Last time I was in the US, I was holding a fundraiser for Living Media and I had a table of products for sale as usual where I welcomed people afterwards to come visit and buy some of our items made by local craftspeople here in Haiti. A woman walked up to the table with her three grandsons, the youngest of which was possibly 6 or 7 years old, and this one became immediately excited when he saw what was for sale there. His eyes lit up and a smile stretched across his face, and he gasped out loud, “Grandma! Look at all these things!” The grandmother seemed annoyed and was trying to herd the boys towards the door but they were already touching everything on the table looking at the products. The youngest one was especially intrigued by the necklaces that we had. They are beautifully simple necklaces made out of small glass beads and sea glass by a group of teenage girls in Jacmel. As the boy picked up each one and looked at them with joy he asked “Can I get one, Grandma?” She pretended not to hear him, clearly hoping that he would move on, but he really wanted a necklace. “Can I get one, please, Grandma?”
“They’re only ten dollars.” I told the grandmother with a smile, hoping that the “it’s for a good cause” rationale would prevail.
“I don’t know.” She told her grandson, “I just don’t see boys wearing those necklaces. They’re more for girls. You can get a bracelet if you want, like your brothers.”
I think my mouth probably visibly hung open for a moment. My heart hurt for the boy. I was a little stunned, and didn’t say anything but thought to myself, “Tell him it’s too expensive if you want. Tell him it might break too easily. Simply tell him no. But don’t look at the happiness in your grandson’s face and then tell him that what he wants more than anything is for girls.” I didn’t say anything, perhaps selfishly because I still wanted to sell the bracelets but I don’t know what I would have even said. I’m never good at speaking up those sorts of situations because I always require some time to reflect before I really understand my own feelings about something like that. And this one weighed on me for a while.
I understand that it’s not even that unique of an occurrence in our society. I know that absolutely everything that we market to children in this country is gendered differently for boys and girls from toys, to clothing, to the movies they watch. And we like to make sure that every child, from the time that they’re born, are making gendered decisions that will lead them to become the ideal man or woman that matches with the anatomy that they were given at birth in the most masculine or feminine way possible. And we don’t like it when a child deviates from those gender expectations. This all is not news to me or to most people. But I guess, still, some naïve part of me was still thinking that it was just corporate greed that drove everything to be so polarized between male and female everything and that the average individual wouldn’t force those sorts of decisions on their own children (or grandchildren). I know, silly me forgetting that everything in our world is divided into black and white or blue and pink.
And then I came back to Haiti, a country where they kill gay people in the street but the hottest fad in men’s fashion is wearing women’s pants and they elect for president a performer who’s famous for dressing in drag. Not necessarily the best place to look as an example of progressive thought on gender issues. However, the one sort of magical part about this country is that they speak Creole, a language where nothing is gendered. Sure, it’s mostly out of laziness on the part of the original Creole speakers that they never created more specific pronouns or adjectives in their language, but it has resulted in a rather refreshing manner of speaking about things by using only their most essential characteristics to describe them. He, she, and it are all just “li” in Creole and it makes life no more confusing than in languages that separate them all by gender and animism. The only time that it becomes a little confusing is when you have a first name that is pronounced the same as the only singular pronoun in the language. So if some one is talking about the weight of a rock and says, “Li lou.” They could either be saying “It’s heavy.” “He’s heavy.” “She’s heavy.” or “Lee’s heavy.” But it’s usually not that hard to figure out the context and know what they’re talking about. I have to be careful when someone is talking about a nearby animal that smells bad or even a pile of trash that is ugly, otherwise I could easily be offended. But in general it’s really quite a beautiful sentiment that we all, men, women, others, spirits, animals, inanimate objects, are all unified under one pronoun. The same pronoun that refers to all men and all women also refers to all trees and goats and mosquitos and the ocean. In Haiti a necklace isn’t for “him” or for “her” it is just for “li”. And society doesn’t collapse because of it. In fact, I think that it is strengthened because of it. Conversely, in English and in our “modern” culture, we like to complicate things by drawing lines and creating categories and adhering labels that destroy the simplicity of what draws us together not only as human beings but as things on this earth that possess life and energy and spirit.
In some more “developed” cultures these days there is a movement to add more pronouns to list. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it would be impossible to move backwards to a place where Creole has always been, with fewer pronouns, but the current options don’t do the job either. When you sign up for Facebook these days, you can choose from one of 54 gender identities. Last week I read Janet Mock’s book, Redefining Realness, and she has publically been an advocate for more diverse pronouns as a trans woman herself. The whole issue intrigues me from a linguistic standpoint to start with which is what drew me to the book initially. As a cisgendered male (simply meaning my identity matches my anatomy, thanks to Mock for introducing me to this word which we should all know) who likes every part of my body just the way it is, I’ve appreciated the opportunity to gaze into someone else’s journey. It has allowed me to see a personal side to how some of the simplest words that we take for granted can have such a huge impact on someone who doesn’t fit the norms of a society that created those words. Sometimes our language doesn’t reach out to those margins despite its complexity.
Why is this important to me and why should it be important to us all? I’m not part of the transgender community like Mock or even consider myself part of the LGBTQ community, although my lifestyle may follow a nonheteroconformative trajectory. But as a teenager I did have every inch of wall in my bedroom covered with Reba McEntire posters, and I just couldn’t get enough of her song, “Fancy” (Don’t know it? Look it up on YouTube if you want your life changed). My love for Reba in those days could only be matched by my love for the Green Bay Packers. These days I still find solace in the stressful life of being a white guy in Haiti by watching my DVD collections of the Golden Girls and the Project Runway series; and thanks to Haiti, I know that I am a size 10 in women’s pants and proclaim that with no shame. Back in my hometown there are still people who remember me simply as the guy who played Dick Simmering in the high school play one year, a flamboyant aerobic instructor who wore pink floral spandex, had permed hair, and greeted everyone with “Yoohoo”. And today, as a guy in Haiti without a wife or at least a harem of girlfriends, I am used to getting homophobic slurs yelled at me by strangers every day as I ride by them on a motorcycle driven by one of my six male roommates.
The point being, if these were the things that defined me, I know exactly what box I would be put in. So I suppose I try to remain sensitive to the situations affecting those who society forces to live inside of those boxes permanently. But regardless of what I identify as, I still speak the same language as many, many other people who don’t identify the same as me. I still breathe the same air that they do and walk the same earth. And for many of them that walk is already difficult enough laden with obstacles built from hatred and discrimination. So may God grant me the wisdom to use words that would never place more stumbling blocks in their path, ones like “those are just for girls” or “boys don’t wear that”. Rather may I find words that would help clear the way expressing unifying forces of beauty and understanding. May I have the courage to try to see life through their eyes when I get the chance knowing that is the only way that we each can begin to live more fully alive.