Dear English Teachers

Reading Time: 8 minutes

[The following conversation occurred in Spanish and has been translated for the reader’s


Cisgendered straight man stands at the front of the classroom I have been stuck in for months. He says, “Watwood—sorry, Sophia—”

“I prefer my last name,” I tell him. My arms and ankles are crossed. My legs are stretched out so far that my sacrum lays flat against the butt of my chair. I didn’t mean to make my junior year style “Stoner Queer,” but I vibe with the way my blue hair falls in my face when I’m giving teachers shit. To be fair to my Spanish teacher, I do give him more shit than he deserves. But his hair is too spiky.

“Oh. Why?”

I shake my head. Adults don’t usually ask why. Especially when it’s about a subordinate’s identity.

“Sophia’s generic. And feminine.”

He cocks his head to the side with a click, like he’s having a spasm. Like a dog.

“But you are a girl, no?”

I shrug. I don’t really want to out myself to my Spanish class. Y yo no sé la palabra para “Only kinda?” en Español.


“Okay, okay. Te respecto.”

And maybe he does, but I don’t really expect he gets it. I’ve always hated the Spanish language because every time you refer to yourself with a word, you have to gender it. And if you do it wrong, they correct you. I am not “guapo,” I am “guapa.” I am not “un buen amigo,” I am an “amiga.” And when they correct you, you don’t argue with them. Even if you said what you meant. I’m not completely comfortable with my own queer-ass; I’m not trying to make waves about it in my Spanish class.

For as long as I’ve had a full understanding that I occupied a body, I have been unhappy with that body. But for as long as I have been aware of myself as a sexual being, the bodies I have coveted have not been those of emaciated fashion models or curvaceous pin-up girls, but of the tall, skinny white boys I spend so much of my time around. I have little to no interest in my own soft edges. I want the flat-chested idiocy they seem to get away with. I want the easy sexiness of not shaving or wearing makeup and still being regarded as traditionally attractive. I want hard edges and boxy lines. Long legs and hard jawlines. I want to walk out the door in baggy clothes and shaggy hair without being an exception to my body type. Or at least not be called a dyke.

And as deeply as I want those things, I do not want people to view me as a trans person. If I could make the transition into being a boy without any of the the actual transition part, like I could wake up in a boy’s body and have no one remember that I had ever been a girl, I would do it immediately. Even better, if I could suddenly turn into some indiscernible, gender-less stick figure and have no one blink an eye, I would pay lots and lots of money to do so. Even more ideally, if I could just morph between bodies as my feelings changed, I’d change bodies and voices between periods. During class. On my way to the movies. On my way back.

But that’s not the reality of being a trans person. The reality is choosing something in-between. Until you’ve spent enough time and money on transitioning to “pass,” you have to be just as publicly transgender as you are publicly your gender identity. I choose not to dress more androgynously or cut my hair shorter or give people definitive preferred pronouns because it makes me uncomfortable when people even label me as a lesbian. There’s something vulnerable about being a “queer” person out loud, even in a community where people are largely accepting. It makes me one degree more “other,” one step less normal, describable as a Person like Them instead of a Person like Us.

As a queer person growing up in a binary world, most of the dysphoria comes from feeling like there is no word for the thing you are. There is no box for people like you. There are no other people like you. But I have found comfort in the words of others. I identify more by poetry than by plastic bathroom signs. I find myself reflected in explanations more elaborate and more dense than “girl” or “boy.”

Sitting on my bedroom floor listening to slam poetry, I heard my words for the first time in Ashe Vernon’s “For Anyone Who’s Listening.”

The problem is my gender is a language I cannot speak yet.
I go, wide-eyed jealous sticky-handed child
Reaching for the bodies of the boys I have always wanted to look like
I think of all the things I would be willing to give up
So that I could look so long
So that I could look so flat

Look so sharp and so boy,
But my curves
Are not something I am willing to be divorced of yet.
I look down at my body and think
No, I will not abandon you, not yet,
Not like the rest of them

As a young person searching for my words in a society trying to delete them from its national dictionary, this sounded like God to me. It sounded like a home full of people who understood where I was coming from—somewhere I could be fully myself and still be considered normal. At the moment, the only place I feel comfortable saying My Words are in places where I know I am with My People. Places where my pronouns will not exclude me from the Us. Places that don’t need to know what my gender is for any reason except to make me more comfortable. Places where there really is no People like Them, because all of the Theys are there already.

And despite the Democratic Party’s touting of an Us defined by its outliers, that clearly isn’t the reality yet. Trans people are still a Them.

Take, for evidence, the slow reversal of trans inclusion in American politics:

The Trump administration recently handed the Center for Disease Control and Prevention a list of seven banned words and phrases not to be used in 2018 budget documents. One of these words was “transgender.”

The Washington Post noted, in Lena H. Sun and Juliet Eilperin’s report, “CDC Gets List of Forbidden Words: Fetus, Transgender, Diversity,” that “In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of ‘science-based’ or ‘evidence-based,’ the suggested phrase is ‘CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,’ the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered.”

Muting the word “transgender” to be used in a scientific way is not just a way to take a jab at the “P. C. Culture” that Trump and many of his supporters abhor. It’s erasure of an entire group. By forcing the CDC to keep the word out of budget reports, they force them to be mute on the subject. Removing the word “transgender” from the national vocabulary shuns transgender citizens into silence and confusion. The inclusion of words in a language signifies the inclusion of ideas in a society. The reverse has the converse power.

Society’s silence when it comes to LGBT issues marginalizes outliers and contributes to shame within the community. “The prevalence of suicide attempts among respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, is 41 percent, which vastly exceeds the 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt, and is also higher than the 10-20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide,” states a paper by the Williams Institute.¹

So, Dear English Teachers, This I Believe: When writing a formal essay, when it becomes appropriate for one to refer to an indeterminate singular protagonist, as I am doing in this sentence, it is also appropriate for them to use they/them pronouns to refer to a singular person of indeterminate gender, rather than using phrases such as “he or she,” “him or her,” or “his or her,” et cetera. The phrase “his or her” and its cisnormative brethren is just one more tool of a cisnormative society in which the language itself utilizes the gender binary at every possible opportunity.

I too, Dear English Teachers, was once a pronoun nut. As a creative writing major at Mark Twain Intermediate School, I had it drilled into me from the sixth grade that They Is Not A Singular Pronoun, and took it upon myself as a lover of the flawed English language to correct anyone using it as such. It was about the time when I realized I was not exactly a she, per se, that I started using they as a singular pronoun at every opportunity in formal essays. In accordance with my queer-as-hell agenda, I have done this in every analytical essay since the beginning of my sophomore year. And Dear English Teacher, the age of “correcting” my use of “their” with “his or her,” is coming to a close.

“His or her” is outdated. In the same way that in the 1970s, new wave feminism brought “he or she” to replace the Victorian “he,” society is adopting “they” as grammatically acceptable 48 years later. It was added to The Washington Post’s style guide in 2015. Universities (and Facebook) allow one to choose they as their personal pronoun. In New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris’ book “Between You & Me,” she says that this use of “they” is “just wrong.” She also says “Nobody [which is SINGULAR] wanted to think they were not essential.” The Historical Oxford English Dictionary recognizes that Thackeray, Goldsmith, Shaw, Sidney, Byron, Ruskin, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Austen have all used the singular they/them construction.

I say nothing of which I am ashamed. Let everybody on the hill hear me if they can.
—Jane Austen, Emma (1815)

If it’s good enough for Jane Austen, it’s good enough for me.

And to boot, it’s clunky. Having a tendency to write too much rather than not enough, I have no desire to spend an extra five characters enforcing the gender binary. If English were augmented to include a gender-neutral singular pronoun, like Chinese and Finnish, I would happily adopt it. But for now, I will continue brandishing my singular they, vanquishing English teachers and grammarians everywhere, until genderqueer people are allowed their space in the English language. Who knows, if society gets that far, maybe they’ll be even realize we don’t need gender designations for single-stall bathrooms.

When people ask me for my pronouns, I say “any and all,” because when people call me by “they/them,” it feels like being blinded with a spotlight. But they’re not wrong, exactly. I am doing my best to be happy with my in-between space. With my sometimes-gender-neutral name and my binders and my sports bras. I’m figuring out that I’m happiest in massive t-shirts, but I’m even happier wearing glitter. I’ve been threatening to shave my head since the eighth grade, but first I have to believe I can get boys even when I’m looking like a lesbian. Or get over boys. I’m scared of defining myself like that. I am still scared to say my words. I am still scared they will be foreign and uncomfortable to the people around me when I work up the courage to say them.

—People Like Us

¹ Haas, Ann P., et al. Suicide Attempts among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law.