Don’t laugh at Washington Post editor Lauren R. Taylor. She is an earnest young woman with a passion for social justice. Which is why the Pulitzer-laden newspaper devoted precious editorial space to explain how she’s raising her cats as gender-neutral.
My new cats were freaking out. In carriers in the back seat of the car, they yowled their displeasure. I reassured them: “Don’t worry boys, we’ll be home soon.”
Whoops! I had called them boys, when in fact they were girls. An understandable mistake, as I’ve had cats for about 50 years, and all of them have been male. “I’m going to have to work on using the right pronouns,” I thought. And then another thought: “Why? They’re cats.”
We’ve all been there. Just the other day, Calvin the Wonderbeagle yanked a new loaf of Nature’s Pride Honey 7 Grain off my kitchen counter and consumed it in four bites. After I yelled, “Dude, why are you such a jackass?!” his mournful eyes told the story better than words ever could: I have yet to self-identify as a “dude” and certainly am no donkey. It’s just like a white human oppressor to define my species, take me captive, and exploit me as the unterhund to your übermensch. Now rub my belly.
I evolved a little bit that day. And, like Mx. Lauren R. Taylor, I too decided to raise my dog to be gender neutral, even though Calvin has a pee-pee instead of a woo-woo. Taylor’s insight continues:
The cats’ lives wouldn’t change, I reasoned, and it would help me learn to use plural pronouns for my friends, neighbors and colleagues who individually go by they, their and them. Even though using they, them and their as singular pronouns grates on many people because it’s grammatically incorrect, it seems to be the most popular solution to the question of how to identify people without requiring them to conform to the gender binary of female and male.
This oppressive gender binary is enforced by the male-oriented “hard” sciences (revealing name, that). They claim that “women” have two X chromosomes, while “men” have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome — the science is settled. More like the science is cisgendered.
Around the house, with just me, Essence and Trouble – named for Rare Essence and Trouble Funk, for the DC music lovers reading this – things were pretty easy. I’d make a mistake (called “misgendering”), saying something like “Where’s your brother?” (Yes, I talk to my cats.) Usually, I’d remember to fix it (“Where’s your sibling?” or “Where’s your pal?”). Just as I’d hoped, I began finding it easier to remember to use gender-neutral language for the humans in my life.
And I began to get an infinitesimal taste of what transgender and gender-nonconforming people face. I’m not talking about the outright bigotry and hatred –something I can’t know without being in their shoes — but the complete cluelessness. Friends would come over, I’d introduce the cats and their pronouns, and some would ask, “But what ARE they?” Some would randomly use “he” and “she.” Some would stumble, unable to form a sentence when talking about one of the cats.
Some claim that millennials are shallow for ignoring the oppression of rampant war, third-world poverty, and genital mutilation, but isn’t calling a female cat “her” a form of gender mutilation? The patriarchy’s rape culture is bad enough for humans; don’t inflict pronoun violence upon our feline companions.
If only the veterinary-industrial complex was ready to accept androgikittens.
Things got a little more real when Essence got sick. They were really sick. I took them to the vet and had to weigh the question: Do I explain their pronouns not only to the vet, but also the front-desk workers, the vet techs, and everyone else we interacted with?
I am eager to invite Mx. Taylor to my Memorial Day barbecue.
Before the illness was over, we saw five vets, two sets of front desk people, and countless vet techs. I chose to fall back on my cis-gender privilege (look it up) and used the singular pronoun for Essence. I understood that wouldn’t have been so easy if I were the patient — or if Essence were human.
While all of this was unfolding, friends would ask me: How is your cat? “They’re better” or “The same. The vets don’t know what’s wrong with them,” I’d say. “Wait a minute—are they both sick?” people would reply, confused.
Confusion privilege is to be expected when a part-time multi-platform editor at the Washington Post bravely deconstructs the deceptifice of misgendering feline phallocracy. But the real culprit is the proper grammar taught to us by adults who assumed toddlers want to identify as competent speakers of English.
It is confusing. We’ve had gender drilled into us as part of language since we first heard adults talking when we were infants – decades of “he” and “she.”
But at the same time it’s necessary. People are coming to understand that not all of us fit into the “girl” box or the “boy” box. Those who don’t are claiming space to be who they are. We all need to find ways to acknowledge and respect that. My way of respecting it just happens to be raising my cats gender neutral. You can choose your own.
Thank you, Mx. Taylor for enlightening us all. The next time I bring Calvin to the vet, I will make the staff call him “them,” because language shouldn’t be a means of communication, but a minefield of grievance. I just hope the vet doesn’t double charge me for the rabies shot.