Again the silence, and her mouth and eyes work as if trying to frame a question. I've seen this before, and I offer Dusty a reassuring smile.
"It's okay. You can ask it. I think we can call each other friends," I say.
She blinks a few times, and takes a steadying breath. "Which personal gender pronoun do you prefer?"
She nods from the shoulders, an over-enthusiastic undulating motion, processing this, bouncing in place. After a few moments she gives a little nod-shrug, a quick tilt of the head, and a smile fills out her lips. I never noticed until now how lush those lips were and I have a hard time dragging my gaze away.
And just like that, we're There.
Excerpt from "Diamond in the Rough", available in "Menial: Skilled Labor in SF"
Writing non gender binary characters is very important to me. Looking beyond the binary is about accepting everyone in their wonderful, infinite variety. I find it very boring and quite unrealistic to think we have to be only one or the other - there's little room for expression or examination in a tight binary. That doesn't sound like a genetically diverse, free-thinking sentient species at all. If we can imagine all sorts of wonderful creations and diverse aliens in our science fictional universes, why can't we accept the reality of diversity within ourselves?
While I identify as a cisgender woman, breaking gender presentation barriers is important to me: I dress/present fluidly (though I accept I am more visibly female because of my size), usually less femme (but I wouldn't say exclusively butch), and for my chosen presentation to be accepted, its important that people more non-binary than myself are accepted first. I will not idly sit by and rest on my privilege just because it's easier for me to pass. That's not fair.
Sometimes I get gender presentation wrong in my writing, and I'm very grateful to have in-the-know readers or editors point out my mis-steps. I recognize my cisgender privilege, and if I muck up I apologize, learn, and better myself.
I understand that genderqueer, gender alternative, gender fluid, or non-binary (or whichever descriptor the person prefers) characters are sometimes not easy to explore for some people who have not examined outside the arbitrary societal binary of gender. There's pronouns to negotiate (and not everyone likes to use the same set of pronouns) and assumptions to break.
Here's a bit of 101 about "Diamond in the Rough: my protagonist Magpie Dawson is genderqueer. They are not male. They are not female. I do not specifically lay out why or how this is, but they could be intersex, androgynous, or anywhere on the gender fluid spectrum, depending on how you want to read them.
Throughout the story, the clues are there: Magpie talks about being part of the "gender-alt community" aboard ship; they bind (the practice of wrapping body parts to appear androgynous or another gender) to appear in public, though they don't specify which body parts they bind; they are upset when the antagonist deliberately and maliciously mis-genders them.
Just because Magpie undertakes a physically intensive job does not make them a man. The same is said for when they get into a physical altercation - violence, and the repercussions of violence which they try to negotiate (not very well, I might add), is not exclusive to the male experience. Magpie is also pansexual: just because they fall in love with a woman does not mean they are a cis heterosexual man, nor are they a cis lesbian woman.
Therefore, to give them a male or female identifying pronoun is incorrect. As in this story, mis-gendering a transgender, transsexual, or genderqueer/fluid person in real life is invalidating of their lived experience and chosen identity. This is hurtful, especially when it happens repeatedly throughout a person's life and damaging when mixed with the many other axes of discrimination they face. Misunderstanding of the gender experience leads to fear, which leads to hate.
If you're unsure of a person's gender presentation, here's a hint - ask. Like the above scene excerpt, it's a simple thing to do. However, if you have to keep asking, or you keep mis-gendering them, you're being a jerk. Your desire to change the person to suit your comfort levels, arbitrary notions of gender, or ignorance about a person's gender does not override the person's chosen identity. Don't do it. Just trust the person to tell you what they want you to know, and if that's nothing at all that means they find you hostile and dangerous. You have to prove yourself to them, not the other way round.
And if you're in a situation where you can't directly ask the person about their chosen pronouns or identity, don't just guess - find out from someone who would know, or please use a gender neutral identifier (journalists/media, I'm looking at you). The singular "they" is coming into more common use if you are unfamiliar with the other pronouns available (though you have to be careful with each particular pronoun, because there are political, gender, social, and cultural reasons for trans*/genderqueer/fluid people to use or reject each one).
In my story, I chose to present a world where gender fluidity and transness is widely accepted, though a small pocket of ignorant idiocy remains. Call me naive, call it wishful thinking, I don't care. I like to imagine a world where everyone is treated equal, where we've moved beyond the BS about evolutionary psychology, where we understand the social hierarchies and motivators behind gender, where we are able to challenge and renegotiate them with ease. I'm saddened that this sort of ideal is still a fair chunk of science fiction.