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After the Berkeley city council renames “manholes” to “maintenance holes” to avoid gender references, Laura and Leah decide to find out how language changes with the times. They talk to two non-binary UC Berkeley students, Aviel McDermott and Sam Ku, about the singular pronoun “they” and Berkeley professor and linguist Geoffrey Nunberg about what language will stick, what’s a fad, and why language matters. Finally, Berkeley professor and sociologist Cristina Mora explains where Latinx comes from and why she uses it.
- Nina Renata Aron’s California article “Attention Everyone: That Manhole Is Now a Maintenance Hole”
- Vice article on the Berkeley municipal code
- Fox affiliate article “Berkeley Bans Gender specific Words from Municipal Code”
- Princeton Review’s List of LBTQ-unfriendly campuses
This episode was produced by Coby McDonald. This episode was written and hosted by Laura Smith and Leah Worthington.
Special thanks to Pat Joseph, Brooke Kottmann, Aviel McDermott, Sam Ku, Geoffrey Nunberg, Cristina Mora and California magazine interns, Grace Vogel and Steven Rascón. Art by Michiko Toki and original music by Mogli Maureal.
LAURA SMITH: So Leah, I have a question for you.
LEAH WORTHINGTON: Yeah?
LAURA: What do you call the circular, metal thing that covers an entrance to the sewer system? It’s usually in the road …
LEAH: Mmmm [thinks] A manhole?
LAURA: Don’t forget that you’re within the city limits of Berkeley. And last year the city of Berkeley removed all gendered language from the municipal code. So there are no menholes or manholes or whatever.
LEAH: So … what do they call them now?
LAURA: Maintenance holes.
LEAH: Can they just do that? Just, like, change the language?
LAURA: Sure, why not?
LAURA: This is The Edge, a podcast produced by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association.
LEAH: Where we chase down UC Berkeley experts to talk about ideas, edgy ideas, that are changing society.
LAURA: Today we’re going to be talking about one of my favorite things: language!
LEAH: How it changes, where new words come from, and which ones are here to stay.
LAURA: I’m your host, Laura Smith.
LEAH: And I’m also your host, Leah Worthington.
LEAH: Okay, so … The Berkeley City Council turned all the manholes into maintenance holes?
LAURA: Yeah, and listen to what else they did. Things aren’t man-made anymore, they’re human-made. And it’s not man-power but human effort. And frats and sororities? They’re the “collegiate Greek system residence.”
LEAH: Oy, that’s a mouthful.
LAURA: Yeah, that one in particular is not great.
LEAH: Wait, so how did people react?
LAURA: As you can imagine, everyone had something to say about it. This is Berkeley after all. Some people said, “This is great!” Some people said, “This is a waste of time and money!” Others wondered, “Are we taking things too far?”
LAURA: Fox News tried to act like Berkeley had banned gender references—that there was some kind of censorship thing going on. Diana Tourjée from Vice news wrote, “It’s somewhat maddening to think of this tertiary social change being a civic priority, given the other, much more repugnant cultural crises facing cis and trans women and non-binary people.”
LEAH: So, essentially they’re saying there are bigger problems than what we call “manholes.”
LAURA: Right. But Nina Renata Aron wrote a piece for us online, which you should check out. It’s called “Attention Everyone: That Manhole Is Now a Maintenance Hole,” and here’s what she said: “It’s easy to poke fun at a maintenance hole: The words, in this new formulation, hit the ear strangely. The phrase sounds formal and awkwardly, conspicuously de-gendered. But language is a living, evolving part of our experience on Earth. Changes that sound ridiculous today may soon seem unremarkable. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that ‘he’ and ‘man’ stood in for all humanity.” We’ll include a link on our homepage.
LEAH: You know what this makes me think of?
LEAH: Pronouns! I’ve been hearing so many more people these days introducing themselves with pronouns. And those pronouns often include non-binary ones like they/them. And, you know, I’ve been wondering if … maybe I should start doing the same. Like, “Hey, I’m Leah, and I use she/her pronouns.”
LAURA: Yeah, I’ve actually been wondering the same thing. Like, when I start an interview with someone, should I ask them their pronouns?
LEAH: Right, because some people might really appreciate being asked. But you can also imagine other people might find it unnecessary like, “I’m a man! Isn’t it obvious?”
LAURA: It’s fair to say that some people are downright hostile to the whole pronoun conversation.
LEAH: Yeah, and it raises some really interesting questions—like when it comes to language, who gets to decide what stays, what goes, and what new things get brought into the cultural vernacular?
LAURA: And how do we know which ones will last?
LEAH: And also does using more inclusive language actually make a more inclusive society?
LAURA: We wanted to talk to some people who use they/them pronouns to get their take on it.
LEAH: So we reached out to a couple of Berkeley students.
AVIEL MCDERMOTT: I'm Aviel or Avi. I am a fourth year, probably graduating this year, senior who's double majoring in political science and applied math. I'm president of Beyond the Binary, which is a small support group for non-binary students at Cal, and I go by they/them or he/him pronouns. AVI: I've always been pretty tomboyish and androgynous, and I was pretty happy with that growing up, didn't question it too much. But I always felt kind of different, and things started getting weirder as I started growing older, and things started feeling more wrong, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. And then in middle school, which was already a hard time, I came out as a lesbian to my family. But then that wasn't quite right. And then in high school, someone close to me started questioning their gender identity, and that prompted me to look into these things. SAM KU: I'm Sam, I use they/them pronouns. I'm a fourth year studying psychology and public policy. And I'm also the queer and trans representative for SHAC, which is the Student Health Advisory Committee at the Tang Center. SAM: As a kid, I always knew something was going on. But there were like so many other factors, and the lack of language and exposure, that I didn't really know what to make of it. And, actually, when I was in freshman year of high school, I confided to one of my friends like, “I don't know, like, when I go to the doctor's office, and I have to, like, check off sex, neither feel right. Don't you feel this way, too?” She's like, “No, I've never felt like that before. But I've heard of, like, transgender people. Like, do you think that's it?” And I was like, “No, no, no, like, I don't think so. I think this is, like, something that's wrong with me, and I'll figure it out eventually.”
LEAH: For both Avi and Sam, it wasn’t immediately obvious what to do. They didn’t just wake up one day like, “Oh I’m non-binary!”
SAM: And it wasn't until like senior year of high school where I had more exposure to different ways of being that I was, like, oh, like, “This might feel right. It feels kind of scary.” But, luckily, I was transitioning into college, so I started introducing myself as “Sam” and using they/them pronouns. AVI: I've been slowly, like, coming out and working on finding what's right for me ever since then. For a while, in my, like, queer groups I put down that I went by like any pronoun, mostly because I was a little bit too scared to put down they/them pronouns definitively. But then I realized that it just wasn't working for me to be referred to by she/her. So I started going by they/them and went by they/them exclusively for a few years. And then recently, I had top surgery, and it's made me feel really good …
LAURA: For anyone who doesn’t know, top surgery means that Avi had reconstructive surgery to remove breast tissue from their chest. It’s basically a mastectomy but for gender transitioning.
AVI: And it's put me kind of more in touch with more masculine sides of my identity—and I realized I'm also okay with people referring to me with he/him pronouns—so I've added that. So for me, it's kind of been a journey, but it's been a journey that's really unlocked some amazing things for me.
LEAH: But that doesn’t mean that Avi has it all figured out. Navigating daily life as a non-binary or transitioning person can be really challenging.
AVI: Like, I don't want to sleep wearing shirts anymore because I spent thousands of dollars to not have to do that. But I have roommates, and I don't know how female they view me, and I don't necessarily want to make them uncomfortable. But, also, like, my chest is flat. It does have a scar though. It's, like, something I think about in my day-to-day life, even like, at home is navigating this. SAM: The moment you step outside, you're being perceived. A lot of times people are just confused. Like, one time, a salesperson was leading me to the bathroom, like in the back of the supermarket, and then we were between the two restrooms. They just like looked at me and got so confused for like a solid 10 seconds. I was like “You decide, I don't know.” [LAUGHS]
LEAH: Basically Sam is saying: In a world where bathrooms and clothing departments and pronouns are often still divided into either male or female, it can be hard for a non-binary person to know where they belong. And this is something they confront daily in conversation. Here’s Avi.
AVI: Every single day, people will gender me some way or another, and, usually, they'll use she/her pronouns for me probably because of my voice. Though, it also depends on where I am, oddly enough. I'm a lot more likely misgendered in Berkeley than in Indiana. Probably because in Indiana people are more likely to go by gender stereotypes of what you’re wearing, and stuff, and short hair. Where, in Berkeley, people are looking for your secondary sex characteristics. SAM: In Berkeley, I may be asked what my pronouns are more often, but that doesn't mean I'm misgendered any less. When I, like, travel out of the country where a lot of times typically like non-feminine characteristics, like a deeper voice or short hair, isn't associated with female, I will exclusively get gendered as male. AVI: I'm always male on airplanes, and female in Berkeley. [LAUGHS] LEAH: Interesting in international waters … . AVI: Just in terms of how people gender me. LAURA: Why do you think that is on airplanes? What is it about airplanes? AVI: I don't know what it is about airplanes. I think they tend to assume I'm a 13-year-old boy because TSA often is like, “So you're traveling alone … .” And I'm like, “I'm 21. Yes, I'm traveling alone.” [LAUGHS] SAM: And that really just goes to show how relative it is and—resigning to the fact that it is relative—I think what's most important is just giving people the autonomy to choose. And for you to honor that choice.
LAURA: So Sam is basically saying: Yes, changing language does matter, it does make a difference in people’s daily lives. For Sam and Avi, using non-gendered pronouns means having their identity recognized and included.
AVI: One thing I really wish people understood about pronoun usage is that everyone has pronouns that they use. You know, there's a lot of controversy around transgender people and non-binary people using different pronouns, and some people will treat transgender/non-binary people's pronouns as like, optional. But I really wish people would think about more equality between the way people treat transgender and cisgender pronouns.
LEAH: And Sam and Avi explained that, since we all have pronouns, we should all be introducing ourselves with them. Like when we first meet people in interviews or at social events, in class, or even over email.
LAURA: At the same time, realistically, is everyone everywhere going to start doing this? I have family in Arkansas and Tennessee and Virginia, and it’s really hard for me to image them walking into a car dealership and being like, “Hi, I’m Ted, I use he/him pronouns. How about that F-150 truck?”
LAURA: Oh my God, I never want to say those words again.
LEAH: Thank you so much.
LEAH: It’s hard enough meeting people for the first time. For me, the idea of adding a new social norm to an already awkward social situation sounds sort of uncomfortable. On the other hand, if it’s making someone else’s life a whole lot easier, isn’t it worth the effort?
AVI: Everyone uses pronouns, and, just by having everyone introduce pronouns, you put everyone on an equal level. You don't necessarily know all the time what pronouns people expect for you, and I think it's just adding this extra bit of work for trans people, when our lives are already really difficult. We already have to come out to our families, pursue medical transitioning, and it's asking us to do an extra step that no one else has to. And I also think if everyone introduces their pronouns, it becomes a non-issue. SAM: What's awful is when people go around introducing themselves, and then you're the first person to introduce yourself with their pronouns, and you're already being, like, vulnerable in sharing that, and then everyone else after you doesn't, like, follow your lead, and then it's just like a repeated, like, sting. Especially, like, on this campus where institutionally people talk about being really inclusive and yada yada. It's just like very basic everyday actions like that, that go to show that that's not really the case. SAM: Introducing yourself with your pronouns takes like an extra three seconds. And I've definitely felt that in the classroom in terms of, if a professor, say, that comes off as really intimidating, and I'm already nervous in their class, but then they introduce themselves with their pronouns, then I'm already like, more ready to engage with them because I know that, like, on some level I'm, like, safe in their classroom. AVI: When cisgender people introduce themselves with their pronouns, it can let transgender people know that they're safe to be around and that they're more accepting. Honestly, most trans people, you know, we are, in our own way, forced to be activists, where we have to do all this work just to kind of exist in this world. But also a lot of us kind of want to live our lives, primarily, so it's a way for cisgendered people to be an ally.
LAURA: So, meanwhile, students like Avi and Sam are doing a lot of work, fighting this uphill battle against the built-in binaries of language, and trying to create a space for a non-binary experience, starting with words like they/them.
LEAH: And it made us wonder: Is this a new fight? Where did they/them pronouns come from to begin with?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: People have been doing that since … Shakespeare's time. Jane Austen's works are brimming with sentences like, “Everybody took their leave.”
LEAH: That was Geoffrey Nunberg, a Berkeley linguist and professor at the School of Information. Nunberg actually passed away last month, at the age of 75, after a long illness. So we feel especially lucky that he did one of his last interviews with us earlier this year. If you don’t know who he was, he was kind of a big deal. He was an expert on everything from text classification and computational linguistics to taboo language like slurs and vulgarities. And in the late ’90s, he testified on behalf of a Native American group challenging the use of the name “Redskins” by the NFL franchise, which, as you may know, was finally changed just last month. He also wrote a bunch of books, like The Way We Talk Now and, more recently, Ascent of the A-Word. And every year, he did the infamous “Word of the Year” segment for NPR. His final word of the year selection was “disinformation,” which couldn’t be more timely. Okay, back to the interview.
LAURA: So we asked him where language changes come from.
GEOFF: Some words percolate up, most do I think—from ordinary usage—whether it's adolescent slang or just ordinary usage. So many of those in recent years, particularly, because the internet exposes them very rapidly. The classic instance was this “on fleek,” which was used by one of these Vine stars. And it just spread instantly. Within two months, it was old news.
LAURA: Okay. Hooold up. We have to pause because I need to hear Geoff Nunberg say “on fleek” again.
GEOFF: On fleek.
LEAH: [Laughs] Do you even know what “on fleek” means? Or where it came from?
LEAH: It’s like … on point. Like, damn. Her outfit is on FLEEK!
LEAH: Oh my God. I’m so embarrassed that I just said that.
LAURA: Anyway, the thing is we’re not talking about slang here. I can get by without ever saying “on fleek.” But pronouns, on the other hand, are fundamental to communication.
LEAH: Right. Unfortunately “on fleek” died. People don’t really say that anymore. But what about new words and new usages for existing words? Like, will people still be using the pronoun “they”—in the non-binary sense—in another 50 years?
GEOFF: There's no part of speech that gets people more head-up than pronouns do. And in particular, these third-person pronouns.
LEAH: The problem, he said, is that there’s never really been a good gender-neutral option.
GEOFF: The obvious thing to use there is the plural “they” as a singular.
LEAH: But the grammarians didn’t like that. The grammarians never like anything.
LAURA: Right. The grammarians are “v uptight.” So in the 19th century, they got together and decided that even though people had been using the singular “they” for hundreds of years, “he” would be the catchall pronoun—encompassing both he and she. So instead of saying, “Everybody took their coat,” we would say “Everybody took his coat,” even if there were women taking their coats. Obviously women didn’t take too kindly to this.
LEAH: Love some good historical drama. What happened??
LAURA: Well, it took awhile, but in the 1960s and ’70s the feminists were all like, “Don’t call me ‘he’!”
LEAH: I am woman, hear me roar!
LAURA: Right. And the men were all like, “You dirty, radical bra-burning, man-hating, penis-envying feminists!”
GEOFF: The chair of the Harvard linguistics department said they were suffering from “pronoun envy.”
LAURA: Can I just say that is so annoying?
LAURA: Don’t you mean awoman? Anyway.
LAURA: So Leah, you remember that piece I mentioned earlier? Nina Renata Aron’s piece for us on the Berkeley municipal code?
LEAH: Yeah, what about it?
LAURA: Well, she talked about this very thing—about how feminists rejected the use of the universal “he” for everyone, and I think she makes a really good point about why pronouns and other gendered language matter. Here’s what she said: “They showed that language is not a neutral tool of communication. If maleness and male superiority are encoded in the words we use, we are more likely to build and reinforce a world according to that belief.”
LEAH: Oh, interesting. So if you envision a world where there are only congressmen and firemen, it will be hard for women to envision themselves in those roles.
LAURA: And for men to envision women in those roles, which, of course, matters when men are the ones deciding things.
LEAH: So going back to the feminists who didn’t want to be called “he,” how did that turn out?
LAURA: Well over time, “they,” as the singular, gender-neutral pronoun, won out. A lot of us don’t even realize this, but we already use it pretty seamlessly in spoken language.
GEOFF: You're sitting at the dinner table, and your daughter's phone rings, and you say “tell them you'll call them back.” Now them, it could be a man or a woman or group—it doesn't matter. They is the pronoun used.
LEAH: Oh, yeah, of course. I say that all the time.
LAURA: Right. We all do. But, since then, people like Sam and Avi have been using they to describe themselves for another reason: They don’t identify as either men or women. And, this use of “they” is controversial.
GEOFF: It's encountered enormous resistance, less so, let's say, in a place like Berkeley than in other parts of the world. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville published simply a guide to gender-neutral pronouns. The legislature got so worked up that they met, they passed a law that abolished the Pride center, from which this had come, and prohibited the university from ever teaching anything about gender-neutral pronouns.
LEAH: Oh my God. And I assume this took place in 1901 before Suffrage and the Civil Rights movement and, you know, equality?
LAURA: No! It was in 2015! The bill actually defunded any campus initiatives that promoted the use of gender-neutral pronouns.
LEAH: Hah. What do you know … the Princeton Review ranks UT-Knoxville as the “third most LGBTQ-unfriendly college campus” in the country!
LAURA: Who was first?
LEAH: College of the Ozarks.
LAURA: And how does Berkeley rank?
LEAH: Eh, not great actually. It’s not even in the top 20.
LAURA: Wow, that’s really surprising.
LEAH: Yeah, I mean, this list seems to be mostly small, private, liberal arts schools. But I checked to see if there were any others, and, from a quick search, it looks like Berkeley isn’t in any of the “most LGBTQ friendly campus” lists.
LAURA: To be fair, the university has done some good things. A couple of years ago, Chancellor Christ put out a statement in support of all trans and non-binary people. And, last year, the UC office of the president announced this gender-pronoun education awareness initiative, which is a fancy way of saying its a series of guidelines and articles explaining how misgendering can make life harder for non-binary people.
LEAH: So what I’m hearing is kind of a mixed story. On the one hand Berkeley is making efforts to be inclusive of LGBTQ-community members. At Cal, students can edit their preferred pronouns and gender identities in their health profiles, and there’s a whole dorm for members, or allies, of the LGBTQ community. But, still, on a day-to-day basis, it can be hard to do things like find an inclusive bathroom or just know which pronoun to use.
LAURA: Okay, there’s another word we wanted to talk about today.
LEAH: What are you thinking of?
LAURA: Well, I’ve been hearing Latinx a lot these days.
LEAH: Oh, that’s a really interesting one because it’s kind of an intersectional issue. It’s both a cultural identifier that’s used to describe people of Latin descent, but it’s also about gender. It’s a way to be inclusive of both Latina, Latino, or neither.
LAURA: Right, so let’s find out a little more about where this came from.
CRISTINA MORA: What I think is fun is that I don't think that this came from academia; although there's not great research on where the label, or the Latinx movement, started.
LEAH: That’s Cristina Mora.
CRISTINA: I'm Associate Professor of Sociology here at UC Berkeley. I'm also the co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies on campus. CRISTINA: We do think that it was much more of a youth movement and a youth movement connected to those that were really engaged in pushing immigration politics and pushing the undocumented issues to the fore, right? LAURA: Do you pronounce it Latin-x? CRISTINA: I just say “Latin-x.” [LAUGHS] LAURA: But there are some people who say… Latin-x? CRISTINA: Latin-x. Yeah, you know, it's not an official word in Spanish.
LAURA: Mora explained that there’s a long history in the Latinx community of creating identity labels for political reasons. Like Hispanic, for example. Spanish-speaking people didn’t always identify as “Hispanic.”
CRISTINA: Yeah. So if you look at the United States in the 1960s, for example, you'd see basically three totally different political worlds: In the southwest, Mexicans organized around issues of urban poverty, immigration, lack of bilingual education. In Miami, Cubans organized around issues of foreign politics like, and specifically, the Cuba issue. And in New York, Puerto Ricans were organizing around issues of Puerto Rican independence but also the conditions of Spanish Harlem and Puerto Rican barrios out there.
LEAH: But as separate groups, they were often ignored by politicians.
LAURA: Right. On a national scale, no politicians were courting Puerto Rican voters. Or Cubans. Or Mexicans. Separately there just weren’t enough of them.
LEAH: In the 1960s, around the time of Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, all these separate groups started to realize that if they banded together, they would have a lot more political power.
LAURA: But, in order to really come together as a unified group, they realized they needed a name.
CRISTINA: So when the Census Bureau was thinking about which should be the label, there was one thing that they wanted to have clear. They clearly thought that Spanish origin as a label needed to be the label.
LEAH: But other people didn’t like that because it seemed to only refer to people from Spain.
CRISTINA: So they came back with all kinds of labels. They came back with: “We want to be called ‘Brown.’ We want to be called ‘raza.’ We want to be called ‘Latin American.’ We want to be called ‘Latino.’ We want to be called ‘Latin.’”
LAURA: Nothing was quite right. Professor Mora called Brown a “statistical nightmare” because it might also include groups like Filipinos or Native Americans or lighter skinned African Americans.
LEAH: And “Latin American” had a sort of alienating sound, as if it were distinguishing Latin Americans from “regular” Americans.
CRISTINA: And this is important because a big push for Latino, or or pan-ethnic activists, at that time was to really say, “Not only are we large, and not only are we here from east to west, we are also Americans. We have fought in your wars. We have built your economies. We have populated your towns. We are part and parcel of American history.” Right? And so things like Latin American and Latino really, at that time, seemed to connote a foreignness.
LEAH: And thus—drumroll please—the term Hispanic was born! It was already really popular in New Mexico and Colorado. Plus it kept that Spanish root without referring only to actual Spaniards.
LAURA: And when the political parties looked at this group of so-called “Hispanics” they were like, “Whoa. This is actually a lot of people. We need to take them seriously and get their votes.” So basically, like Latinx, “Hispanic” wasn’t widely used to describe all people of Latin American and Spanish descent until we decided it was. And it probably felt weird for a little while. But now it’s totally a part of mainstream speech.
LAURA: So I was really surprised by this. Hispanic is a word that I had just sort of assumed had arisen more organically because it’s so seamlessly a part of our lexicon.
LEAH: Yeah, totally. I didn’t realize that words can come from a group of activists sitting down and saying: “We need a new word, so let’s invent one!”
LAURA: Yeah exactly. And if you think that’s interesting, listen to this: Latino/Latina is also not the only heritage group that has a gendered ending. Like, take for example, Filipino or Filipina.
LEAH: Oh, yeah, true.
LAURA: Apparently a couple of years ago, the AP style guide added “Latinx” and “Pilipinx.” That’s Pilipinx spelled with a p, not an f, because there’s no f sound in languages of the Philippines.
LEAH: But, I wonder if that means AP recommends always using those terms or only when referring to a group or a person of unknown gender.
LAURA: Well, the AP Stylebook now recommends that Latinx, “should be confined to quotations, names of organizations or descriptions of individuals who request it and should be accompanied by a short explanation.”
LEAH: Really? That sounds really distracting. So we’d have to say something like “Juanita, who identifies as quote unquote ‘Latinx’”?
LAURA: Yeah that seems to be the idea. And my first thought is that it sounds really invalidating to be put in quotes like that.
LEAH: Right. It feels a little like, “Leah, who is under the impression that she is a woman, said … .”
LAURA: Apparently this is also what style guides did when women first started using “Ms.,”—as in M-s period—instead of “Mrs.”—M-r-s period—or “Miss”—M-i-s-s—to denote their marital status. So the first uses of “Ms.” were “often accompanied by the explanation that that was what the woman ‘preferred to be called.’”
LEAH: Oh, God. So basically they were like: “I guess some women want to to be referred to as ‘Ms.,’ so we’ll let them do it. But we’ll use quotes to indicate that it’s still kind of weird and new, and we don’t necessarily agree with it.”
LAURA: Yep. That’s right.
LEAH: It’s kind of cowardly.
LAURA: Hmm. How so?
LEAH: It’s like they want to have their cake and eat it too. Like, they want to honor the person’s choice, but they don’t want to take a bold stand about how they think language should be.
LAURA: Yeah I see that.
LEAH: So … eventually, Latinx will just shed its quotes? Or not … ?
LAURA: If history is any indication, then, probably, yeah. Eventually. But, the point is that language is malleable. Things that used to have quotation marks around them, now we don’t think twice about them. “Ms.” is in every drop-down menu on every form you’ve ever had to fill out.
LEAH: And it seems like the common thread in these words—Latinx, they/them, and even maintenance holes—is that they’re created or adopted in a way to kind of build a different, more inclusive world through language. All we have to do is use them.
LAURA: You know, Leah, I’ve noticed that often the people who are the most resistant to these changes are the people whose identities are already represented by the existing language. So, of course, it seems kind of unnecessary to change something that’s working for you. Like, if you’re a man, you’re probably fine with saying “he” all the time. But whenever I see “he” on the page as a stand in for any person, it makes me uncomfortable. Like why he? Why not she? Like when I’m reading the Bible.
LEAH: So, Laura, you’re reading the Bible?
LAURA: Well, no. But maybe this is why. Look I just don’t like when they call God “he” okay? I feel like God should be above the he/she dichotomy.
LEAH: So more of a “they,” then?
LAURA: Yes! God would definitely use they/them. They created the Earth in seven days. There, we fixed it.
LEAH: We fixed the Bible!
LAURA: Finally! Someone had to do it.
LEAH: Alright, silliness and Bible talk aside—people who want us to use more inclusive language like they/them pronouns, or Latinx instead of Latino, they’re basically saying: If we’ve learned from history, it is possible—and maybe not all that hard—to make little changes in our daily speech that make other people feel like they exist.
LEAH: But there’s always an adjustment period. And even as we get more comfortable using words like “Latinx” and “they/them” and even “maintenance hole,” we’re going to make some mistakes.
LAURA: We wanted to ask Sam and Avi what we should do if we make a mistake and say the wrong pronoun.
SAM: I mean, everyone has, like, a different opinion—and, also, not only the person but depends on the situation. I think, in personal experience, the worst things that have happened is when people make a super, big fuss about it and then make it all about themselves. And so it's like, “Oh, my gosh, I'm, like, so sorry. I messed up. I'm, like, trying to be really good about it, but I'm not. And I'm so, so sorry.” And we're in like a public setting. And they've been going on for like, two, three minutes. And it's just unnecessary. For me, personally, I would just like the person to say, “I'm sorry—I messed up. I'll do better,” and then we move on. AVI: I would agree with that. It’s often really hard to correct people when it comes to pronouns, and I think people underestimate how many trans and non-binary people don’t—just for the sheer hassle—and because they’re trying to get through their own lives, or because they’re nervous or anxious. But when we do, what I feel and what I generally hear from other people—though it is a highly individual thing—is that mostly we wish we could just correct people quickly, and they correct themselves and maybe put in a quick “sorry.” But the most important thing is they correct themselves and keep going, and the worst thing is when people make a really big deal out of it. The worst I've ever gotten is people who act like I'm trying to shame them or, like, guilt-trip them when I correct my pronouns, but I really don't want to do that. I'm not looking to make anyone feel bad. I just want to maybe get the right pronouns. But sometimes people will go off on it. And I think that has a lot to do with their own self image, than with me, but it's really painful and awkward. LAURA: But you just want to move forward in your life and not have, like, this be a constant stumbling block. AVI: Yeah.
LAURA: Here’s the thing: Despite all the ongoing challenges of navigating bathrooms and airplanes and forms etc., etc., etc. … ultimately coming out as non-binary and using non-binary pronouns has made Sam and Avi’s lives a lot better.
SAM: I think when a kid doesn't have the language to, like, navigate dysphoria, or like gender identity, you kind of internalize, “Okay, like, everyone got some sort of manual when they were born, and I didn't get it, and I don't know what's wrong.” And you kind of just, like, accept that about yourself, and it just bleeds into your psyche [laughs]. But then afterwards, it's like, “Oh, no, like, this is a perfectly fine way of, like, existing as a human being. And there's, like, nothing inherently wrong or, like, defective.” And just, like, going about my day, having that knowledge, makes all the difference. LEAH: Can I say a kind of cheesy question? [LAUGHS] LAURA: Yes, please. LEAH: What's the best part about being non-binary or trans? SAM: I think it opens up a lot of, like, ways to think and ways to operate that aren't really in the realm of possibility if you, like, have a very narrow mindset of gender. I think going back to the idea of, like, romantic attraction and, like, intimacy, I felt really restricted because I didn't want to, like, you know, be like a woman engaging with a man and engaging with a woman. But then the moment I realized, like, “Oh, I'm nonbinary, and, like, I can engage with whoever I want, and I don't have to, like, fall into certain roles or like what people expect me to.” Like, life’s great [laughs]. AVI: I would agree just so much with the part of self expression and how much it's opened that up for me and how much more comfortable it's made me with myself. I can be in a relationship. I can relate to other people more. I just feel like I feel closer to the world as a person just because I can walk through this world as myself. And, honestly, that's the biggest thing for me. Every step in my transitioning, it has all been a change, but it has always been a change that has allowed me only to be more myself. LAURA: Thank you guys so much. LEAH: Yeah, thank you. LAURA: This has been really, really helpful. I realized I just said “guys,” which is … maybe not it's … I would be curious to hear what you think about that. LEAH: Yeah. AVI: I, personally, am fine with “guys,” but there actually are a lot of trans people who aren't fine with “guys” because it is low-key gendered. So, especially like, trans-feminine people who put in a lot of work into escaping being labeled as a guy. It's not very comfortable. SAM: I feel like this is a good example because, personally, I don't mind, but—because there are so many people who do mind—I've just, like, gotten rid of it because, like, what's the point? LAURA: Yeah, I do actually really want to rid it from my vocabulary. Y'all is kind of nice, you know? LEAH: I know. What do y'all use? AVI: Um, I use y'all or folks a lot, actually. LAURA: Thank y'all for coming in. LEAH: Thank y'all for coming in. [LAUGHS]
LAURA: So … talking to Sam and Avi really made an impression on me.
LEAH: I know—I’ve been thinking about the interview a lot.
LAURA: Like every time you hear a pronoun?
LEAH: Yeah, pretty much [laughs].
LAURA: No, but, seriously, after talking to them—not right away, but maybe a week later—I decided to change my email signature.
LEAH: To … ?
LAURA: Include my pronouns.
LEAH: Oh, yeah! How do you feel about it?
LAURA: Honestly, at first, I felt a little weird. Like, Hello, isn’t this obvious?” But I also felt like it was a good thing to normalize.
LEAH: Has anyone commented on it?
LAURA: Yeah one guy, an older gentleman, a lawyer who I was interviewing for a story, asked me why, and I explained that I was trying to be an ally.
LEAH: No way. How did he react?
LAURA: I thought he was going to be hostile or stubborn about it, but he actually wasn’t. He was just like, “Huh, okay.”
LAURA: Now we should do the last word. In this episode, and in all episodes, we’re going to give the last word to a man.
LEAH: Well, a young man: our boss’s kid Marco [Joseph]. Being rather young and optimistic and not-yet-jaded, he’s kind of like a voice of hope for the future.
LAURA: Okay, Marco. What do you think about pronouns? Like saying, like, “they”? MARCO JOSEPH: That's, that's perfectly fine. Like, I support that. Like, if you don't—if you're not a female or a male—then you’re a “they,” and that's, like, I think, that's totally fine. Like, if you're a they, that's okay.
LAURA: This The Edge brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m Laura Smith.
LEAH: And I’m Leah Worthington. This episode was produced by Coby McDonald, with support from Pat Joseph, Brooke Kottmann, and California magazine interns, Grace Vogel and Steven Rascón. Special thanks to Cristina Mora, Aviel McDermott, and Sam Ku. Original music by Mogli Maureal.
LEAH: And, of course, we couldn’t have done this without the man, the legend, Geoffrey Nunberg—who will be missed.
GEOFF: On fleek.