Pop culture gives us a lot of role models for how to find the strength and the words to overcome a lot of personal struggles. But with underwhelming representation for trans and nonbinary fans comes an unsurprising scarcity of inspiration on how to assert your identity when society doesn’t understand.
Pop quiz: Your friend is feeling down from sexists at work. She’s a geek, so you look to fandom to inspire her and help assert her identity as a strong woman. Which approach (and quote) do you suggest?
- Channel anger at the people targeting her with Captain Marvel’s “I have nothing to prove to you.”
- Stay grounded in her own capabilities with Wonder Woman’s “No…it’s what I’M going to do.”
- Focus unwaveringly on her ultimate goals with Rose Tico’s “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.”
The answer of course is that any and all of those would work perfectly. Marvel, DC, and Star Wars gave womankind three excellent, massively mainstream franchises with inspiring, relatable protagonists. Have a problem? What would SHE do? Suddenly the problem feels more manageable.
But I’m nonbinary. When I need to assert my identity, it’s very rare to find mainstream inspiration or a cultural frame of reference for how to casually do so. Equally as frustrating: the person I’m asserting my identity to will most likely also have no cultural frame of reference for how to feel or react. For example, the movie Office Space reminds desk job managers that their employees typically don’t like to come in to work on weekends. Go against that, and you’re undeniably the bad guy in the confrontation. Where is the equivalent cultural chastisement for people who can’t use pronouns properly?
While there aren’t nearly enough examples, there are actually a few. Here is a list I’ve gathered of characters who have helped me assert various aspects of my identity. They all have different approaches, just like we all have different needs for different situations. With such a varied assortment of attitudes and context, you’ll hopefully find some that you can use.
(Spoiler note: Each character may have spoilers which is why each fandom is listed ahead of time.)
As much as we might wish this was true sometimes, nobody can tell exactly what our pronouns are just by looking at us. Some people ask for our pronouns first, but what’s a relaxed, “normal way” for us to respond? Some people use the wrong pronouns, but what’s the “normal way” for us to assertively correct them? Some people don’t get the chance to say the wrong pronouns because we’ve preemptively told them. What are all the “normal ways” that we can do that?
Character: Taka Jamoreesa
Fandom: Star Wars: Last Shot (novel)
“Taka Jamoreesa, pilot extraordinaire. Their courage and speed know no bounds. They have aced every pilot in this room and are wanted in about eighteen galaxies. They need no introduction. The other pilots don’t even talk to Taka. That’s how serious this is.” – Taka’s business card
Hand Han Solo and Lando Calrissian a business card with your pronouns on it, and watch as everyone proceeds to literally always get your pronouns right. Even in Han’s private thoughts. The same Han Solo that is so quick to dismiss and grouch at people. Business cards are just that authoritative when it comes to your identity.
Fandom: Order of the Stick (webcomic)
Indifferently make everyone guess your pronouns, and consider it a power move. One dumb human calls you he yesterday, and another dumb human calls you she today? *shrug* That’s nice. You have more important things on your mind. Magical mysteries of the universe that ordinary beings can’t possibly comprehend. If they don’t even know the difference between conjuration and evocation, then how can they possibly understand gender?
Fandom: Good Omens, Episode 4
“The third of the Four Horsemen took over when Pestilence retired. They’ve had lots of interesting jobs in lots of interesting places. Helped design the petrol engine, plastics, and high tech weed killers. They’ve killed as many people as Famine or as War. This is Pollution.” – God
Have God herself narrate your accomplishments as you dramatically place a crown on your head. Barring that, ghostwrite your narrative yourself, and send it to the right people because authority figures love when they don’t have to do as much work, and changing your pronouns on your bio would require work.
Fandom: Good Omens
Radiate literally all of the nonbinary energy. Your hair. Your voice. Your clothes. So much that you make it into the article when there’s already another character from your show featured literally right above you. People might not know what your pronouns are, but most are pretty sure they should at least use they.
Character: Double Trouble
Fandom: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
Okay. To be honest, this one disappointed me. I literally put this article on hold so I could watch She-Ra’s new nonbinary character and then share the glorious wisdom of Noelle Stevenson on how to assert your identity, but…we never see Double Trouble assert their pronouns. On BOTH occasions where they meet new people, here’s how the exchange goes: (1) They say their name. (2) Nobody uses any pronouns for them yet (3) Scene change (4) Everyone is just…uh…magically using their correct pronouns now. For some reason??? And nobody on the show has ever introduced their own pronouns or ever asked for someone else’s pronouns or ever defaulted to they/them pronouns even when meeting extremely androgynous characters such as Huntara, so the only logical conclusion is that Double Trouble must have had to assert their own pronouns at some point, using their signature charisma to either correct their pronouns or preemptively slip their pronouns into natural conversation, and both would have been extremely inspiring and reassuring moments to witness.
But the bright side of all this, and the reason I ended up including them as an example after all, is it’s a bright hopeful portrayal of the future. Once you assert your pronouns, reasonable people will likely start using them. Later, when you look back on your interactions, you might not remember what exact words were exchanged to bring this about. Might as well have been a relatively unimportant offscreen moment in your life because people are using your correct pronouns now and other people are hearing them and also using your correct pronouns. However you got there, it’s not as relevant to your story now.
All characters are listed by their actual names only…because nobody likes hearing deadnames. If there was any actual positive folklore about the trans/nonbinary community, it would probably involve some pretty spooky curses or hauntings to anyone who uses someone’s deadname.
Fandom: Good Omens, episode 3
“Oh, I’ve changed it.”
Let your friends know about your name with the nonchalant finality of any other piece of news. If they’re nearly as kind and accepting as Aziraphale, you could add an anecdote about how the other one really wasn’t doing it for you. For best results, surround yourself with friends who are just as ineffably nonbinary as you are.
Fandom: The Matrix
“My name is Neo!”
You probably shouldn’t punctuate this statement by letting the person get hit by a train, but by the end of the first movie, Neo is pretty tired of Agent Smith repeatedly calling him by his old name…despite the fact that when they first met, Smith demonstrated that he knew what Neo’s name was. This example highlights that you’re more than justified in firmly standing up for yourself in the face of persistent, malicious disrespect.
Character: [Your favorite one]
These are characters I found useful when learning to assert my identity against people using the wrong name. But when you’re introducing yourself with a new name, what works for me might not speak to you. You could still feel vulnerable and stressed. Go back and re-read or re-watch some of your favorite stories, and note how your favorite characters introduce themselves to others. Find strength in that. That character doesn’t exist. You do. Your name is more real than theirs. (In lieu of trying to suggest any for you, here’s a video chronicling top cinematic dramatic entrances)
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
“I’m (snappy comeback).”
Yup. That’s right. Internet memes are often more well known than fictional characters when it comes to asserting your gender. What does that say about representation??
Character: Eleodie Maracavanya
Fandom: Star Wars Aftermath Trilogy (novels)
“…you are poised ineluctably to meet his highness, her glory, his wonder, her luminous magnificence—the picaroon! The plunderer! The pirate ruler of Wild Space! The glorious knave, Eleodie Maracavanya!” -Vinthar
Be a space pirate captain and have one of your crew act as your emcee. There’s just no substitute for having all your grand entrances heralded in third person along with a head’s up that you don’t subscribe to the gender binary. Or if you picked a different career path, at least tell your friends that whenever they have your back, that’s very sophisticatedly space pirate of them.
Fandom: Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King
“I am no man.”
This is perhaps the most well known example in this whole article . You can use this quote, and if they get it, they’ll be more likely to understand or relate. After all, they’re already the Witch King of Angmar in this scenario so they had better quit while they’re ahead.
Fandom: The Good Place
“Not a girl.”
State who you are in a professionally deadpan tone and a poised smile and then move on. They don’t have to understand and keep up. It’s simply not worth your time. If they really care, they’ll catch on and stand up for you.
Obviously there’s no R in LGBTQIA+. Those who hold rank in an organization and aren’t properly recognized for it will never feel remotely as dehumanized as someone who’s been misgendered, but some people are more familiar and sympathetic with characters who assert their titles or rank. Borrowing strength from one of these examples can add extra subconscious legitimacy to your request.
Character: Young Shadwell
Fandom: Good Omens, episode 3
“Lance Corporal Shadwell…if you don’t mind.”
Your friendly words say that your identity is optional. Your assertive tone and low voice communicates that there is only one correct answer. The cleverly careful combination of all of these suggests that you’re an interesting, capable person, and that it’s in everyone’s best interests to respect you so that you’ll stick around.
Character: Judy Hopps
No matter how many times people try to tell you that you can’t be who you are, refute it. No matter how many times people oh-so-conveniently forget to properly refer to you, remind them.
Character: Jack Sparrow
Fandom: Pirates of the Caribbean
[Literally every time he says the word Captain.]
Even when people try to make an endless joke out of who you are, you’re still the hero in this story. There are people you’ve never met and will never meet who will always root for you. Persist. Innovate. Don’t give up.
Deep Dive: Gentleman Jack
There’s been much media discourse about the difference between dismal “bury your gays” stories vs. positive stories with no bigotry and happy endings. Too many of the former, and it’s hard to visualize a bright future for yourself. But too many of the latter, and you’ll find yourself caught off guard whenever you’re reminded that the rest of the world doesn’t always agree that you deserve nice things, too.
The show Gentleman Jack is the perfect intersection of the two. So much, in fact, that I’m just going to recommend the entire show, so you can absorb all the Anne Lister energy and feel ready to take on all the negativity in the world with just a smirk, an eyeroll, and a sigh.
Anne Lister has a tragic past. Society moderately harangues her about her gender expression and sexuality. She has a handful of adversaries with moderately dismal intentions. But nothing ever hits her too hard, and she aggressively triumphs using relentlessly upbeat resolve. Thundering theme music plays whenever she “murder-walks” toward her various goals. People talk about her behind her back and she’s able to shrug it off long enough to catch them in assertively polite small talk, which forces them to at least practice being nice to her face. She has a small bell that she rings whenever she wants to signal that she is DONE with a conversation, and that’s that.
Basically, she provides a master class in how to firmly, politely, and definitively assert your identity.
Of course nobody should ever be expected to display anywhere near this level of strength. But simply bearing witness to the sheer power of her personality might be enough to let you borrow some of it.
Fandom does have a decent trove of inspirations examples for asserting your identity. They’re just extremely few and far between and not always easy to notice. Most of these examples are from the past five years, and half of them are from works published within the past year. Hopefully it will take even less time to compile a sequel article.
Writers, consider the impact of not only representing demographics, but creating actual, relatable moments for those represented.
Commenters, what characters and/or quotes do you like to refer to as inspiration when you want to assert your identity?
Author: Corellon Johnson
Corellon is an engineer, cosplayer, group admin, creative fandom polymath, and chaotic good paladin of Carrie Fisher.
They’ve run over 50 fan panels and con events and can be found starting way too many projects in the Good Omens, Bioware, and Star Wars fandoms.
Newport News, Virginia, USA
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