Toby Greybear, a ninth grade student of Carly Hosford-Israel at Poplar High School in Poplar, Mont., 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?
The Thoughts and Struggle of a Two-Spirit
I have never felt more alone in the world than when I was thirteen years old and questioning my gender.
From a young age, gender roles were unrelentingly reinforced on me. I have a twin brother, so that meant he wore blue, and I wore pink. He was the boy, I was the girl — no questions. From early on in my life, if normal didn’t feel normal, the repetition would remind me.
Finally, at thirteen years old, I questioned how I felt about gender. I already knew my sexuality—I was pansexual, and I accepted it—but I questioned how I felt about pronouns. I noticed how odd it is that society forces dresses and bows on girls as soon as they are born and encourages sharp jaw lines and unrestrained anger from boys. I was caught in this complex limbo, struggling between rejecting my feelings and embracing a fuller understanding and acceptance of who I was. Regardless of how I felt inside, I was still addressed as “she” and “her.” In that vulnerable state, the negative mindset I had towards those pronouns amplified.
And I was so, so angry. I was angry I had to acknowledge my gender dysphoria, and angry I let myself linger in the seemingly perpetual space of unknowing. I kept returning to society’s assumption: You were born a girl, so you should accept being called “she/her.” This temporary conclusion always lulled my mind and quieted my thoughts to a removed and dull white noise. All I ever wanted to say was, “I don’t know.” I didn’t know who I was, and sometimes, I still don’t. But not knowing isn’t an acceptable answer for society.
I could barely comprehend my gender, but when people would ask me about it, I would reply with what I had rehearsed many, many times: “I’m a girl.” I would lie. Because if there was anything I was sure about, it was that I did not identify as a girl in any sense of the word. I didn’t identify as anything. I was just me.
In my culture, people who do not fit within the gender binary are called “Two Spirit.” My people, the Dakota and Lakota, acknowledge that people do not always fit within norms and boundaries, and that is okay—even sacred. They were seen as people who had both female and male souls, and could fulfill both roles.
As a Native American, I wish I had known about this term sooner in my life. I never grew up with my culture’s influence, so I was ignorant of the word until I moved to a reservation, where I looked more deeply into spiritual practices. I wish I had willingly embraced my culture earlier. Instead, by rejecting any semblance of Native culture, I let myself be acculturated into Eurocentric thinking. If I had spent time exploring my own culture, maybe I would’ve been okay with myself at age thirteen.
Now, at fifteen years old, I still question my gender. Sometimes people refer to me with the pronouns “they/them,” and I never find myself wanting to correct them. Even if I did ask others to address me with “he/him,” something I’m still reluctant to do out of fear. There would still be words lingering behind my teeth, way back in my throat, wanting to say, “I also go by ‘they/them.’”
Recently, I met another kid my age who questioned their gender, and went by “they/them.” They asked us to call them Kyle, and I met them on a school trip. Kyle was upbeat, funny, and very friendly. I instantaneously felt a surge of relief and familiarity. It was my first time meeting them, but they immediately understood. They knew how I felt: the curiosity and the questioning, the discomfort of having to fit within a narrow box, a black and white binary that didn’t need to exist in the first place.
At thirteen years old, I felt alone. My questions were not encouraged, and the concept of not having to go by “him” or “her” was foreign to me.
At fifteen years old, I embrace myself. My curiosity is welcomed. I am transgender and I accept it. I do not want to follow society’s standards of normal because they are not my standards, my Dakota and Lakota Two-Spirit standards. And that is okay.