My Journey with Pronouns and Genderfluidity

By Avi Kaplan
June 20, 2024

Avi Kaplan headshot

I am somewhat famous, or rather infamous, at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for having difficult-to-use pronouns. When I tell people my pronouns they often respond with confusion or get the look on their faces that I know means they’re just going to ignore what I said in favor of what is easy. And what are these arduous pronouns? She/him/theirs. No one seems to know what to do with that, and I have never been able to find a short, succinct way to explain what to do, but instead I can tell the whole story.

When I was 15 years old, I realized that I was genderfluid. I had never been consistently attached to my gender identity, and up to that point had generally considered it irrelevant or even annoying to have (interestingly, I still feel this way about my thorn-in-the-side pronouns). Through a great deal of introspection and reflection, I learned that my gender was not constant, but rather changed, sometimes very often, and sometimes infrequently. My family and friends were all supportive as I began experimenting with my appearance and interests around gender over the next few years, but they often also wanted to know what to call me. Was I a daughter? a son? a child? a sister? a brother? a sibling? And I had those questions too, especially in respect to the events of my life. I was working as an assistant teacher at my religious school, so was I a madrikh or a madrikhah? A few years prior had I celebrated becoming bat, bar, or bet mitzvah? What pronouns did I feel comfortable with? Did they change in different situations? The only answer I was sure of was that they changed with time, and so to try and come up with something usable, I told people that they could use any pronouns for me.

Many years later, as I was preparing to go to the Year- in- Israel program at HUC-JIR, I faced a more narrowed scope of the same kinds of questions. In Israel, and learning Modern Hebrew, what Hebrew pronouns did I want to use? I had no interest in the possibility of explaining the Nonbinary Hebrew Project to Israelis in a language I could barely speak, and so I did not want to use those pronouns, but that left היא/את or הוא/אתה . And this time I found it easy to make a decision: היא/את, feminine pronouns. I found it easy to rebel against the default-masculine Hebrew through this choice, as well as to push back against the default-masculine way people saw me.

After the Year-in-Israel, I came to Los Angeles for the last two years of my education with HUC-JIR, and discovered, much to my dismay, that most of my classes requested pronouns every time we introduced ourselves, to each other, the professor, or a guest. I had already become dissatisfied with the way people treated “any pronouns” as “pick he/him and never change,” so I wanted to go for something that provided a little more instruction or example, and so I began answering with “she/him/theirs” or “any, as long as it’s inconsistent.” I wanted people to get the message that I actually did care what pronouns they used for me, I just wanted those pronouns to reflect my genderfluidity, to change with me.

Yet, despite what I had thought was a clearer instruction, people still just picked one set of pronouns, most commonly he/him although also now some they/them and she/her and used that for me. It was clear to me that although my new explanation was better, it was insufficient to make people really understand what my pronouns were. In cynical exasperation, I added the phrase “my pronouns are I/me/my, and anything else isn’t my problem” to my repertoire.

Then one day, in one of my classes at HUC-JIR, we were learning about different kinds of change, including that superficial change often does not solve deep-rooted issues because it does not address what is causing them. And then it hit me. As I understood the concept for class and Jewish leadership, I also understood it for me and my gender. All at once I knew why people had difficulty with my pronouns, why they had difficulty with the pronouns of my trans friends and classmates, and why there were some people who used our correct pronouns with ease.

People looked at me, heard my voice, and perceived me as a man, and then tried to tape a different pronoun overtop the connection in their minds between man and he/him. The same was true for my other trans nonbinary friends, people who perceived them as the wrong gender always had an extra step to use the correct pronouns for them, a step that goes against their mind’s categorizations and associations. But the people who saw my friends as their correct genders did not have that issue. They did not have to go ״women->she/her->they/them,״ they simply went ״nonbinary->they/them.״ These people, many of whom were themselves queer, had retrained their brain to fully replace standard social biological sex and gender cues with input from individuals about their gender, or to ignore anything except for an individual’s input.

In my case, I had inadvertently given permission for people to not bother to do the three-step process. He/him is included in “any,” in “she/him/theirs,” and in “not my problem.” It was no wonder that people found “inconsistent” so difficult too, because I was basically asking for their minds to go “man->he/him->oh no what do I do here?”

So, now I know what to do. I need to find a way to make people understand that their minds need to go “genderfluid->any pronouns,” or even better to go “how is Avi presenting->the pronouns appropriate for that.” My next step is to determine how to relate that idea in a succinct way, but maybe I can reference those who are really interested in my pronouns here in the interim.