I’ve never liked being called by positional names or displaying symbols of such positions. So though married for a long time, I never wore a wedding ring. Nor did my wife who never changed her name, used “Ms”, and was irritated (as I was) by Christmas cards addressed to Mr and Mrs T. Pateman. Our generation? Born in the 1940s. Outside of university settings, I never used my academic title.
I encouraged our children to use my first name and now do the same for my grandchildren. But the encouragement was never a demand and is now generally ignored, except by one grandchild. As a result, I now sign emails as Dad x but persist in signing birthday cards to grandchildren with a cartoon which has so far allowed me to completely avoid Grandad x
So I was not immediately unsympathetic to those who want to be called They/Them; for many years in my writing I have used they as a generic, having tried the clumsy he or she and the stylistically disastrous App. which mechanically alternates he and she.
But something doesn’t seem quite right in what’s happening now. I accept that my own past preferences could be considered to some degree prissy or attention seeking or narcissistic. But what is happening now strikes me as massively - and not much more than - prissy, attention seeking, and narcissistic, with added readiness to affect offence or worse if not properly noticed. And it does seem all very much more about having a one-up Twitter identity rather than about relations with intimates.
To me it looks like this: middle-class young people, burdened with names and expectations which they cannot always live up to, mostly at university or recently graduated, are making themselves appear special by turning themselves into They/Them on grounds that they are non-binary. The threshold for entry into this special class of people has not, to my knowledge, been disclosed unlike the titles which Debrett’s regulates. Is it enough to paint your finger nails in non-matching colours? No, but only because no more than self-identification is required, is that not so?
So it is irrelevant for me to muse whether in the past I was, unwittingly, non-binary because I changed nappies. Or because I entered my home-made jams into village horticultural shows. Or because even on the most charitable interpretation my sexual encounters never (sometimes to a partner’s disappointment) achieved the expected binary climax of Wham, Bam, Thank You, Ma’m? No, it’s not feminine or effeminate traits, nor the desire to avoid toxic forms of masculinity, which make you non-binary. It’s brass neck or, to put it in more modern terms, a sense of entitlement.
I look at the images on Google and think to myself, This is just fashion and will mostly be abandoned within a few years just as most of us gave up fairly rapidly on Carnaby Street and Flower Power. But while it lasts there is a big difference: current self-identifications are moralised and essentialised to the hilt. Hence, the offence if you don’t take them seriously enough. Rather like bearded young men in theological seminaries, our They/Them people are utterly convinced of their own self-righteousness - that their choice has real existential depth and the fires of Salem await those who can’t see it.
To be honest, I simply don’t believe many of the self-presentations, partly because the choice so obviously opens career opportunities in the crowded field of desirable, non-manual jobs - well, not just non-manual; preferably media-related. But non-manual is a good start; people on building sites tend to get on with the job; They/Them is not a priority which clearly rules out building sites as workplaces. But university seminars can grind to a halt over naming protocols. After all, seminars are not that important: if you pay your money, you’re going to get a two one anyway unless you make the mistake of studying a STEM subject.
I suspect too that They/Them is attractive to boys more than girls; the girls can always build online Presences by taking their clothes off and for some that earns daily mega-bucks; the boys remain in less overall demand with clothes off - girls remain obstinately more interested in brains and personality - and so the boys have to find other ways of building a path to alienated Twitter success.
There is another dimension, that of the private and the public. At universities in the 1960s, people were lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, kinky (sometimes quite imaginatively so, given the absence of accessible porn and sex toys). They might let you know this or they might not. But it was not the primary way in which they defined themselves: like everyone else, they were studying Maths or History; they were Conservative or Labour or Revolutionary Socialist. That has now changed; it is “gender identity” (especially if you are white) or, more seriously and convincingly, ethnic identity or religious identity which trumps everything else. And “trumps” is not a bad word here because very little of it seems to have anything to do with progressive politics in its usual sense; some of it seems to me frankly far to the right, in the hunting grounds of those who bully and intimidate TERFS, people who to me are simply the feminists - or descendants thereof - from whom I learnt my feminism back in the 1970s. They had and have a coherent set of critiques of patriarchal societies; our modern gender theorists - if "theorists" is the right word - have so far done no more than replace argument with intolerant, incoherent mystifications. There is no coherent argument or theory which supports the (bourgeois? neo-fascist? entitled?) ideology of self-identification. Hence the immediate recourse to outrage and witch-hunting.
Donald Trump self-identifies as the true President of the United States and about forty million American adults accept the self-identification, based on no evidence at all. It must be something in the drinking water.