While a simple "they/them" seems to mystify some and has been used as a cudgel by others, for those who want to better understand the importance of pronouns when it comes to gender expression, or for those who need support and are still figuring themselves out, and even those within the LGBTQIA community that might think they have the right terminology down pat, there is The Pronoun Lowdown: Demystifying and Celebrating Gender Diversity by Nevo Zisin.
Zisin, an Australian trans educator, activist and author, gives us a timely and delightful look at their journey to self-realization as a non-binary, queer person who presents as a combination of masculine and feminine. Their unapologetic exploration into pronouns is a laugh-out-loud, touching and culturally reverent educational experience, covering historical context, issues that impact the community, easy to understand guidance, a handy glossary and global resources.
Windy City Times: What was it like first coming out as queer and trans, at the time, in your small, Jewish community in Melbourne?
Nevo Zisin: I would say that there was a big dissonance between my first coming out and my second one. I come out every couple of years to keep everyone interested.
WCT: Keep them on their toes.
NZ: Coming out as a lesbian in my small, Jewish community, I was definitely one of few, but I think people were a bit more switched on to what that version of queerness looked like. My mom said, "I'm fine with you being a lesbian as long as the girls that you date are Jewish." Mostly just funny instances and some light adjustments.
WCT: What about in school where you started your activism?
NZ: My school was generally quite good. I went to a private Jewish school that happened to have a queer-straight alliance at the time. The year above me was pretty queer and pretty loud about it, which was amazing, and that kind of allowed me to come out more easily. I felt quite supported in my school in that sense, but I definitely earned myself a reputation as the angry lesbian feminist.
WCT: And when you came out as trans?
NZ: When I came out as trans, I think people thought it was an extension of that "angry lesbian feminism." It's so funny to talk about it now because, even though it was just in 2013, the cultural landscape was completely different. Like there was just no trans representation whatsoever.
WCT: Openly, not very much.
NZ: I didn't see anything on TV, in books or movies. And the only ones I did, the trans person was sexually assaulted and murdered. That was the only imagining I had for my future, which is not exactly something to craft your life around. So, I have a lot of empathy, as much as it is difficult for me, for some of my family members and how they navigated that. Because they really just had no idea, they had no education.
WCT: So, the second coming out was harder.
NZ: Coming out as trans was just a very different experience than coming out as a lesbian. I experienced a lot of blaming and anger from my mom in particular. I think it's less like disappointment in the person themselves but much more mourning of the expectations that you had of them, which was never really true or legitimate either.
WCT: You do professional development workshops in both schools and companies around transgender identity. What kind of response do you generally receive?
NZ: For the most part there's a positive response, because if a company is already to the point of booking me, then they're already onside somewhat. You can tell straight away, because my educational principle goes primarily for humor. I think that when people are uncomfortable about a topic and then they get to laugh about it, then they get to just kind of breathe.
WCT: That's a good way to connect.
NZ: People are very intimidated by these topics and very scared to get it wrong. Or it's all just a bit too much for them. If people don't laugh at my jokes in the beginning, then I know I'm in for a hard journey.
WCT: How do you protect yourself in instances where it can be negative?
NZ: It's less what I do to protect myself in the space and more what I do to protect myself outside of it. When I walk into the space, I'm not on my high horse like, "Just Google it." I'm there as an educator, I'm not there just as a trans or a marginalized person. I'm there to help them on their learning journey.
NZ: I think it's really important to do that because I wasn't assigned "woke" or didn't understand intersectional politics at birth. In fact, it was a lot of the labor of Black trans women and incredible thinkers that led me there. I am the amalgamation of many life-shaping experiences. Extending that patience to other people is something I can offer, especially if I can recuperate outside of work with the money I've earned to get therapy, to do yoga, and to do all of the other community care stuff that I require.
WCT: Yes, that's important.
NZ: I just remind myself that the people who aren't onside at all are not my demographic. I'm not actually there to convert bigots into allies, I'm there to get the people who are already onside to feel empowered to stand up further and the people who are part of the community to feel more supported. I'm not here to justify my existence and to beg people to be an ally.
WCT: What was the catalyst for writing this book?
NZ: I continued to get misgendered quite a lot after my first book [Finding Nevo: How I Confused Everyone] and it felt like a personal failing. So, I was like, guess we need another book that's going to be just on pronouns. I got contacted by a publisher to write it, but it was something that I was thinking about. This is maybe more relevant for the Australian context, but it feels like pronouns are the next kind of Everest after marriage equality. I think pronouns, in a similar way, are a vehicle to more equal rights; but it's certainly not the end point in any way.
WCT: Interesting thought.
NZ: At the end of the day, I don't think homeless trans youth care so much about what pronouns are being used when they could be handed the keys to stable housing. There are much more important issues we need to be working on, especially with all of the anti-trans legislation that's coming through the US at the moment. Pronouns are, in some way, the least of our worries. But it also seems like an easy fix.
WCT: One would think.
NZ: One would think, yeah. Being misgendered, and I speak about this in the book, is like a death by a thousand paper cuts. It's the epitome of microaggression, where every day this is happening fifty times. I hear it and I know this world doesn't exist for me, it's not built for me, I don't belong and I guess I should just leave. And that is why there is such high suicidality statistics within our community.
NZ: That's not incidental and this stuff isn't political correctness gone mad or a left-wing fad. It is like suicide prevention, community care and community nourishment. When you get gendered correctly every day, it has a profound impact on your sense of self and your place in the world.
WCT: Affirming, for sure.
NZ: What I was also really interested in was looking at a bit more of the historical, linguistic and social context in which pronouns have arrived. What I've also foundand this is not to give myself a pat on the back at all, because I'm sure there are lots of things I could have worked on moreI think a lot of the trans guide books I have seen are just incredibly whitewashed and don't have intersectional or even just nonbinary lenses.
WCT: That's crucial to recognize.
NZ: I read an incredible book that I owe a lot to called Decolonizing Trans/gender 101 [by b. binaohan], and it's basically like a full length call out of another trans book and why it's colonized and white in its thinking. I learned so much from that book that really shook me. A real goal of mine was to hold that in my heart because, obviously, I'm not a unique thinker on this topic and none of the things are unique thoughts: they have come from indigenous and First Nations populations around the world and from so many different understandings of gender embedded in our society.
WCT: In talking about the harmful anti-trans bills moving forward right now, with sports being the new bathroom "issue," what gives you hope in this space?
NZ: It's a kind of fluctuation that we're experiencing, because we're moving from a period of invisibility where trans people have been in the shadows into hypervisibility where everyone knows about us, where we are out, proud, loud and here, and the backlash is completely tsunami-like. Young people are growing up much more aware of how the world feels about trans people than they ever would have before. It's kind of this really interesting rock and a hard place situation where there's many pros, but also, this is deeply painful and difficult.
WCT: For sure.
NZ: I think what gives me a hope time and time again is young people. I don't believe that they are the future, I believe they are the present. I mean obviously they're the future as well, but I think we really invalidate the power of their voices and activism if we always say that they're future people because they're not adults. They're full people who have full beliefs, principles and activism; they're not completely jaded yet so they have a little bit more energy. And they're so politically engaged.
NZ: I have a lot of hope around the visibility of trans politics and how much we've done in the last few years. When I watch Disclosure on Netflix, it just really blew me away how far we've come in the last few years, and how much I feel like I'm part of the last generation of trans people to grow up without trans representation. That feels so profound. You can't imagine your future if you can't see it anywhere.
WCT: What's next for you?
NZ: I love the work that I do, I feel very grateful and I think I'm good at it. I think I make people feel comfortable with something that they're not comfortable with. I do that for all of the trans people out there so that they don't have to do that educational work, you know? The idea that my books could be a resource and that young people who are still grappling with their gender don't have to be educators is absolutely the dream, because I would have really valued that.
WCT: Yes, being who you needed at the time.
NZ: I'd really love to continue doing that work and I would love to spread into an international context, as well. To come to the US and do some work and training there, and engage with other activists. I'm writing a middle grade novel at the moment with my creative partner. It's about two non-binary young people who have always felt different. Not because they're trans but because they have superpowers. So, it's very cute, very wholesome and I really enjoy doing that. I also run a free writing group for trans and gender-diverse young people every fortnight.
WCT: Where can we find you and where can we find your book?
NZ: You can find me on the Internet. I'm a millennial, so I have all the things…my website, NevoZisin.com, Facebook, Instagram. I'm very open to receiving questions or messages. The book is available in the US and all over the world now, which is very exciting. It should be at Barnes & Noble, and ideally at your local bookshop. And if it's not there, it would also be great if you requested it.