Ever wondered what “nonbinary” and “gender nonconforming” really mean? Or if it's grammatically correct to use “they” as a singular pronoun? You’re far from alone. Many people share these same questions but are afraid to ask. They don’t want to be rude or make a misstep—which can generate more missteps and even cause harm simply due to being uninformed.
Solving this issue is exactly what IDEOer Stuart Getty set out to do with their new book, How to They/Them. Stuart, who uses they/them pronouns, wanted to create a guide that answered a lot of the questions they commonly get asked, and find a way to educate people in a friendly way. Far from being a niche topic, gender is an important part of the human experience and its landscape is ever-expanding as we learn new ways to describe our most innate identities. It’s important to realize that everyone has a gender identity—not just those whose identity diverges from traditional norms. In Stuart’s brilliant words, “Gender is for everyone and we all get to decide who we want to be in this world.”
We sat down (virtually) with Stuart and Brooke Thyng, a former IDEOer who helped bring Stuart’s story to life through illustration, to talk about the book—the role of humor in the story, the pair’s collaboration process, and why the timing of the book was so important. Read on for a peek behind their creative process.
This book approaches talking about gender from both an educational perspective, as well as through humor. Why was that balance so important?
Stuart Getty: There's a hidden audience with this book and for me, it's my mom who's in her 70s and lives in Kentucky. I think that jokes are what get her to be like, “Oh, okay! I'll keep reading.”
Stuart Getty: I think that people get really uptight when these kinds of subjects around gender are being talked about. People are worried they’re going to mess up and use the wrong words like “transgendering,” for example. What I'm saying is, I like to add a little levity, because it makes people relax into the learning process. It’s about access to the information.
Brooke Thyng: I wanted to follow Stu’s lead and make sure that everything that I created was in service of their message. So as much as I wanted to make myself laugh, as a cis-person, it was important for me to come to this project very humbly and with the utmost respect.
The whole time, we’d ask, “Is this pushing people, but in a way that's authentic and respectful, and not just doing it to be a jerk?” There's a time and place for joking around. And I think it was clear that Stuart’s message wasn't a joke, but that it needed to come across with some levity, or just some openness.
I was really conscious of finding that nice balance of, yeah, it’s not a joke and we're fighting for rights and we're fighting for exposure and visibility, but at the same time, when we take ourselves so seriously I think we block out people from coming into the message. And so I really wanted to use humor as access, and use the visuals as access.
How does this book connect to what’s going on in our society right now?
Stuart Getty: If you look at the stats for Gen Z, 35 percent of them know someone who uses they/them pronouns, and something like 20 percent of them also identify as gender neutral, even if they don't use they/them. People are stepping into these places of breaking binaries, and I think the binaries of sexuality have been crumbling over the last couple years. People are now asking, “Why do we have to be only gay or straight?”
What I also love about this book is it means cis-people get to look at their gender and the way that they've been told to be a man, a woman, an American, a human, whatever—and decide what they actually believe and what they actually want to be. And I think that is the thesis statement of the whole book. “They” is for me, and I want to explain it to you, but also, gender freedom should be for all of us.
Tell us more about what your collaborative process was like.
Stuart Getty: I came to Brooke with pages that looked like this, and then we would sit down and go page by page. I do think that I had a really good idea of the story, but it was on a level seven or eight when I turned it to Brooke, and then she kicked it up to the, “It's a 10, everyone!” She just made it such a better story.
Brooke Thyng: Stuart came with all of these pages printed out, and I would meet up with them at IDEO. We’d sit in the communal area and we'd go through the pages, and they'd be like, “Oh, I was thinking about this here. And this is sort of what I meant here.” I would just take notes and try to take it in.
I'm always so taken aback when Stuart asks me to be a part of things like this. I really felt like I was helping make the vision come to life, like I was Stuart's visual hands for this project. I just wanted to amplify the text that was written. As I read through their draft, it was an immediate, “Oh, this is what it's making me think of.” Either I am slightly out there and can just see weird images come to life, or Stuart is really good at crafting their words. I think maybe it's both.
Want to read How to They/Them and learn more about gender identity? Get your hands on a copy here, or wherever books are sold!
Animations by Louisa Liu and Devin Peek