Chapter 2: Narrative practice, queer theory and language

In this second chapter we are introduced to some of the foundational language and ideas for queering narrative practice. We’ll dive into the gender binary, queer theory and it’s relevance to narrative practice, fluid and imperfect allyship, pronouns and ways to avoid misgendering others. 


Watch this video of Mary Heath (she/her) sharing some of the things she has learned about sex, gender and sexuality:


Vikki Reynolds (she/her) reminds us that being an ally is not a static identity, we are always becoming allies through imperfection and fluidity. Wherever we stand, there will be opportunities through this course to practice ally-ing. This article includes some important reflective questions for exploring.

Fluid and Imperfect Ally Positioning: Some Gifts of Queer Theory– Vikki Reynolds.

So what is Queer Theory? Julie Tilsen (she/her) will introduce us to Queer theory and how it aligns with Narrative Practice. Julie has also included segments of a conversation with Jayson (he/him), a young trans man who talks about his experience of navigating the gender binary and rigid norms within the LGBTIQ community.


This article by Julie Tilsen and David Nylund (he/him) extends on the concepts in the video and helps consolidate our understanding of heteronormativity and homonormativity.

Resisting Normativity: Queer Musings on Politics, Identity, and the Performance of Therapy — Julie Tilsen and Dave Nylund

Zan interviews David Nylund about how his thinking and practice has evolved over time: problematising allyship and being a co-conspirator, reflections on his own gender, trans theory and materiality of the body. 


David mentions this video, a snippet of Janet Mock’s (she/her) trans activism.

Suzy Stiles (she/her) reminds us of the power and pitfalls of language in this discussion of the terms homophobia, heterosexism and heterosexual dominance.

The power of language— Suzy Stiles in Queer Counselling and Narrative Practice.

Aproximately 1.6% of the worlds’ population are intersex. Intersex people have innate sex characteristics that don’t fit medical and social norms for female or male bodies, and that create risks or experiences of stigma, discrimination and harm.’ [Intersex Human Rights Australia]

Intersex is often included within umbrella terms describing gender and sexual diversity and while there are overlapping experiences of discrimination, especially for intersex people who identify as gender and sexually diverse or who are visually gender non-conforming, there are also significant material differences. Transgender folks the world over are fighting for the right to access gender affirming surgeries, while intersex movements are fighting against harmful non-consensual surgeries and medical intervention.

In this powerful video, co-chair of Intersex Human Rights Australia Steph Lum (she/her) describes dominant and alternative stories of intersex bodies and lives. 


To learn more check out the resources for allies from Intersex Human Rights Australia.

Thinking about pronouns:

In English, as in many other languages, gender relations are articulated through language including pronouns. This is a significant realm of oppression and resistance for folks who are gender expansive (gender non-conforming, gender queer, transgender, and gender diverse). Gendered language isn’t exclusively weaponised against gender expansive folks, consider black cisgender men being called ‘boy’ and adult cisgender women being called ‘girl’. And the pronoun ‘it’ has been used to dehumanise many marginalised folks throughout history.  Language is powerful. 

It can take practice being more intentional about how we use gendered language rather than relying on assumptions and defaults. This article provides some helpful context and tools for practicing that. 

She/he/they/ze/hir: Talking about pronouns and gendered language Rosie Maeder (they/them), Tiffany Sostar (they/them) and David Denborough (he/him)

Perhaps you come from a culture or linguistic background other than English (maybe you speak multiple languages).

How are gender differences conveyed in those languages? Is there a strong linguistic distinction in how men and women are referred to?

What language is used to describe folks who exist outside of cultural norms of “men and women”?

Language isn’t the only way we relationally gender others- think about greetings, how close you stand, the level of eye contact, who gets included and who gets excluded from different spaces. If you usually use a language that does not use gendered pronouns, what other cultural indicators are used to gender people?

How do you avoid misgendering others?

We would like to invite you into a project of sharing stories of how we are trying to avoid misgendering others. Misgendering — referring to someone by the pronouns or honorifics of a gender that is not theirs — is a daily event for most trans people. How are we — as practitioners, as organisations, as friends, partners, siblings — trying to avoid misgendering others? No doubt this will be really different depending on our contexts.

We would love to hear the stories of the initiatives that you are taking, no matter how small.

Post them below in the forum or send them to Zan:



Reflection questions:

  • What do these resources have you thinking about the dominant ideas of gender, sex, sexuality, bodies or families that the folks you are working with experience? 
  • What dominant ideas of gender, sex, sexuality, bodies or families have you grown up with that you have resisted in some small or large way? What stories come to mind? 
  • What were the repercussions of that resistance?
  • How were you able to resist those ideas? What skills, knowledges or connections did you draw on in that moment?
  • What did that resistance make possible in your life? What did it make possible for others in your life?

Optional activity:

Plot your acts of resistance to norms of gender, sex, sexuality, bodies or families on a visual timeline (it doesn’t have to be a line!) Trace the histories of those acts- what movements, legacies, cultural traditions, relationships do they link to and include this on the timeline. What stands out? Where does it take you?

Perhaps as you continue on with the course, other memories might be sparked that you will want to add to this timeline.

This Post Has 13 Comments


    I found this content really interesting. Thank you. 90% of my colleagues have never met a trans person and a lot think diversity-respecting practices including ‘fussing about pronouns’ is unnecessary and indulgent. So sometimes that has me feeling lonely and also wondering where to start first, especially challenging casual verbal misgendering.

    Challenging norms feels normal and necessary to me. It’s been automatic to speak out since the 1960s for me. But I recently blew the whistle on a trainer who seemingly had not done any work on LGBTQ issues and was therefore conveying unhelpful messages. Speaking out about them has created some operating problems for me at work. I’m pleased that I did, though.

    I’m helped by knowing so many diverse people and having done many courses. Having a sense of justice about other issues and acting on it, for decades, helps too. Good practice!

    It was a really astute idea to suggest we do the timeline. I saw the continuity of social movements that have helped me and my friends too. My sense of being part of ‘us’, working towards a more inclusive future, is very strengthening.

  2. August Acuna

    I am a queer marriage and family therapist state intern. I work with mostly adults identify as queer, transgender, or agender. Not only do I have a personal experience with going agains the “dominant” ideas of gender, sex, etc. but I also work with clients who have similar experiences. What I have learned with and through with my clients is that all of our experiences are so different and yet we can identify similarly. There are quite a few clients who are not interested in transitioning medically but would like to transition socially. I myself, have chosen to reject dominant ideas by using they/them pronouns, my outfits, my role in my relationship with a cisgender woman, and many more ways that I may not even be noticing. I was fortunate to have a family and support system who supported me through most of these developments. I had a few instances in which family members did not understand what my experiences or actions meant. My wife supports me and encourages me to continue exploring my gender and sexuality as I get older and unveil more about our community, language, and the experience of challenging the dominant ideas. I truly believe that my work has been an aid to continue searching for my own identity as I empower my clients to do the same. Many of them teach me how to continue being brave as a queer, non-binary, and hispanic individual. I really enjoyed these resources and this chapter!

  3. Lauren Graham

    I work as a counsellor for young people identifying struggles with mental health. These struggles are never separate from the context of their lives and the expectations of how they should be; and very often this includes their identities of gender, sex, sexuality, bodies or families. These resources draw my attention to the hidden messages of dominant ideas and how, with my privilege, unintentionally perpetuate them. I’m also drawn to the ideas of the imperfect ally and co-conspirator.
    Reflecting back on growing up in the 60’s and 70’s I was very much influenced by heteronormative ideas, making sense and assuming of others identities through this lens; and people who stepped outside of these ideas in a public way, such as men who dressed in women’s clothing, were made a mockery of. My family life was without known connections with family members or friends who identified outside of the binary. So, my stories are more connected to the second half of my life!

    One small act of resistance was when a colleague consulting with me, about a client family who openly expressed homophobic ideas, came out as gay to me as they wondered if they needed to come out to the family. I encouraged my colleague to consider that their identity was not shameful [as were the effects of these interactions with client family] and their identity as gay was not, as I described back then, the business of the family.

    Much more recently, doing the masters in 2015 and invited to write my pronouns on my name tag, was another pivotal moment and an invitation to be expansive in my thinking and the noticing of the dominant ideas about gender, sexuality, sex, bodies and families and their effects.

    This has meant in more recent times, I have been able to support parents who feel bewildered when their young person identifies as and or exploring their identity outside of the binary. And in social settings with people of more my era, I have been able to invite a questioning of dominant ideas, seen as ‘natural’, that have real effects on people they love or care for. I have also been able to help a colleague understand the implications for choosing to wear their pronouns with their name badge and consider the kind of preferred message this sends to the young people who consult with us.
    I think the best way I can describe the repercussions for myself and others in these small acts are the invitation to critique taken-for-granted ideas; especially my privilege and ideas that limit, degrade or exclude others; and supports an openness and humility, and ultimately inclusion.

    To some extent, my ability to resist these ideas has some history with not conforming to the some of dominant ideas of being a woman, such as I didn’t wear make-up, pluck my eyebrows and shave my legs. In some ways I didn’t measure up as being feminine enough. But, for the most part, I liked that about myself; that I felt I had the freedom to not conform. So, these small acts of resistance to conform, to be a non-conformist is what I connect with when resisting other ideas; as well as both the potential for shame and its effects, and liberation the I experienced in these acts.
    Whilst just showing up as me, is a journey and one that gets challenged particularly in the context of academia, being able to resist some of these ideas of femininity when I was young has supported me to question and take risks, and step outside of the known and familiar. As I have grown more into being me, I’ve noticed at times it supports others close to me to be vulnerable and humble and to question. Some of the greatest evidence of what it has made possible is in the life of my daughter and step-daughters, who now as adults in a reciprocal way invite me to continue to question and critique dominant ideas!

  4. Shayla S. Dube

    I am intrigued by the genderless or neutral language as a tool to include gender and sexual expansive folx instead of misgendering and further marginalizing them

  5. shahdalshammari

    I am surprised with the amount of information that was shared about the history of language. I am intrigued by genderless language and how it can be really oppressive to just assume someone’s gender identity, a bias I am guilty of.

  6. Caro

    As I gather more information and mull it over in my mind and allow it to spill into my day-to-day interactions, I am starting to believe that I can do this. These resources have given me so much to think about, taken me to places I had not even imagined. I am grateful for the learning, expansion and having my belief systems challenged. Knowing that gender is fluid is my starting point.
    When I was a teen (40 yrs ago!) there was very little conversation about gender and sexuality, apart from some very cruel joking around, accusing someone of being gay, and giving them a very hard time for our own entertainment. Horrible. Thankfully things are changing, and this kind of behaviour is not acceptable to most. It feels good to gain this knowledge and know that I am becoming more compassionate and inclusive. Armed with this new information I hope to become an ally by promoting awareness around power and privilege.


    Working with the youth population in a small regional community, makes me think how hard it would be for the youth to feel that they can be who they feel they are. Being able to be who they want must be difficult with high levels of fear attached and worry about being judged or harassed by others for their decision.

    Growing up the dominant group was cisgender, I remember not thinking about other genders and how difficult it must be for them to feel that they can be them self or be accepted by their community. As I’ve grown by opinion has changed and I am more open to the various ways people can identify, and I feel comfortable with this. I wish that more people were accepting of this and that people could be themselves.

    Allowing myself to be more open has allowed me to be more considerate and accepting of others. It has also meant that young people are willing to talk about gender and sexuality and feel safe to do so.


    What do these resources have you thinking about the dominant ideas of gender, sex, sexuality, bodies or families that the folks you are working with experience?
    How society as a whole is policed by idea’s/ thoughts/ values/ critiques of two boxes within heteronormativity and homonormativity. How this doesn’t given people freedom to explore themself on a deeper level / spiritual level.
    How within these “normamtivities of the dominant society’ that for Non-binary people and Trans people the expectations that have been ingrained to what a man / transman/ brotherboy should be as in masculine and woman/transwoman/ sistergirl should be as in feminine and how people are still being placed into the two boxes of the dominant society. The unheard voices / in-visibility for people who are intersex / have chromosone variations, Steph Lum presented her narrative in a way that if your ears, heart, spirt and mind are open and activity listening and hearing what is being narrative, it can have the power to reach you (I felt this).

    What dominant ideas of gender, sex, sexuality, bodies or families have you grown up with that you have resisted in some small or large way? What stories come to mind?
    I grew up with heavy binary influence. I was weird and outcasted by people I grew up with. In high school was called a drogatry word from young cis-gender males at the time. I didn’t understand what this word and the meaning behind it meant at the time though I did know it was a why of being violent and discriminating me for being me (trying to further damage me). It came back as a flash back in my memories in my mid twenties, where I was supporting a younger sibling with their positive self exploration in terms of sexuality. Though I had accepted my sexuality identity, I still had come to terms with my gender identity/ identities. I was thinking is it that society particularly cis- gender people are fearful of strong women or if in fact I was non-binary and or trans?

    What were the repercussions of that resistance?
    This has cost me my family, the relationships I would of hoped to have with niece and nephews, brother and sister, the parents and grand parents some people have. If further disconnected me from my roots. In workplaces from some people in leader/management positions, I’ve had some who have been good and tried to use correct language I identify with even though these people said this language was new to them. While I’ve also suffered from being, bullied and hurried / pressured out of job roles I’ve been in from other leaders / management. Feeling a sense of not really belonging in these dominant cultures in my mixed heritage and people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Sometimes I kind of fit in one part of society and not in the other, or in everything and sometimes no sense of belonging at all (isolated in a sense). Though I know I’m not alone.

    How were you able to resist those ideas? What skills, knowledges or connections did you draw on in that moment?
    What did that resistance make possible in your life? What did it make possible for others in your life?
    I’m now older and with all the experiences I have encountered, I have fallen deeper than my knee’s. I saw a psychologist to teach me how to work with/ deal with challenging behaviours of colleagues, leaders/ managers and help me find new ways of working with harmful, toxic, damaging personalities. Though all they spoke about was am I sleeping, eating, exercising and what my social life looked like. I didn’t go back to see this person.
    My resistance is from connecting myself to people who are similar to me in social groups. Being grateful for hearing the stories of Leaders/ Elders has given me knowledge, direction, strength and love and also having Leaders/ Elders simply accept me for me has really helped me to continue exploration of me / myself. These people come from a variety of backgrounds and are detrimental to me and my health and well being as are my furbabies / pets.

    Optional activity:

    Plot your acts of resistance to norms of gender, sex, sexuality, bodies or families on a visual timeline (it doesn’t have to be a line!) Trace the histories of those acts- what movements, legacies, cultural traditions, relationships do they link to and include this on the timeline. What stands out? Where does it take you?

    I’ve done this in a simple activity when I did training through Twenty10 in Sydney from my past child hood memories all the way through to my current/ present moment and this has help me to personally further explore my gender and my identity which is still evolving 🙂

  9. boodika

    Writing from the UK as a heterosexual woman. I remember numerous bizarre conversations I have had in shops – for example buying a fridge or buying a tyre, when the shop worker wants to complete the receipt and insists on me telling them whether I am Miss, Ms or Mrs. There is often a very confused response when I say that I don’t choose to use any of these titles and ask if I can just use my name, pointing out that my marital status should not have any bearing on the purchase. I have then usually been informed that if I don’t choose an option the system will default to Mr! At this point I always say “fine, go with Mr then” which seems to further confuse the staff. I guess this has been a small act of resistance for a feminist, and I had never considered how even more oppressive this whole situation could be with more complex sexualities.

  10. Chantelle M

    • What do these resources have you thinking about the dominant ideas of gender, sex, sexuality, bodies or families that the folks you are working with experience?
    These resources really open up my awareness and expand my knowledge and understanding around resisting the dominant ideas of gender, sex, sexuality and bodies. It has helped me to understand the bigger impact on individuals, when we are ignorant to changing our language and understanding. I feel the resources have really made me challenge those dominant ideas and have me wishing I had so much more enriched learnings and knowledges earlier.

    • What dominant ideas of gender, sex, sexuality, bodies or families have you grown up with that you have resisted in some small or large way? What stories come to mind?
    Growing up, it was really pushed that boys were boys and girls were girls. That each played with specific “toys”, had specific roles within a home and that if a child played with toys of the opposite gender more, or hung out more with those of the opposite gender they would be labelled e.g Tom Boy (female being more “boyish” ) or Sissy (if a boy was more emotional, preferred “girl toys”) even comments that boy is “gay” for choosing such actions. It really wasn’t about accepting someone for who they were. These conformed gender notions were forced onto you, and if you didn’t conform, you faced bullying, ridicule, abuse, judgement. It was also heavily pushed that there was only boy or girls. What you were born with, is what you were and if you did not conform to this, there was something wrong with you and you were viewed as an outcast.

    I think I really started to resist these notions (though I was never one to be worried about what others wanted to play, become, etc) as I hit late teens and moved into my 20s. I begun understanding that gendered norms/roles weren’t clear cut. That it could be and was so different. This really started emerging when I started working with OOHC young people. It was in this experience, I met the first trans-person I had really had any interaction with. She was a teenager in a foster placement, was Indigenous, and felt so alone and shunned by her community and her carer. I was one of the first who would sit with her, whilst she talked about names she would like to have for herself, what her interests were, the clothes she would like to be able to wear, and why having the anatomy of a male lead her to hating her body. She explored with me when she first felt she wanted to transition and talked through how she had been treated by her family and wider community and especially her carer. I worked closely with her carer, who very much held those “old school” values of Boy and Girl. The carer would restrict when the young person was allowed to wear her makeup and clothes, as the carer did not want to bring embarrassment or judgement. I would work with the carer to challenge her views and help advocate for the young woman’s voice and rights.

    • What were the repercussions of that resistance?
    This experience and my work with this young woman, really changed my views and understandings. It opened my eyes further to the extreme need of being inclusive, of not judging and gave me first hand experience at seeing the damage our structured and gendered norm views have, on the LGBTIQ+ community.

    In relation specifically to the young-person, she was able to access further support through Royal Children’s Hospital, to begin looking at hormone therapy and the possibility of a “Sex change”

    • How were you able to resist those ideas? What skills, knowledges or connections did you draw on in that moment?
    I think I resisted the ideas I was raised with, by allowing the young person to have open honest conversation, that was non-judging, accepting and curious wondering from myself, about how I could support her and advocate best for her within my role. The skills that were key here was the ability to just listen, not question, but simply listen and allow her to tell her story to me.
    • What did that resistance make possible in your life? What did it make possible for others in your life?
    I think for my own life, this resistance has meant that I have created my own values and beliefs, not just taken on what I was taught growing up. It has meant that my own children can be raised with an open view about gender, sex, sexuality, equality and inclusiveness. I aim for my children to be raised in a world without prejudice and with acceptance. I think by even challenging gender normed roles with myself being the main “bread winner” and my husband raising kids, has helped my own children to see that it is not man does this, woman does that. That all aspects of life are shared obligations.

  11. Bruna

    Awesome information about Queer Theory. It has provided me with so much knowledge.

    The information about pronouns is also very helpful and it is also a topic that needs to be discusses further as many people still not aware how to use. I have not seen many people adding their pronouns on emails until I become a Social work student in sexual health and we need to normalise knowing how people identify themselves it can be a step in deconstructing heteronormative.
    How do you avoid misgendering others? As social work student in sexual health I am aware that our Health system can not be inclusive and be gender binary in many ways such as medical forms limited to Female or Male. So when contacting clients I take care to understand how the person would like to identified and what is the preferred name instead of using birth gender name.

  12. Megan M. Matthews

    Hi, I’m Megan (say it: “MEE-gan”), writing from greater Cleveland, Ohio, USA; my pronouns are she/her.

    – What do these resources have you thinking about the dominant ideas of gender, sex, sexuality, bodies or families that the folks you are working with experience?

    Many of the people I serve in my current work at a substance abuse treatment facility are African-American. It never fails to get my attention when I see examples of the differences between the dominant ideas around gender, specifically the gender roles and expected behaviors of women, that I observe coming from that culture as opposed to the ideas I felt surrounded by while growing up in the 1970s to mid-’80s in a middle-class suburban neighborhood entirely populated by White people. The African-American women who are clients where I work have – if I may put it this way – an aura or vibe about them that projects strength, pride, and dignity; this is the diametric opposite of the dominant paradigm which puts forth the notion that women must be meek, quiet, and subservient in order to be properly “feminine”. I have worked with several women at my agency who were struggling with trying to extricate themselves from abusive partners; without exception, these women were White. That really makes me think about the role that history can play in creating a culture and a dominant paradigm within that culture – that women descended from slaves can exude such pride that is visible in the way they speak, present themselves, and take up space in the world; and that this pride and self-esteem seems an order of magnitude greater than that of their White counterparts.

    – What dominant ideas of gender, sex, sexuality, bodies or families have you grown up with that you have resisted in some small or large way? What stories come to mind?

    I grew up as a second-wave feminist raised by a second-wave feminist; as such, I was studying the significant drop in young girls’ self-esteem in the areas of math and the sciences by the time I was fourteen years old. When I was very young, I observed the family of one of the neighbor girls and her four brothers, who despite their family size had a stay-at-home mom; my mother, in contrast, started college when I was eleven. She later earned a master’s degree and worked outside the home, thus proving to me that the dominant paradigm wasn’t the only available option. I also grew up surrounded by “nuclear families”: Parents (always two parents, and always a man and a woman) and one or more children, and nobody else. In contrast, from the age of seven I had extended family in my home-of-origin: my maternal grandmother, until she died when I was fourteen; and my mother’s sister, from around that point until I moved out on my own at age twenty-two. Because of that, I grew up thinking of extended families under one roof, and non-nuclear families in general, as perfectly normal.

    – What were the repercussions of that resistance? How were you able to resist those ideas? What skills, knowledges or connections did you draw on in that moment? What did that resistance make possible in your life? What did it make possible for others in your life?

    I have spent my life resisting a dominant paradigm around gender-role stereotyping; not merely the dominant paradigm of woman-as-wife-and-mother-and-very-little-else, but the dominant paradigm of women not having a choice about whether or not to take on that role. I have, in my life, been a stay-at-home housewife; I have been (and am now) a wife working outside the home. The important factor for me is that when I was embracing the paradigm of woman-as-housewife, it was by my own choice. Similarly, I have spent my entire adult life surrounding myself with family-of-choice, in my living arrangements as much as in my affections; My personal definition of “family” has gotten more expansive over the course of my life, to the point where it can be stated this simply: “My family is who I say it is.” My resistance to dominant narratives has made it possible for me to understand that simply rejecting dominant gender role stereotypes does not serve to address the deeper paradigm of having no choice. My resistance to narrowed definitions of what constitutes a “family” has made it possible for me to welcome people in my life into my family *as I define that term*, when those people were in many cases healing from toxic relationships in/with their families-of-origin; they, and I, would never have had the gift of each other’s presence as family otherwise.

  13. Jake Peterson

    I remember receiving the She/he/they/ze/hir resource in the Masters and found it an excellent introduction. I remember the first workshop I attended in which I noticed folks writing their pronouns on their nametags – this was in 2017. It’s becoming more common in Melbourne.

    Genderless language or gender-neutral language is intriguing to me … when you mentioned folks from diverse cultural backgrounds it got me thinking about some languages that might not have gendered language like Chinese or (I think) Tagalog

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