My friend Kade, when asked about their own use of “he/they,” is even more explicit: “I actually don’t want to be perceived as a cis-passing male,” he says. Using “they” helps them with that.
I could relate to these friends’ expressions of their own gendered desires, but their ability to be so intentional with their presentation felt unlike my experience. It is often relatively easier to successfully “pass” as trans masc than as trans fem; being misrecognized as cisgender is not something I necessarily experience. My relationship with gender-neutral pronouns, and with non-binary identity generally, is more practical: rather than something I felt I was choosing with my whole chest, I saw it as more of a soft spot to land on while I figured everything else out.
When I first started to understand myself as non-binary, and then as some kind of trans woman (at least most of the time), I had a conflicted relationship with masculinity: I felt abandoned and endangered by the men in my life, and I needed to put as much distance between them and myself as possible. Other queer people, including those (like me) who have at one time identified as gay men, may feel something similar. Claiming non-binary identity seems to give people space to explore; if queerness already puts you at a distance from normative masculinity, why stop there? Switching up my pronouns helped mark that difference. And though I no longer identify with “he” at all, masculinity, in some queer sense of word, still holds appeal. I want to explore it from a safe space without losing sight of myself. “They” gives me room for that, and it seemed to for the he/theys I interviewed, too—the same way that people once used to write “trans” with an asterisk, a sign of something more to come. On this, I remembered a tweet from my friend Ty Mitchell: with the loss of the marriage equality question as an easy way to gauge a gay person’s politics, we now have to rely on “dangly earrings and Azealia Banks.” A new marker of political Otherness.
“I don’t personally feel the need to restrict anyone to identify with just one thing,” says Zach, 24, who is based in Montreal. Zach says they use any pronoun, and though it may confuse people, this simple act of refusing to be pinned down is a meaningful gesture of gender expression. “To fit in and live my life without being emotionally drained and constantly explaining myself, I’ve found a middle-ground that feels correct and safe to me at this time, even though I know that this will most likely change as I continue to evolve in this body,” he told me via email.
Another he/they, Charlie, is even more explicit about the role of pronouns as a signifier: “He/they feels like a way for me to place myself in a cultural context—as a way to indicate that I’m privy to progressive conversations about gender,” the 26-year-old from Brooklyn said, adding that they saw it as an effort to “reckon with my masculinity.”
These he/theys saw their pronouns as a good place to start. For others, pronouns are entirely secondary. V, a 21-year-old of South Asian descent, uses he/him pronouns and does not identify as trans. But masculinity, he says, was never available or desirable to him anyway. “Growing up, my feminine traits had people around me excluding me from masculinity as a whole even though I was always referred to as ‘he’… people [called] me a girl, coaches [made] me play with the girls’ team and people [questioned] ‘what parts I had down there.’ This disconnect between how people viewed me and the pronouns they used is why I never linked my pronouns and my identity,” V told me via email.
This was a theme across interviews. Many queer people struggle to figure out where they fit within “masculinity” when that category had never felt available to them at all. I join the ranks of Larry Mitchell and Morgan Bassichis in being a firm believer in the potentially revolutionary power of fagginess. So, it seemed, were the he/theys I spoke to. But fagginess only goes so far on its own. As internet scholar Christopher Persaud notes, where white gay people may have some limited access to idealized gender roles premised on whiteness, queer people of colour often have no access at all. Persaud, 26, a “notoriously ambivalent he/they” based in Los Angeles, primarily identifies with Blackness and femininity—a position that puts them outside the boundaries of both normative gender and conventional notions of non-binary identity predicated on whiteness, thinness and Western-centrism.
“There’s some value in thinking about how race structures who gets access to certain kinds of gender in the first place,” Persaud tells me by phone. “I’ve always felt that my gender experience is specifically that of, like, a femme, Black gay person. Like, that itself is my gender. Even if I wanted to lean into a particular sort of popular culture version of what non-binary ‘looks like,’ I don’t really have access to that, and it’s just not how I want to look.”
Where race and embodiment intersect may explain some patterns in queer gender identification, they say. In their experience, anti-Blackness forecloses their engagement with normative masculinity, whether gay or straight, and so being Black has enabled them to disregard the anxieties around belonging and rejection that they see among their white peers. For that reason, among others, Persaud suggests that the politicized resentment many gays and he/theys project onto their unquestionably male counterparts may flow in part from a sense of disrupted racial belonging.
It is hard to justify masculinity on its own merits. If non-binary identity is on the rise, then it is for good reason. Among queer and trans people, as trans masc writer Noah Zazanis suggests, there exists a contradictory desire for masculinity and to be free of it—“to be acknowledged as men” without reproducing male power over women. Manhood, wherever it is synonymous with excess, power, control and invasion, is celebrated and institutionally inscribed; yet in our day-to-day life—in self-consciously queer and feminist circles, at least—what is ultimately a structural issue has mostly fizzled out into a sense of certain bodies or identities as being inherently compromised. And while men who sleep with men have historically been somewhat cut off from the definition of what masculinity is or can be, they are still demonized as men among some queers. To be fair, this demonization is not unjustified: gay men are certainly capable of harming and violating others, and so these kinds of hard boundaries are absolutely warranted. But the reduction of masculinity to basically either having or being a dick seems to leave a lot of queer people adrift.
It’s worth interrogating how much we gain or lose by saying simply that a “male” identity or “male” bodies are the problem, rather than the structures of male power. When there are truly no good men, then it’s perhaps no wonder that folks with feminist politics who have been coercively assigned to the category of “male” may seek refuge elsewhere. “They” helps name that refuge, hanging off the end of “he/” like a dangly earring. It is used to speak our politics for us, offering an alternative identity as a way out of the uneasy dance between a contradictory identification with and opposition to masculinity.
Non-binary identity works as a shorthand for communicating a person’s political, aesthetic and affective relationship with normative or traditional gender. It gives folks space to claim affinity to a specifically queer way of relating to masculinity, one that is free from identification with men as a class. Whether we are moving toward or away from the category of “male,” the label “he/they” marks a disaffection with what makes conventional masculinity so dangerous. It’s an opportunity to escape the dredges of cisness and toxic masculinity that comes with it, and find a kind of masculinity that is queer, in many meanings of the word.
But whether or not identity can do that on its own is an open question. In practice, then, it is necessary to ask: What might queer masculinity look like?
Con is a 33-year-old trans masc non-binary person of Southeast Asian descent living in Scarborough, Ontario. He began transitioning about four years ago and has been enjoying the difficult process of unlearning the association between “queer” masculinity and toxic masculinity.
“When I think of queer, I think anything that is the opposite of cishet-straight culture (heteronormative culture). So I think anyone who doesn’t identify with their gender assigned at birth [or] social norms have a more radical way of viewing the world…. To me all of that is queer,” Con tells me by email. “I love and hate what masculinity is. I feel good expressing myself physically as masculine but I also hate what masculinity has taught me in the past such as disregarding/gaslighting femme labour or [using] bro talk/code. My relationship with both masculinity and femininity have evolved and continue to evolve.”
This is the difficult part, much more than the simple declaration of Otherness. If we can identify what masculinity gets wrong, then we can also explore what it gets right—and how people of all genders and experiences can tap into it.
If talking with these he/theys has revealed anything, it is that fixating on gender identity alone often stands in the way of seeing how queer people truly live and work together. If we’re going to fight for queer liberation, for economic and social equality, then femininity and masculinity are necessary attributes for all of us to share and put to use. And though I’m not a he/they, I’ve learned similar lessons about the meaning of masculinity as I’ve tried to figure out how I want to be in community with people, how I can use my body and my skills in service of queer sisterhood. The more I talk with other trans and non-binary people, the more I’m forced to confront a seemingly obvious yet elusive fact: “feminine” and “masculine” are not really opposites at all. And one’s body is not a barrier to either.