Introducing people can be awkward. I have a buddy I’ve known forever. He is a popular figure on campus, an author, and a hell of a soccer player, and he does a bang up job as a dad. His wife also rocks. She’s funny, irreverent, accomplished, and smart as hell. But when I introduce her, it’s “And this is his wife…” I hear how it sounds: “And this is the wife. She has no identity beyond being his wife. Pardon me while I discount everything she has done by placing her accomplishments in the shadow of her husband’s life. Doesn’t she have a cute smile?”
Such introductions might indicate our latent sexism, however I’ve seen the same thing happen to husbands. In either case, with a little work I can usually find something to differentiate each partner’s accomplishments or notoriety from the other when making an introduction. After all, as a society we are resetting the societal parlance in an attempt to be more inclusive to all peoples. New words and combinations of words are busting through those barriers that used to keep people on their own side of the tracks. I think it’s a necessary evolution, from the need to keep on everyone’s good side. If the economy keeps going the way it has been, we will all be on the same side of the tracks: the inside. Watching that light coming toward us. We will all be relying on our connection to each other.
Perhaps one of the more interesting introduction minefields to traverse has to do with same-sex couples. Is he your boyfriend, partner, significant other, husband, cuddle bunny, roommate, or what? At least in these situations, you know the gender of the partner. The SNL skit starring the androgynous Pat puts people in one uncomfortable moment after another guessing Pat’s gender, and his/her partner’s gender. In the real world, a lot of people who have same-sex partners are willing to help you out. Nothing spells “awkward” like the captain of the football team or the prom queen introducing their same-sex partner when you’ve been modeling your heterosexuality after their example since high school. I’ve been in the loop of a “viral outing” where someone’s “status” is passed from one friend to the next—reducing the chances the school closet-case will have a chance to behave like an ass at their next meeting—such as, upon being presented with the couple’s pride and joy, asking who the “real” parents are. It has been my experience that hetero or homo, you better not say something stupid about the kids. I think this is more Darwinism than hostility—if you’re that stupidly insensitive, your gene pool needs a little chlorine.
As progressive as we are today, I find myself experiencing moments of panic if I think I might have accidentally outted someone who wanted to keep their sexuality (or party affiliation) held snugly to their chest. There is a whole segment of the gay community who do not wear their rainbow flag (or candidate pin) on their sleeve. This in no way denigrates those who do. Kinda like when I was asked to be one of the “people of interest” to pose nude for a local fundraising calendar. It didn’t offend me to be asked, or to even see other local people in the calendar. However, I have a rather fierce streak when it comes to my privacy. The same could be said for those who have little interest in confirming or denying your suspicions about whom they fight with about whether to rinse the dishes before they go into the dishwasher. Frankly, it’s none of your damned business.
In these days of changing ways, so-called liberated days, people who in the past would have been doomed to live out their lives in the “wrong” body are now able to change their genders. If you’ve been a man your whole life and decide to start shopping from the women’s department (or a woman in the men’s), you’re going to have to forgive people who screw up the pronouns during introductions. The person making the gender journey needs to expect a shallow learning curve for pronoun proficiency among those who knew them prior to the trip. Nonetheless, there is passive-aggressiveness in “forgetting” to appoint the proper gender title to the person or their significant other during an introduction. Even the most open-minded of us might experience lightning bolts of discomfort around the thought of gender reorientation. Which, of course, is nothing compared to the discomfort of those who have to follow this path. I'm quite confident that, whatever led to the need to change genders, it had very little to do with being bored, wanting to piss off everyone else, or watching the insensitive writhe during introductions. This understanding helps me keep the pronoun “it” out of any discussion referring to human beings. Since most of us have shed much of our exclusionary parlance, we know it is possible to keep culling the terms and phrases—allowing us to live together on this shrinking planet. Think of that train I mentioned earlier.
I work on not being offensive. (I will pause while my Sacramento sister-in-law sprays her keyboard with coffee.) But there are times when I fail to notice that a word I’ve used my whole life has been pronounced racist. Fer instance, in 1885 John Alfred Prestwich started the J.A.P. motorcycle company. Since motorcycles blow my hair back, I will mention that this company is considered one of the first to produce motorcycles—starting at least a decade before Harley Davidson, Norton, and Indian. J.A.P. power plants (engines) found their way into many other motorcycles, cars, trains, etc. Those of us who bandy around names of motorcycles like baseball fans tossing out batting stats call these engines JAP engines. Though they were made in England, that phonetic is now considered a racial slur. Add to that, there was a time when motorcycling was viciously split between Japanese bikes and the rest of the world. Since a majority of the original American “bikers” had first-hand experience with World War II, many had wartime attitudes towards the Japanese as a population. These first bikers thought nothing of shortening the word “Japan” into a pejorative that became the prefix to a whole classification of motorcycles—as insensitive as we now know it is, they called them “Jap-bikes.” Very fast Japanese sport-bikes were and still are often referred to as “Rice Rockets.” I suspect you can parse that on your own. Many of these people will not drive their Japanese cars on December 7th. (Admittedly, I never mustered the courage to ask what they do on August 6th.) This is how deep this goes. But as more and more of the dinosaurs die off or learn to love Toyotas and sushi, there has been a softening of this idiocy. And for every culture, there is a comparable slur.
Genders and relationships have become more complicated, it’s true. But it’s funny how, when it’s your friend or child or parent or resident exchange student, it becomes easier to be sensitive. And easier to remember it’s individual people we are talking about, not faceless groups of “others.”
The changing of word usage can happen through revolution. The changing of attitudes however, happens through evolution. So, embrace the progress, no matter how slight and slow. As a culture, we’ve started to crawl out of the water. In many ways, some of us are still struggling with our gills in the open air.