Cole's Response to "Gender Pronouns" Essay Winners

Cole, founder of the Brown Boi Project, responds to the winners of our Spring 2017 National Student Writing Competition.

Photo by FotografiaBasica / iStock.

Thank you Alex, Avery, Ella, Joanne, Madeleine, and Toby. I’m honored that you were inspired to respond, wrestle, and connect with the piece I wrote. We are living in ever-shifting times of gender that I believe will unleash so much growth. Your work highlights the challenges of living in these “in-between times,” when we often grapple with new language and new concepts. As we still cling to what feels familiar and, at times, certain.

There is no one framework or set of terms that will do this moment justice. What we do know is that the rigid boxes we craft for people to fit their gender into are not just dated but leave out so much of the beauty and complexity with which people live their lives. Language is an extension of culture, of our communities and families. It is critical that we begin to engage with it in everyday ways so that we can—as Avery makes the case—exist. But also because this is the way we change society. We reshape culture, and our language follows. It becomes the frame for our lived experience.

It will take many more courageous conversations before that happens, but you have seized the opportunity to breathe depth into my piece. Thank you for your perspective and stories. It was a pleasure to read them. Hopefully my reflections below add to the ongoing conversation.

Alex, you’re absolutely right in recognizing how difficult culture shifts are. There’s something very powerful in trying to imagine how change can be implemented, and I encourage you to continue to read and imagine because this world needs people that are capable of creating new words and new culture paradigms. I believe that the point you made in realizing how often you already use the word ‘they’ in reference to others is a powerful note, as well. I believe it illustrates that even though change is indeed difficult and requires a lot of time and energy, we are also constantly changing and growing. We just don’t always realize it.

Avery, thank you so much for your courage. It is absolutely an uncomfortable process to push ourselves to present our authentic self to a society that very rarely is able to handle difference and vulnerability in a way that is celebratory. There’s so much work to be done, and it’s going to take each and every one of us to move towards a world in which we are a little more comfortable being present. It’s heartwarming to hear that my experience resonates with yours, and that you’re willing to carry this responsibility of helping others see you in your most authentic self. There’s also something very powerful that you said that I wanted to highlight: how your work to be authentic will help others be authentic as well. Leading by example and paving roads for those that come after you is such important work.

Ella, it can be difficult to bridge the divide between this American culture and the cultures our immigrant families grew up in. I would encourage you to push through the discomfort, because the reality is that our families have sexualities and genders of their own, and they’ve been deprived the access and the tools to theorize and explore their gender and sexuality the way you and I have been allowed to. What I’ve learned in my time is that the disconnect between one generation to the next is not one that necessarily stems from ignorance or a lack of willingness to learn, but rather is a product of capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism. Regardless, it is difficult to feel so alienated from the people you’ve known your whole life, and the struggle you are managing is hard to bear. It sounds like you’re putting in a lot of thought to understand yourself and those around you, and that is work that nourishes you all.

Joanne, I really love what you said in your closing, “Words should never be allowed to limit us and who we are allowed to be.” Language can play such a huge role in how we relate to each other, even when the words are not uttered out loud. Language can even inform how we theorize and approach situations that we are uncomfortable in. While it is important to recognize the gaps and privileges we carry, feeling shame around these gaps is unnecessary and not something that helps those who need your support. I encourage you, to feel motivated instead of feeling shame, and feel as if the knowledge you’ve gained (and will continue to gain) is presenting you with an opportunity to strive to be a better, more authentic version of yourself. Our authenticity is not solely tied to how we make ourselves feel good, but also to how we show up for those who need support from us.

Madeleine, you’re absolutely right. Society has conditioned those already on the margins (women, LGBTQ-identified individuals, POC, people with disabilities, etc) to hesitate asking for what they need, and making it known that they want their boundaries to be seen and respected. Can we boldly express that our needs are valid without shaming people? Shame does not foster learning or change—and call-out culture does disservice to our community when people are told off for unintentional harm. I think the “Sage Protection Squad” that you offered as an example is a perfect balance. The squad alleviates the burden of challenging and correcting ignorant or malicious people, and also moves away from call-out culture since you ask them to join you in supporting and validating your friend Sage.

Toby, it’s incredible to hear how much you’ve been able to discover about yourself and your ancestors in such a short amount of time. You’re right that this binary is unnecessary, and it’s clear from your story how critical it is that we strive to rebuild connections that were erased through colonialism. Our ancestors held a great pool of knowledge that I am confident would aid us in our struggle for justice. It’s heartwarming to hear that you’re moving towards healing your relationship with yourself, and that you are slowly finding others that can help you with that journey.

In gratitude and struggle,



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