“They” and the Emotional Weight of Words

Language is the space in which we carve a place for ourselves, where we demand to be seen. A reflection point for culture, community, and family to acknowledge our existence on our terms. For decades, “butch” was the only identity and term available to those of us who identified as “masculine of center.” Like many others, I lived in that space. There was much about it that I loved: the community of brotherhood, the worship of femininity, the gentility of the old-school butches. Yet, like so many other words, butch failed to capture the full depth of my soul. Its White cultural origins and resulting denial of my Black body took its toll.

I went in search of myself. I took a detour on the road to law school and, instead, went to study gender at the London School of Economics. The lone student in my Gender Research program, I cobbled together stories, interviews, and research on how our gender identity and expression become language that makes us visible in the world. In the powerful piece from the disability justice movement, “Disease Is Not A Metaphor,” essayist and librarian Cyrée Jarelle Johnson argues that “there are not more important things to think about than words, because the things that you say are the substance of your thoughts, which become the things that you do and the biases you keep close to your chest.”

Over the past decade, young people of color have created an alternative conversation around identity that has since spilled into everyday lives. From social media to college campuses and community spaces, the emergence of terms like “boi” has challenged the language and imagination of people everywhere. Instead of he or she: “they.” And they are using multimedia platforms to push the boundaries of the understanding of masculinity and femininity. It’s hard work. The daily pushback against a world that is constantly trying to make you stay in a gendered box makes you resilient but incredibly tired. Doing it in a way that offers people the humanity they themselves sometimes deny to you requires grace.

Almost every day, whether at work or standing in line at the grocery store, we too often miss opportunities to meet someone where they are in their gender understanding and help them change the way they think about gender. Instead, we’ve made it perfectly normal to educate someone by “checking” them on their lack of understanding. This approach inadvertently creates a call-out culture that reinforces hypermasculine negativity. One of the most powerfully feminine things one can do is to create; it’s a courageous act. We should be encouraging people to create and build new ways of approaching language, not cultivating fear and shame around not knowing the right thing to say.

The way forward starts from a place of vulnerability and love. A daunting feat, yet, in my life and work, it has been profoundly moving.

It begins with relationships. Even in small interactions, we can create connections that allow us to challenge one another with a goal of greater understanding. At restaurants, I gently let folks know we don’t go by “ladies” and offer up “folks,” “peeps,” “homies,” and “fam” instead. When they inevitably apologize, I remind them that we are only just meeting. How would they know the language I choose to reflect myself? I have no expectation that they will know my preferred pronoun. The interaction makes it clear that they should not simply assume gender preferences and that asking is actually welcomed.

Pronouns can be the basis from which all of us learn to see and respect each other’s identity. “What pronoun do you prefer?” is always welcome. It shows respect, intention, and commitment to see me as I see myself.

The entire lexicon for how we understand gender is shifting. For many of us, it can be a weighty, disorienting experience. But for a handful of us, this is a moment of freedom. If each of us does our part to challenge old language that pushes us back into small gender boxes, all of us will be a bit more free. Eventually we will align language with the complexity and beauty of our bodies and our authentic selves.

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