Mad about the Boy
When I was in junior high, the music video was still in its infancy as an art form. The year was 1983, and I could sit and watch these four-minute art films, one after the other, for hours. Once, when I was transfixed in front of the television, my mother happened to walk into the room. Culture Club had just released their second album, and the video for their new single, “Karma Chameleon,” was playing. Mom liked the sound of it, and moved to the television to watch. She smiled when the singer, heavily made up, bedecked in a patchwork suit with a hairstyle that was all braids and bows, appeared. But she did a double take when this same singer, began to sing, “I’m a man without conviction/I’m a ma-a-an, who doesn’t know.…”
Despite his low tenor range, my mother had been convinced that Boy George was a woman. I remember giggling at her shock. His androgyny had been well known to me for some time; in fact, it was his defining characteristic and why—in addition to the music—my friends and I were so drawn to him.
I suppose that’s why so many fans and onlookers were shocked when just last month, Boy George went on a small Twitter rant about the growing social norm of announcing one’s pronouns. You’re seeing this trend more and more. Non-binary and transgender people began it, and have been asking their cisgender allies to join them in declaring their pronouns when introducing themselves, in a standard email signature, or in a Twitter bio. If everyone states their pronouns, the prevailing wisdom goes, then it will be easier for those who need to in order to be acknowledged and respected.
Boy George, it seems, isn’t a fan of the practice. “Leave your pronoun’s [sic] at the door!” he tweeted on January 6. In response to the question, “Do you not know what the [f***] pronouns are?” he responded: “A modern form of attention seeking?”
The backlash was sudden and swift, and strong enough that his media representatives were eventually called in to respond. They simply said, “The concept of…asking whether Boy George is transphobic is so stupid it doesn’t warrant a response.”
Boy George is 58, nine years older than I am. And despite the fact that he’s been both openly gay and world famous for more than half his life, I suspect that he grew up with the same archaic views about sex and gender as I did: namely, that the two concepts are synonymous, and that they exist on a binary: you’re either male or female, a boy or a girl, one or the other.
It’s taken a while for the LGBTQ community to grapple with the idea that sexual orientation can exist on a continuum, but even now bisexual and pansexual folks can find themselves erased by a silent belief that a person must either be entirely gay or entirely straight. In terms of gender, we’re even further behind. Most of us understand that someone can be trans—either a woman born into a male body or a man born into a female one. But the idea that someone’s true gender might be somewhere in between is not something many of us can quite get our heads around.
I have many dear friends who struggle with non-binary people—those who choose to be referred to with gender-neutral “they/them” pronouns. The reason they give is typically that “they” and “them” are plural, but I suspect this isn’t the case. In fact, I’ve already used these pronouns as singular terms in this column, which probably went unnoticed by most readers. I suspect the struggle occurs because they assign a person a gender, either man or woman, upon meeting them (did it again!), and mentally breaking free of that binary choice is very difficult.
Counterintuitively, I believe it’s easier for my friends—and possibly Boy George as well—to simply refuse to use gender-neutral pronouns than it would be to try. There’s a lot of effort in the trying, and no guarantee that we’ll always get it right. And then there’s the risk of unintentionally hurting someone when we mess up. Somehow, it’s more acceptable to offend them intentionally, so long as we’re standing on principle.
I’m afraid I don’t have much advice that will make the trying any easier. But here’s my counsel, in case Boy George is listening, or it applies to you, gentle reader: try anyway. You’ll mess up occasionally, and most non-binary folks won’t hold it against you, so long as the effort is both kind and sincere. And the next time you’re introducing yourself to a group of strangers, consider stating your pronouns. It will feel strange. But in exchange for that slight twinge of awkwardness, you might be bringing an overwhelming sense of comfort to someone without even knowing it. ▼
Eric Peterson is a diversity and inclusion practitioner, novelist, and podcast host who lives in Washington DC and visits Rehoboth as often as he can.