Binaries on the Border

Binaries on the Border (Photo: Antonio Villaseñor-Baca)

Editor’s note: Some names in this story have been changed to protect the privacy of the young adults interviewed. 

The Mexico-U.S. border is a grid map of coordinates: X or Y, from here or from there, this or that. And while fronterizx identity is about constantly crossing borders and mixing cultures, gender binaries are one facet that continues to face complex discussion and acceptance. For individuals who identify as nonbinary or that have transitioned, identity and representation are more complex.

Navigating language on the border already requires an understanding of separate and distinct cultures, but living on a border with a coded language like Spanish where all nouns have a pre-assigned gender only becomes more complex to identify and self-describe in that language when you don’t follow your given birth gender.  

Ginger Luna (she/her) 26, is a trans woman who works as a senior animal technician at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Ginger grew up in Ciudad Juárez but now lives in El Paso. Identifying as binary, she explains how she sees the persisting machismo and marianismo affect gender roles and norms. 

“Here in the border because you got machismo and marianismo, I guess I, as a trans woman, am binary but navigating all the systems of oppression. They still apply, but I feel like it’s also easier to navigate especially in the border where people barely acknowledge the nonbinary [identity],” she said. 

Machismo is the “-ism” born of stereotypical masculine roles in Mexican/Latinx culture of men being macho. Marianismo refers to the “Virgin” image enforced on women that highlights the double standard of purity and remaining a virgin until marriage while also fulfilling antiquated stereotypical rules of femininity such as attractiveness for men. 

The enforcement of these ideologies creates a strictly binaried space where anybody that does not achieve these binaries is deemed as less than. 

Living up to these norms and standards isn’t just exhausting, but also limiting. Everybody is forced into one of two categories. 

For people like nonbinary siblings Izzy (they/them), a student at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Toni (she/they) it created an initial sense of not belonging and frequent mislabeling. 

“I’d been having issues with my gender for a very long time, feeling out of place even as a little kid in elementary school. I knew I wasn’t a boy, and I knew I wasn’t a girl, but I’d never really had any exposure to anything beyond the gender binary before, so I just thought I was a tomboy. When I finally gained exposure to the LGBT community, I finally heard that you could be something other than a boy or girl, and I just felt right,” said Izzy. 

Toni, Izzy’s older sibling, feels similarly, explaining an incomplete identity under the she/her pronouns. 

“I realized that ‘she’ didn’t encompass everything that I feel about myself. Even ‘he/they’ doesn’t always encompass everything. I had read about things like neo-pronouns and the gender spectrum but with an adorable crawling squirmy baby in my life, I haven’t had time to really look into anything else, so for lack of better knowledge, ‘she/they/he’ is fine. As far as what it means to me, I guess the best way to describe it is that it felt like a lock clicking open. Something settling inside me. I hadn’t always felt right in the ‘female’ world and I always chafed under the expectations placed on me since I was, for all intents and purposes, a girl,” Toni added. 

The result of this cisgender binaried system is an omission and/or lack of representation on top of feeling unsafe at home, even with family.

“I can feel very uncomfortable sometimes since Spanish is absolutely a very binary language,” Izzy said. “There is no real ‘they/them’ in Spanish, since it’s ‘ellos’ or ‘ellas’ even in a plural tense, and when I hear people talk about me with ‘ella’ it can make me feel out of place and a bit dysphoric. I’ve managed to try and make my peace with the language barrier, since gender-neutral pronouns are barely starting to become a bit more mainstream around Spanish speakers, however the culture is an entirely different ballpark. Because machismo is so ingrained in Latine culture, It’s hard to escape the expectations put on my shoulders due to my assigned gender. I don’t talk very much to my family that lives in Mexico and Guatemala due to both the distance and just the change in culture,” they said. 

Alex (they/them) is a grad student at UTEP, and describes a similar feeling. 

“Gender is very important on the border. The male/female dichotomy is very strong in Mexican/Mexican-American culture. I used to be more androgynous presenting as I was learning more about myself and figuring out what made me feel like me (sort of like going through my teenage stage again). That felt a bit risky here,” they said. 

“So, for a woman, she is supposed to have long hair, be feminine-acting, dress in female-presenting clothing, the whole nine yards. I remember I hated having long hair, I had had it my whole life and hated it. I was 25 when I finally chopped it off. I got a very short pixie, and it evolved into a very short hairstyle that would lead to me being mistaken for a man. I thought it was fantastic! However, I was terrified of what my mother would think or do leading up to that haircut. She very much thinks women should have long, flowy hair even if she denies that she adheres to this rule. Regarding repercussions for not conforming to these guidelines, I would just face an earful of disapproval. Other people lose their lives,” Alex explained. 

Movements in Latin America and the U.S. to create words/suffixes like “Latinx” and/or “Latine” are the result of the conversations around gender, specifically within the context of the Spanish language. While Latinx can be considered a largely U.S. invented term and even one that creates division among privileged upper-class Latinx populations, the alternative is Latine, a word that essentially solves the issue of readability and pronounceability that people find problematic with Latinx. 

What Ginger, Izzy and Toni, and Alex all have in common is that it took a longer time to find comfort in the option of they/them pronouns. Where gender is commonly enforced from birth in many cultures, the rules of gender are laid out earlier and more vehemently on the border, and an alternative or nonbinary is something that takes time to find. 

Ginger only started using she/her pronouns a couple of years ago. “I was in a relationship in 2019 and it was during that relationship, I remember looking in the mirror, and at that point I was like, oh my god, I’m getting a little old, I know what’s going on in my head, I need to do something about this. And so that’s when I was like f*** everything. I’m really gonna look into this. It could mess everything up but I had to do this.”

Izzy explains “being able to use ‘they/them’ and be known as someone that’s not in the gender binary is liberating to me … I feel like it’s okay to be genderqueer as long as you don’t openly say it so your family has the choice to say ‘Oh she’s going through a phase’ or ‘She’s a tomboy’ instead of acknowledging that their family member has a relationship with gender that’s not ‘conventional.’ When it comes to my own expression of gender, I just really let myself do what I want when it comes to my presentation and expression, whether it’s traditionally masculine, feminine, all of the above, or none of the above.”

Alex has a different stance on the importance of pronouns. They said they began to use they/them pronouns only a few years ago when they turned 25, and “since I’ve gotten older, an emphasis on pronouns has become less of a concern for me. I know who I am, and that’s what matters. I chose ‘them’ because I feel like I fall outside of the male/female binary, rather than between it. So, if there is a spectrum where on one end there’s ‘male’ and the other end ‘female,’ I feel like I am on an entirely different spectrum. So I suppose that’s what ‘they/them’ means for me. However, to me, I feel that ‘they/them’ gives tribute to my indigenous roots. We know that there were/are indigenous cultures where there is more than just the male/female binary. I feel more in touch with who I am and where I come from when I use ‘they/them’ pronouns,” they said.

Toni couldn’t help but note the irony and origin of how slow the discourse on gender identity is moving. “It seems incredibly ridiculous that that’s where we are since gender spectrums have existed amongst the native peoples in Latin America for so long, but that’s colonization for you.”

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