Why Gender Pronouns Matter: Two Teenagers Share Their Stories
These essays are part of our ongoing coverage by non-binary teens: In Their Own Words.
When Teachers Use the Wrong Pronouns
By Jenifer Abigail Chavez
That’s the phrase that almost landed me in middle school detention. I was in eighth grade and my teacher had just called me ma’am to answer a question. There’s just one problem.
I’m not a ma’am.
I’m non-binary, which means I use they/them pronouns and don’t fall into either of the two genders assigned at birth.
As far back as fourth grade, I had a picture of what I wanted to be that didn’t include sticking to any of the gender norms. “Why don’t you dress more like a girl?” people were always asking. I felt like a lab rat being poked by pesky scientists.
So I’m always a bit hesitant to speak up about my pronouns. Sometimes I don’t correct my teachers or classmates when they misgender me because I fear being rejected. But this year, I wanted to start fresh and stay true to my identity and myself.
So, with my classmates all staring at me, I forced a smile and said to my teacher, “Uh, I’m not a ma’am.”
He frowned, crossing his arms against his chest and looking at me.
“Stop wasting my time,” he said. “This is nonsense. Don’t waste my time or you’ll get detention.”
I felt suffocated, like all the air had left my lungs.
Suddenly I was in fourth grade all over again, surrounded by bullies. And here’s the thing — being hassled for your gender isn’t like a “Mean Girls” spinoff. The kids who tormented me back then were big into the anti-bullying message at my school. It’s like they didn’t even know they were doing anything wrong.
I get that it takes people time to get used to a new concept. My teacher lectured us all the time on justice and equality while judging me for correcting my pronouns.
When teachers don’t recognize different sexualities and genders, they make it OK for students to do the same. My advice? Respect your students, respect their pronouns. If you don’t know, ask or just use a student’s name. And try using gender neutral terms like “everybody” instead of assuming I’m a ‘ma’am.’
I Am Me.
As a young child, I loved to dance. Sometimes I would swing my hips with sassiness. Other times I was more dominant, guiding girls in duo dances with my hands on their hips. Others would say the way I moved would change from being feminine to masculine, and sometimes both. When I felt like both, I would combine my dancing styles, sassy and dominant.
Back then, I didn’t have words for my gender identity, but it’s like my body always knew. Even so, I used to try to ignore my gender identity, wearing large amounts of makeup and a long fringe to hide what my face actually looked like. This put me in an extremely dark place. I now know, as much as I try, I can never change who I am.
I recently came out as gender-fluid. Some days I felt like a girl, other days a boy, somedays both but also neither. Day to day, I would identify as a different gender, but my personality did not change.
One day at home, while preparing to bind my chest, my mother walked over and said, “You know, on the days you say you’re a guy, you act really different from your normal girl self.” I want to respond to family members when they make comments like this, but they are my elders and I need to respect them. If I could, I would rip my head open to show them the storms in my mind.
I originally came out as gender-fluid to convince my family that I still had a bit of femininity left in me. I wanted them to be proud of me and not disappointed that their little girl was gone. But two months ago, I came out again, this time as transgender (female to male). I was hesitant, because I knew people would say fluid gender identity is just a phase. But repressing who I am was hurting me mentally. When people close to me deny who I am, my self-esteem drops down like a thermometer on a cold winter’s day.
I just wish the other people around me could understand what my brain and heart are telling me. One of my dreams is for my family and peers to address my pronouns correctly — for people to understand that it’s not always just one or the other, it could be both or neither. I know I’m not the only one in this world going through this situation. Knowing others are fighting by my side makes me feel less alone.
These essays were produced in collaboration with ZUMIX in Boston.