LGBTQ

What it’s Like Being Non-Binary in India, Where Everyone Uses Gendered Pronouns

“This one time, I was at a community event and someone kept referring to me as ‘she/her’. When I told them that this is not my pronoun, they told me, ‘You're too pretty to be a boy.’”
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
February 4, 2020, 10:35am
using non binary pronouns in India can be difficult
Mumbai-based Dan Rebello says being misgendered and deadnamed adds on to the mental health issues for queer people. Photo via Dan Rebello

In December last year, the Merriam-Webster dictionary declared the word ‘they’ as the word of the year for 2019—a word commonly used by us in everyday talk and following the previous years’ top words of ‘justice’, ‘feminism’ and ‘surreal’. The word of the year—the dictionary publisher said—is based on data and what people are searching for, with the use of the plural pronoun now referring to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary (any gender that is not exclusively male or female). Grammar sticklers might argue about the incorrect usage of what was traditionally looked upon a plural word whereas naysayers might dismiss it as a mere tool of political correctness but 27-year-old Dan Rebello knows what a difference a simple pronoun can make.

The activist, educationist and founder of Thane Queer Collective, who identifies as a demiboy, asexual and polyromantic, goes by the pronouns he/him and they/them. In India—where gay sex was decriminalised only in 2018—a lot more battles remain to be fought when it comes to complete acceptance, with the choice of pronouns lying somewhere between curiosity and confusion. “But I feel like if people just start using my name and pronouns correctly, 80 percent of my problems and gender dysphoria would disappear,” says Rebello, referring to the distress a person feels due to a mismatch between their gender identity and their sex assigned at birth.

With major celebrities having chosen to identify with these pronouns and giving them a push towards normalisation, and dating apps, too, allowing people to share their pronouns with pride, we speak with Rebello about how language and words can help not just a person but culture at large.

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VICE: Hey Dan. So when did you decide to change your pronouns from what was assumed at birth?
Dan Rebello: For me, coming to terms with my gender identity was a very long journey. Before I identified as a demiboy (a gender identity where someone partially, and not wholly, identifies as a man, boy or otherwise masculine, regardless of their assigned gender at birth), I used to identify as genderfluid because I felt that that's the only vocabulary that was out there for how I felt.

What does being a demiboy mean and how did you figure it out for yourself?
Demi means 'partial', for example, 'demi-gods' are half-gods. So demiboy for me means that I partially feel like a boy, but not completely like a man. That's what I am comfortable with. I don't like being referred to as a man but as a boy because my masculinity is not very manly, it's very soft.

Tell me how you came out with your pronoun.
In 2016, I came out and at that time, I had expressed that I would like people to use pronouns they/them for me. Then last year, I was sitting with friends in a coffee shop, eating cake, and suddenly, by mistake, they referred to me with the pronoun 'he'. I suddenly felt butterflies in my stomach and felt so happy hearing someone call me 'he'. They realised that they've misgendered because that was not my pronoun, according to them, but I told them, "No, say it again!" That's how I realised that I feel comfortable being referred to with 'he/him'. And so, I go with both.

What difficulties have you faced while using non-binary pronouns?
When I started telling my friends, there were mixed reactions. Some tried to understand, but some just didn't even try. Through the course of this journey, I have come to realise that one has to give people time. I can’t suddenly expect those around me to start using new pronouns for me. And so, I gave them some time. Whenever they made mistakes, I corrected them politely. But outside my circle, I don't make a big deal. I correct them with my correct pronouns. After that, it’s their prerogative.

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Have people ever been mean about this, though?
This one time, I was at a community event and someone kept referring to me as 'she/her'. When I told them that this is not my pronoun, they told me, "You're too pretty to be a boy." I didn't react to it because I didn't know how to react at that point of time. So I let it go.

What's the most ridiculous thing people have said to you about pronouns?
A little while back, there was this queer event and I was wearing a dress. This person was complimenting my dress and hair, and constantly used the pronouns 'she'. So I corrected her and she said, "A boy? In that dress? How can I call you ‘he’ in that dress?" That was one. And then, of course, the lame, general response that a lot of non-binary people get is, “‘They’ is plural. Are you too many people?” Otherwise I've never gotten any harsh or rude remarks for having these pronouns.

Does being misgendered have any mental health impact on you?
It has a very big impact on me because I feel like if people just start using my name and pronouns correctly, 80 percent of my problems and dysphoria would disappear. You seen, I'm a school teacher and my workplace is a very traditional setup, like most schools. I'm out to my senior staff and superiors but they don't understand it properly. I have support in terms of my activism outside school, but they don’t understand my pronouns and my name.

So misgendering must be a part of daily life.
Yes, because I have not tried to communicate with them. I'm too scared to do that. I feel it's too much to ask for. A lot of my dysphoria the whole day is because of that. I have to wear clothes that I don't conform to, like salwar-kameez or sari. People keep calling me by my deadname (the birth name of someone who has changed it). And of course, they call me by “she/her” pronouns. I have an anxiety disorder so I keep getting anxiety and panic attacks every now and then. In a week or so, I'll probably go and talk to the trustees directly about this. I don’t know how it will turn out but I need to do this. It’s not good for my mental health to carry on like this anymore.

Do you get or feel misgendered within the LGBTQ community as well?
It doesn’t happen that much, but it does happen. Getting misgendered is very common, especially for me. The thing is, my expressions are very soft—sometimes, I wear a dress too. But I'm still a boy in that dress. When I wear anything feminine, it’s on my own terms. It doesn't say anything about my gender identity. It’s just something I'm comfortable wearing today. I might not be comfortable wearing the same thing tomorrow. It feels bad being misgendered but it's okay. I point it out. Some understand, some get confused even more.

How does this affect your friendships and relationships?

I had a very long-term group of friends from childhood, for literally 14 to 18 years, and when I came out to them, they did not really take it well. It’s been five years since we’ve drifted apart. I gave them the time too. I used to send them reading materials so that they could understand, but I have never even gotten any feedback from them. They kept saying it's a phase, that it's like a fashion trend. So I thought that if they can't accept me for that, for what I am, then I would rather distance myself from that space. After coming out, though, I started going out for queer events and found new people from the community. Now my friends’ circle is just people from the community, and nobody from outside. Maybe it’s better that way.

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What about your family?
With family, acceptance can never be 100 percent. They continue using my dead name and she/her pronouns. But it's strange because they're proud that I'm involved in all the activism and get invited to talk about queer issues. But otherwise, they don't accept me as a boy. My mother keeps telling me, "I gave birth to a girl."

How do you think we can incorporate pronouns in our regular vocabulary?
It can be small things. Whenever we talk about someone whose genders we don't know about, we should always use 'they'. If you have a friend who's non-binary and trans, use the correct pronouns, or save their numbers with their pronouns so that it's always on your face when you're talking to them.

How will using pronouns in your daily conversations change things for non-binary people?
Starting the culture of asking pronouns before you introduce yourself to anyone, is something we need to desperately have right now. I never used to do this myself before. If I was at a campaign or a workshop, and everyone would introduce themselves, I would always be scared to introduce my pronouns. But then, after a point, I said, “Fuck this shit. I need to do this for me to feel safe in that environment and not invalidated.” My identity should not be invalidated by me by staying quiet. So I started randomly introducing myself with my pronouns. Pronouns introductions can change things to an extent. There will be a conversation, at least, where people know that there are more pronouns.

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.