Why do my pronouns cause such panic? | Cerys Bradley on the exhausting travails of being non-binary in comedy © Steve Ullathorne

Why do my pronouns cause such panic?

Cerys Bradley on the exhausting travails of being non-binary in comedy

The People’s Comedy, The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, Bristol

I was psyching myself up before the gig. Lots of comedians psych themselves up before gigs. They go over their material, write notes on their hand, drink. For some reason, a lot of comedians feel compelled to give other comedians advice they never asked for.

I have a different routine. I tell myself I can do it, that everything will be fine and OK and it will be all right and then I approach the MC and we begin our awkward dance.

‘Hiya, I’m not sure if anyone’s mentioned it yet, but I’m a they/them, haha’, ‘Oh, hi, just in case it’s relevant, I mean, I don’t know if you use pronouns when you introduce people, but mine are they/them not… anything else’, ‘Yo, I’m sure you know this already, but I actually use they/them pronouns… I hope that’s OK?!’

The conversation can go one of several ways. Panic, I’m going to say, is the most common. The MC immediately gets nervous and explains that they’ll try their best but they might get it wrong and apparently that’s fine because I can totally just correct them. Occasionally, occasionally, they’ll say ‘great, thanks for letting me know’ but, much more frequently, I am told that my pronouns, and this whole stressful conversation, is irrelevant. ‘I’m just going to use your name.’ Right, got it, sorry for wasting everyone’s time.

That’s why I have to psych myself up. That’s why I was psyching myself up, in the slowly filling space of The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft in Bristol. I approached the MC, who I’d never met before and it began.

‘Hi, sorry to interrupt, um, just a quick thing, I just wanted to mention, the thing is, my pronouns are they/them, sorry if that’s a pain or anything.’

‘Yes, I know – I googled them before the gig. I wanted to make sure I got it right. Thanks for telling me, though.’

And, you know what, he did. Not like the time that I was misgendered twice by an MC after my act (which had been ten minutes of material about being non-binary, by the way). Or the time I was told by a competition organiser that I was explicitly not allowed to ask the MC of the night to use my pronouns in case I made anyone feel uncomfortable. Or the countless times I’ve been introduced to the stage as someone else and had to derail my set and switch in a bit of non-binary stuff right at the top to try and re-programme the audience’s minds.

Not that that ever works. Do you know how many times I have performed 60 minutes about being non-binary only to hear people remark afterwards ‘s** was pretty funny, wasn’t s**’. (It’s every time, by the way. Lots of people think I’m funny.)

I realise no one is making me do this. I’m very rarely booked by people who say, ‘we want you to do your binder material or that bit about taking off your jumper’ and I do have other jokes, so I could walk on stage and not say the NB word one time. But the difficulty is that, when you are a comedian who writes jokes about your experience of the world and your experience of the world is as a non-binary person, often, it creeps into everything else. Even your take on camping becomes queered.

Sometimes, when I piece together my sets, I realise that this bit isn’t going to make sense or be as funny unless Everybody Knows and then I’ve got to put in my non-binary material at the top so that means taking stuff out or awkwardly opening with a confession which ends up turning my gender, or lack thereof, into a punchline.

It’s exhausting.

And then you’re sat there listening to some other comedian make a cheap gag about the trans people she’s dated or another telling a story about how he’s not transphobic actually but here’s loads of examples of how his friends are and everybody is laughing and the green room chat is uncomfortable and you’re psyching yourself up to come out again knowing it might go either way.

Take a deep breath.

What do I actually want here? For the gig organisers to announce in their promotional material that there might be some trans people on stage tonight, see if you can guess which ones we are? For no one else to ever talk about trans people or experiences on stage?

Not that. None of that. I don’t want to get booked because I’m non-binary but I also want bookers to know that being non-binary doesn’t somehow make you unfunny. That it’s OK to have more than one of us on the bill because, believe it or not, we don’t all pick our jokes from the same branch of the joke tree.

I want them to know that it’s a strange feeling trying to express yourself in an industry where, it seems, half the people are only interested in you because of this one thing about you and the other half think you don’t deserve to be here because of it. And I want other comedians to get on stage and tell the jokes that they think are funny and I don’t want that to change just because they know I’m in the room. [But, also, is it too much to ask that they don’t see this piece of myself as a punchline?]

In all of this, pronouns are the tip of the iceberg. Ideally, we’d all get over this gender binary thing once and for all. But, in the meantime, wouldn’t it be nice if you treated everybody like me instead of treating me like everybody else, and just asked every comedian on your bill what their pronouns are even if you think you can guess and then, and here’s the really radical thing, use those pronouns to understand who that person is instead of seeing them in the exact same way as you did before but with one more awkward piece of information to remember/write on your hand?

That would help.

• Cerys Bradley: Sportsperson is on at the Gilded Balloon at 4.40pm during the Edinburgh Fringe.

Published: 13 Jul 2022

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