Grand Haven

Moving beyond the gender binary

Editor's note: This column is part of a series featuring Lakeshore residents sharing their stories.

A few weeks ago, I lost my credit card, so I had to call the bank. I dialed the phone number and anxiously waited as it rang — I hate phone calls. Once I finally made it to the part of the call where you get to talk to a real human, someone answered saying, “Hello, how may I help you?” I responded, “Hi, I lost my credit card, so I need to cancel it.” 

The voice on the phone replied to my (probably fairly routine) problem with a scripted response, “Alright, ma’am, what’s your full name?” I winced. I spelled out my full name, and they continued, “Ok, ma’am, please tell me your account number.” I winced again but read out the number. 

This continued back and forth for the whole call. “How long ago did you lose the card, ma’am?” “Where did you lose the card, ma’am?” “Can we verify your date of birth, ma’am?” “Ma’am.” “Ma’am.” “Ma’am.”

By the end of the call, I had stopped wincing; I had gotten used to it as I always have to.

My gender identity

This kind of thing happens to me a lot. By the sound of my voice, the shape of my body, or even my name, people assume I’m a woman. They refer to me as female (or even worse, ma’am) and treat me as such. However, that feels wrong to me and it has for a while. 
Non-binary people may identify as both male and female, neither, or flow between the two. Ciana Witherell identifies as neither.
I often feel constrained and want to escape the concept of gender altogether. I am non-binary. Non-binary is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively feminine or masculine. Non-binary people may identify as both male and female, neither, or flow between the two. Personally, I identify as neither.

The first person I came out to was my current partner. Previously, we both identified as female. It was during a discussion about the definition of non-binary gender that we both came to the realization that we’re non-binary. Before that conversation, I felt like I didn’t deserve the label. I finally realized that I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I am who I am, and my gender identity isn’t up to anyone else.

The struggle

Although I’m confident in who I am, coming out and existing as non-binary has not been easy.

Many people, even friends, have ignored my requests to be referred to using they/them pronouns. More people, however, have incorrectly assumed my gender without ever asking. 

I know that gender beyond the binary may be a new concept to many people, and some of you reading this may have never met a non-binary person. Well, now you have: Hi, I’m Ciana. 

I study engineering and philosophy at Grand Valley State University. I am a loyal friend and a hopeless romantic. I am a proud Slytherin. When I was 12, I sprained my ankle running cross country. I love musical theatre, swing dancing, photography, and watching movies. My favorite color is aqua — like ocean water right off the shore. I’m a person. 

How to help

I’m not asking you to identify as non-binary, too, or even to understand it, just to respect my identity. If you want to know how you can do this, I have a few ideas:

1. Ask for pronouns. It’s pretty easy. Even if you think you know, just ask. I know it seems like a weird thing to ask, but I promise it’s not. The more you do it, the more normal it’ll feel. This is important because if you refuse to use the pronouns that someone prefers, you’re being disrespectful, invalidating their identity, and making the claim that you know them better than they know themself. 

When you make a mistake, just apologize. If we apologize when we accidentally call someone the wrong name or use the wrong title, then we should apologize when we misgender someone. When used properly, pronouns can be gender-affirming and, thankfully, all you have to do to get it right is ask.

2. Start using nonbinary pronouns (more often). People are uncomfortable using non-binary pronouns (they/them and others) in everyday language because we are taught to use binary pronouns (he/him and she/her) when referring to individuals. People continue to misgender non-binary individuals because using binary pronouns feels more natural. 

When referring to me, for example, say things like, “They taught me how to dance.” and “I am friends with them.” It’s normal to make mistakes as you get used to it, but it feels good when I can tell someone is making an effort. If you’re unsure how someone identifies, opt for gender-neutral pronouns.

3. Normalize non-gendered language. Rather than addressing a group of people as “ladies and gentlemen,” try “distinguished guests,” “friends,” or “everyone.” Instead of saying “policeman,” say “police officer.” Next time you write “his or her,” consider just writing “their.” With a simple switch in language, you become more inclusive.


Grand Haven native Ciana Witherell is a student at Grand Valley State University, finishing up a major in Product Design and Manufacturing Engineering and minors in Philosophy and Mathematics. They are also the President of the Swing Dance Club and a member Tau Beta Pi, an engineering honor society.
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