They, Them, and Us: Language and A Demand for Change

 

I am 4 years old.

Learning to read, in tears because the words don’t follow the rules.

My mom patiently helps me pronounce the word enough, and I don’t understand why gh can just make an f sound.

“If I have to follow the rules, why don’t the words in this book?” I ask. “Why don’t the people writing the stories?”

“Sometimes there are exceptions,” she says. “Sometimes it’s necessary to break the rules. Sometimes the rules don’t include everybody.”

She is, of course, personifying the words. But from this point, I notice when people don’t use language the same ways that everyone else seems to, or differently from how I am told is correct. I notice authors, public figures, and eventually peers bend language for what they need to be able to describe. And I want to be a part of it.

I learn that language dies when we never allow it to grow, and it only grows when we are willing to change the ways we use it. Some developments are accepted as necessity, such as new meanings or words for everything from smartphones to cybersurveillance to viral news. However, many language developments are introduced, and in time accepted, because they create a space for — and acknowledge the reality of — those who have for so long been othered.

 

I am 7 years old.

Reading a pocket-sized, book-bound copy of the Constitution. I get up from the floor of my room.

“Mom, why did the people who wrote this say all men are created equal? Why doesn’t it say girls too?”

My mom gives me the children’s version of the answer. “Well, back then, they used to use the word men to mean everyone, so when it says all men they meant all people.”

“Why they didn’t just write all people then?”

I don’t remember if I get the rest of the answer in the same conversation, or much later. When I find out that they didn’t mean all men. That slaves, people with different colored skin, and the poor didn’t get the same privileges and rights.

By not acknowledging the worth of women — let alone anyone who might be outside of the traditional gender binary — and using all men as a universal term, the Founding Fathers who wrote and defended the U.S. Constitution used a loophole that the accepted language offered. One could say all men and appear inclusive and magnanimous while still excluding women, people of color, and men who did not own land from the very rights they espoused to be God-given and inalienable. Who, then, becomes the alien?

But that was back then. This is now.

Right?

 

I am 11 years old.

On my English assignment, they is crossed out; he or she is written in its place. I ask about space constraints. About referring to a single person when we don’t know their

gender. About how we speak that way all the time. My teacher says it’s simply the rule, simply correct. Says that they is a plural pronoun. I begin to break the rule anytime I can get away with it. As an adult, I’ll learn the singular they has been in use since the 1300s, and will no longer allow anyone to correct my use of they.

Today, however, we usually still say men and women. We write stories about him and her. We are beginning to see a wider acceptance of and support for stories about him and him or her and her, but not them. While these stories do exist, their voices have been cut from the narrative because of both prejudice and what claims to be simple pragmatism: If a character consistently goes by they, the editor asks, what is to indicate to the reader that a singular person is being talked about rather than multiple? And of course, using their name each time would be a redundant eyesore for the reader. Though these concerns are understandable, they reveal a dual prejudice; they continue the othering of an entire group of people, and they fail to trust the reader.

 

I am 16 years old.

I make a Tumblr account, and among the sea of posts and reblogs and comments see my young peers using and teaching about terms that make room for everyone. I read long posts on feminism, learn what POC means for the first time. Through a platform that was intended for and is often dismissed as a place for supposedly trivial content — fandoms and memes and the like — I find rising generations cocreating meaning and having deep discussions when in so many other places they are denied even a seat at the table. Full of more perspectives than a single room could ever hold, I realize this is a space that is actively changing participants’ ideas of what’s possible with language, and of our autonomy and efficacy to change it merely by using it. I get the chance to learn from other voices as they are provided a platform they haven’t yet been afforded in the literary world or much of society. The discourse leads me to adapt my own language accordingly, and I realize that through these tools we’re already adapting our informal written language — it’s simply time that formal language catches up.

As a kid, I learned a significant portion of my vocabulary from reading books, and now I’m learning by reading these posts and stories. Now, it’s up to the creators and the gatekeepers of the literary world to make fiction and poetry a revitalized opportunity to learn.

Progress occurs when I question the way things are, and push for the power to change the “rules.”

 

I am 18 years old.

Working for the college paper, covering a protest alleging that the school discriminated against players on the women’s basketball team because of their sexuality. Then articles about the founding of the conservative university’s first club focused on the queer community, and the fight for it to be officially recognized. Reporting on the controversy when a piece that explored sexuality in the annual student-led dance production was censored. AP Style says this is about LGBT rights.

“LGBT isn’t enough,” my fellow students and I tell our advisers. “We want to cover this topic responsibly, but this still excludes people.

We expected pushback from these advisers, tasked with mentoring us, but ultimately responsible to the same school that is maintaining affirming policies.

“You’re right,” they tell us. “At the end of the day, it’s just a style guide. If as a staff, you feel the ethical decision is to use the more inclusive term, you can make that call.”

In the newsroom, we change the rules. This is about LGBTQ+ rights.

We acknowledge during the discussion that we are still giving insufficient recognition to those who are intersex, nonbinary, asexual, and aromantic. The Q+ in LGTBQ+ is a compromise based on the fact it is still a print newspaper and more letters mean less space for stories about those in diverse communities.

And things are better now.

Right?

In reality, asexual and aromantic people are constantly othered by societal fixation on sex, sexualization, and romantic relationships. Intersex and nonbinary stories are often absent from the popular narrative, in part because of societal discomfort with the identities of these people, and in part because we have not yet changed our language to create room for them. They are othered by public restrooms, traditional gendered advertisements, phrases like ladies and gentlemen, and the rows and rows of bookshelves that do not represent them. As I start to look for and listen to more of these stories, I realize how few of them are elevated.

Later, during a month we spend working on our writing together, a close friend comes out to me in a poem. She is too far away to hug, but I let her know how impressed I am that she had the courage to put down on paper such vulnerability, to find the words for who she is.

 

I am 23 years old.

The more I read, the more I learn; but the more I write, the more I have an opportunity to help change the rules. Intersectional feminism means working for the rights of all people, acknowledging their inherent value, and valuing all aspects of their identity. We’ve got a lot of room to grow, but also have one of the best tools with which to do it: language that can change and shift simply because we demand it. It will take more than one or a few voices, and it will not be overnight. But as we learn from each other, we can collectively create room for everyone in the way we speak and write so that one day everyone’s story has a place on the shelf.

I realize that my own writing — and my bookshelf — would benefit from being more diverse and inclusive. I remember childhood years not seeing myself represented as a girl who didn’t want to be a princess, as Latinx, as biracial. There has been progress since then, as I see more people on pages and screens with the curly hair that always made me stand out as a kid, who come from complicated families, who don’t need anyone to come save them. And there is such a joy in feeling seen. But if there is to be more, especially for all people and identities, it will take supporting those brave enough to write it.

Creating a space in popular literature for those who are othered will involve more than swapping letters or changing our use of individual terms. It will require a significant shift in the way we tell stories, in how motivations are explained and how plots are driven forward, in how characters are described and how interactions between them develop, and in how we market stories in a culture that so often centers on the norm. In my own life, I am seeking out stories of those whose experiences are different than my own, and speaking up when my experience is left out of the conversation. In my writing, I am taking extra care not to shy away from aspects of my identity that make my perspective unique, and to create room in each new story and poem for the reader to see some aspect of themselves represented.

The other day, my mom asked why I used the term Latinx in a tweet. I told her how I had seen people using it to deny power to the binary, male-dominated tendencies of Spanish-speaking people from Latin America. How being half-white and half-Puerto Rican/Cuban, and frustrated since a young age that a boy in a group of twenty girls suddenly made them ellos, it felt like a godsend. How it made me more aware of the sheer lack of nonbinary linguistic options in Spanish, a language I’d been hearing all my life. How I could write down and claim my own identity without othering someone else. How it’s up to me to use every word with purpose, and change the trend of our evolving language. How it’s up to me to ask questions and speak up when the way we talk hurts people or leaves someone out. How I have the ability to use words to help create the world I want to live in.

 


Rachal Marquez Jones graduated from Pepperdine University and works as a copy editor and copywriter in California. She always thought she would write fiction, until a creative writing class showed her all the wonder to be found in poetry. She has published poetry in Dodging the Rain literary journal, as well as Pepperdine’s student literary journal Expressionists and their student magazine Currents.

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