Avery Hunt, a student of Margaret Chapman at Elon University in Elon, N.C., 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?
Existing Openly is Half the Battle
I used the pronoun “she” throughout high school— the same one my parents have been using for me since I was born. Yes, I was in a liberal and open-minded town, one that allowed me to change my name on the school roster months before my legal name change went through. But somehow, switching to “they/them” pronouns felt like a step too far. It wouldn’t be safe, and a large part of me was afraid of that. When I accepted my university’s offer of admission, there was a little box that said “preferred pronouns.” I closed the tab and ignored it for two days, unsure of what to write. I didn’t want to be stuck with pronouns that I didn’t identify with, but my university was in the South, notorious for being unaccepting of people who don’t fit its norms. I was still afraid. In the end, I took a leap and picked what made me comfortable: “they/them.”
You talked about this leap and the concept that we as gender-nonconforming people have to come to peace with “our authentic selves.” I like that you identified it as a process, as something that would “eventually” happen over time. I think people are so often caught up in trying to come to terms with the new terminology that they forget the language is new to the people using it as well. For almost everyone I’ve met at college, I’m the first person they’ve ever interacted with who uses the pronouns “they/them.” I’ve accepted my role as the token nonbinary person, and I’ve grown accustomed to explaining my gender to people who haven’t had the opportunity to learn about it in-depth. But I’m still learning about it myself.
For the first month of college, my friends reminded faculty—more often than I did— to call me “they,” not “she.” I was used to hearing “she,” so nothing sounded wrong to me when my professors addressed me by the feminine pronoun. It is only in the last two months or so that being called “she” has started sounding weird to me, much in the same way that incorrect grammar sounds strange to native speakers of a language. It takes me a minute to identify why it feels wrong, but I am immediately certain that it is.
This is why patience is such an important part of being the default teacher in a community. Truly, as you remark, we must have “no expectation” of people knowing our preferred pronouns. Visible nonbinary and trans people are at the forefront of a new world, and we’re paving the roads as we’re walking them. To “demand to be seen” in this current age is to accept that we will always be teaching people terminology and complex topics of gender and sexuality.
While Navajo and Jewish cultures, along with others, have understood for centuries that there are more than two genders, modern America still struggles to figure out what bathroom I should be allowed to use—never mind how many bathrooms there should be and with what labels. I will always be explaining, and I will always be fighting for the acceptance that so many other people take for granted. Being visible in modern America is a form of activism in and of itself. When we’re fighting to prove our right to exist as we are, existing openly is half of the battle.
I’m frequently uncomfortable writing openly about this because I sound like a martyr. I’m not self-sacrificing; I am who I need to be, and I feel like you understand that. I exist and I fight and I teach so that the next person at my university who makes the decision to choose the pronoun “they/them” on their acceptance letter will have less of a struggle. I do this so that they will have at least one professor or fellow student who, when faced with their pronouns, will accept them without asking questions. So that they may encounter people who normalize their existence. So that there will hopefully be one less person to whom they have to explain the concept of the gender spectrum, and where they fit in. I’m here with you to do my part to “challenge old language” and concepts.
I have to be.