June 23, 2024 Non-Binary Persons and Pronouns with Em Norwood

June 23, 2024

Title: Non-Binary Persons and Pronouns

 Preached with Em Norwood.

Jeremiah 38: 1-13

Em: Imagine you walk into a store and the cashier says ‘Good morning ma’am. How can I help you today?’. Imagine you ask your waiter where the bathroom is in the restaurant and they say ‘Oh the men’s room is just down the hall to the right’. Imagine a coworker leaves a newspaper on your desk. Imagine someone puts a tiny rainbow on their ID badge. Imagine someone uses your name instead of a pronoun in your annual review. Imagine telling someone ‘I love you’. 

Imagine that any one of these, all of these, can put absolute terror in your heart. Imagine they can give you overwhelming joy. The biggest lesson in being queer is learning how to be okay again after the first, because you’re holding on to the experience, sometimes just the hope, of the second.

Siblings in Christ let us pray. God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight. May you bless everything we have the courage to say today, may you bless everything we do not, and may you bless us in our wholeness, no matter who sees it.

Mike: The title of this message is: Non-binary persons and pronouns. It’s the first part of a four part series on stories from LGBTQ persons. I’ve asked Em to help me with this message because Em is non-binary and uses non-binary pronouns to describe themself. The non-binary pronouns that Em uses are they, them their. 

My own personal experience with non-binary pronouns started four years ago when our grandchild Saima was born. Our daughter Sarah and her partner Ali decided to raise their children in an open gender way. This means they are waiting to allow the child to let us know what gender they identify. Until the child lets us know, we use the pronouns they, them and their to refer to each of them. It has not always been easy, but we’ve been persistent and mostly successful in using “they, them, their” pronouns for both Saima and Bene.

Two years ago, I started working with EJ McGaughy at the South Haven church. Our daughter Sarah encouraged me to ask the question of EJ when I started working with them: What pronouns would you like me to use when addressing you? EJ told me, “I see myself as non-binary and so I’d like for you to use non-binary pronouns they, them, their.” I told them that I was good with that. I said, “I’m getting used to using those pronouns with two of our grandchildren.” 

A few months later, EJ introduced me to a young person who just completed seminary by the name of Abby Labreque. Abby was closely connected to EJ and their family. I asked Abby the same question: “What pronouns would you like me to use when addressing you?” Abby said, “I’m non-binary and therefore I’d like for you to use they, them, their pronouns.” They said, “I’ve been helping the people at my new job get used to using those pronouns. I know it can be hard for people. But it is so important for non-binary persons that we use those pronouns.”

When Em started coming to the Phoenix Church last year, I asked Em that same question. And Em’s answer was the same as EJ’s and Abby’s. 

Talking with EJ, Abby and Em in the past two years,  I’ve begun to learn so much about what it means to be non-binary and what it means for us to use non-binary pronouns. I want to learn more and share that with all of you. 

Let’s start with some basics. Em, what’s the difference between gender and sexual orientation? And How does Non-binary fit or not fit into traditional gender roles?

Em; So for one, gender identity and sexual orientation are entirely seperate concepts. They can and do interact with one another frequently, but they develop and are defined independently. 

We all like to put things in buckets. Human brains like to categorize things. The concept of transgender can be put into the familiar buckets of male and female, even gender fluid can be familiar in swinging between or combining the two. Nonbinary challenges that; it both adds another bucket and takes it away. Nonbinary is any gender identity that isn’t explicitly male or female (trans or not). Nonbinary can be used as a specific identity, but like transgender it can also be used as an umbrella term. Many people, including me, identify as something more specific but frequently use nonbinary because it is easier. Even people who are fairly knowledgeable in queer vocabulary might not know ‘agender’, but most people know nonbinary. Nonbinary encourages you to look at gender as less of a spectrum from male to female, and more of a color wheel. You can be at any point in the wheel, including black (all colors/light absorbed) or white (no color/light absorbed). 

Mike: One of the challenging questions is this: How is gender created? Is your gender something you are born with and essential to who you are? Was I born male and am essentially and always a male? Or is gender a social construct that is created by your environment? Did I become male as I’ve learned the traditional expectations of maleness? Or is there some place for choice and decision?

I’m starting to learn that the answer lies in some complex web of all three and more. It’s biological, psychological, social and more. There is not only complexity in how gender is created, but there is also complexity and diversity in how that gender is constructed and performed, even a spectrum.  

This leads to the question, Can there be anything besides the binary of either male or female and how does that come about? Em, could you share your own personal experience.   

Em: My journey of identifying as non-binary, agender 

Mike: Some might say that non-binary is something the millennials created in the past couple years. But as I’ve come to find out, there have been people who have lived between the genders for thousands of years. The Bible itself is full of stories of eunuchs.

          The story is told of the prophet Jeremiah saying something to offend the King of Judah. The King had Jeremiah thrown into the bottom of a waterless well to die. The Ethiopian eunuch by the name of Ebedmelech was visiting at the time. He had compassion on Jeremiah. He asked the King if he could pull him out. The King agreed. The eunuch took a rope and some rags to the well. The eunuch told Jeremiah, “Put these rags under your arms so the ropes won’t hurt you.” Then he had Jeremiah pulled out of the well. Jeremiah was so thankful he prayed for the safety and protection of the eunuch in the upcoming war. 

          That’s just one of many Scriptural stories of eunuchs helping God’s people. There’s the story of the eunuch Hegai who helped Esther when she was in the King’s palace. Then the story of the eunuch who helped Daniel and his friends eat the right food Daniel had requested as a faithful Jew. Finally, in the New Testament, we have an Ethiopian eunuch who hears the good news about Jesus from Philip and asks to be baptized.      All these eunuchs could be considered non-binary, not male or female.

 Mike: Language changes. It’s always evolving. Look at the King James Bible and a modern translation and an inclusive translation. Take Luke 11:2:  The King James puts it this way: And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth. 

      Four hundred years later the Contemporary English Version puts it this way: So Jesus told them, “Pray in this way: ‘Father, help us to honor your name. Come and set up your kingdom.

          Like I said, language is always evolving and changing. We mean the same thing, but the way we say it evolves, adjusts, changes, is different. It doesn’t usually change very fast, but it is always changing. Grammar, vocabulary and every other part of our language is changing.  

Therefore the use of they/them/their in referring to an individual is part of our evolving language. 

The Merriam Dictionary says: they has been in consistent use as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s when we don’t know the gender of the noun. They is taking on a new use, however now: as a pronoun of choice for someone who doesn’t identify as either male or female.

This church, the First Congregational UCC of Coloma has been intentional about using inclusive language for decades now. Eric Lund and Paige Birdwell back in the 70’s and 80’s made it a point to use inclusive language, though usually not making a big deal about it. For this church, the words we use matter.

         For non-binary persons, words and pronouns matter as well. The use of gendered pronouns for non-binary persons can be hurtful. 

Em: Return to the opening section of the message – talking about the discomfort in misgendering and the euphoria you experience when people use your correct name and pronouns. (Idea of language as a safety warning sign/assessment) May be more general to include others

Mike: A small story of the importance of using the right name and pronoun. Last year, Evert was walking up to the church, when I called out, “How are you doing today, Everett? He responded, “My name is Evert, not Everett.” “OK, I’m sorry. “Evert, how are you doing today?” Since then, of course, I’ve made sure to correctly pronounce his name.

What is the Spirit inviting us to do today? How can we best express our love for non-binary persons? First and most important – ask about and then use correct pronouns. Words matter. Pronouns matter. 

  Em,what’s the best way to find out someone’s pronouns?

Em: This is how to best ask me about my pronouns: Literally ‘what are your pronouns?’. Better, offer your pronouns. This is typically more natural feeling and covers every situation. There are a few situations where you can’t ask for pronouns directly, such as when interviewing someone for a job, but you are allowed to provide yours. They can choose to provide theirs in return or not. 

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