Spring 2017: “Gender Pronouns” High School Winner Ella Martinez

Read Ella's essay, "Language is a Many-Gendered Thing," about the challenges of using gender-neutral pronouns in a Puerto Rican American family.

Ella Martinez, a ninth grade student of Camille Napier-Bernstein at Natick High School in Natick, Mass., read and responded to the online YES! Magazine article, “’They’ and the Emotional Weight of Words.” In this article, Cole, founder of the Brown Boi Project, welcomes the expanding list of gender pronouns. Pronouns can help us all learn to see and respect each other’s identity. Instead of cultivating fear, shame, and embarrassment around not knowing the right thing to say, Cole encourages us to create new approaches to language so we feel freer and more open with each other.

Writing Prompt: Is there anyone in your life—you included—who is not comfortable being referred to as “he” or “she”? Write a letter to Cole on how you feel about this expansion of gender pronoun language. How do you deal with this cultural change?

Language is a Many-Gendered Thing

Dear Cole,

As someone who has recently started asking people in my life to refer to me using the pronouns “they/them/theirs,” I was interested in your views on language in the YES! Magazine article “‘They’ and the Emotional Weight of Words,” particularly your idea that there’s more to it than language.

I identify as genderfluid. Some days I feel female, other days I feel male, and there are days where I’m entirely apathetic about gender. When people ask why, the conversation can start to get confusing. Older people especially seem to rely on gender pronouns to provide information, but that can be problematic if I don’t want to be labeled. The expanding language regarding gender is a great movement towards self-expression; however, I have felt this shift create a divide.

When I came out to my grandmother as queer, she didn’t understand what I meant. English isn’t even her first language: she and my father came to New England from Puerto Rico in 1971. I had never stopped to consider that she wouldn’t be able to understand what I was trying to communicate based solely on the grammar. In Spanish, pronouns are binary. Even the pronouns for “they” have feminine forms (ellas) and masculine forms (ellos). Ella, my name, is often mistaken for the Spanish pronoun “she,” as well. If I were to tell my grandmother that I’m not a girl, and I’m not a boy— that I’m not a she or a he—she would simply not understand. To her I am Ella (and ella).

Although I know that there is a large LGBTQIA+ community back in Puerto Rico, it only recently started emerging and gaining some attention. My grandmother left the country long before it developed, so she has no foundation for discussing these issues. Her lack of knowledge and understanding is what holds me back from talking about queer issues, so I feel even more separate from her. I want to communicate effectively because I love her—and I want her to understand—but it’s just too complex to explain. I came out to her as a lesbian last year. Changing my sexuality and gender now would only confuse her further.

I also feel a divide between my parents and me. They tread very lightly on topics surrounding my identity and sometimes hesitate to ask questions. When they do, I am often unable to give them solid answers for many reasons: because of the fluidity of gender and sexuality, because of my questioning of traditional gender roles, and because of their ignorance about the complex terminology queer people use to describe themselves.

Normally, in parent-child relationships, parents give children advice and information based on their own experiences. In my family, though, the situation is switched: my parents don’t have any experiences with the community I’m a part of, so I find myself being the “parent,” trying to help them navigate my world. And, since none of my own labels are concrete—I am only 15, after all—I hesitate to tell my parents what I am.

I’ve called myself many different things: bisexual, queer, lesbian, demigirl, genderqueer, and genderfluid. I’ve chosen genderfluid instead of genderqueer or nonbinary, because I feel like it gives me room to explore, room to grow. I’ve had to be clear that I reserve the right to change as I discover new things about myself. This fluidity is also something my parents really don’t understand. They see labels as lifelong descriptions and view gender and sexuality in binaries (male and female, straight and gay). They try hard to learn, but they were born in a different time, raised in a different way. I actually chose “they/them/theirs” as my preferred pronoun instead of “xe/xem/xyrs” because these words are known by all English speakers. I figured that it would be easier for them to transition using words they already know.

New languages surrounding gender can be freeing for some and confusing for others. What I can do as a queer young person is use this language, preach the importance of pronouns, and teach the older people in my life about the new concepts of gender and how they connect with words. I hope that as new generations grow into adults, the modern way of speaking and queer culture will become more mainstream and that we’ll be able to achieve a society where gender is asked not assumed and where correct pronouns are a priority.

Ella Martinez

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