Tweens and teens explore the power of pronouns

By Matt Villano, CNN

Words mean everything to 13-year-old Amelia Blackney.

At a younger age, Amelia was definitely a “she”. The Santa Rosa, Calif. resident was born a girl, raised as a girl, and socialized with friends as a girl.

Somewhere along the way, Amelia’s feelings about gender identity started to change. Instead of identifying as a girl, Amelia started to feel different. About six months after turning 12, Amelia was ready to embark on a new life. The youngster celebrated with new pronouns: they.

“I didn’t feel like a girl, but I never really felt like a boy, so I had to find something that was in between,” Amelia said. “I opted for pronouns that did not represent a gender, but rather placed me between two genders. That way, it’s like I’m not part of either gender or I can be both genders at the same time. My pronouns now put me in a place where I can choose between different genders. It just seems right.

Amelia, who now identifies as non-binary, isn’t the only young person changing pronouns these days; Across the country, tweens and teens are embracing gender-neutral iterations of these familiar words.

Although data on people who switch pronouns is difficult to find, anecdotal evidence suggests more are ditching gendered words for ones that are less gender-specific and more flexible across the board. And parts of society are following suit: many people in educational institutions and corporate life include their chosen pronouns in their email signatures (some with links indicating why they matter), and Zoom lets people view their pronouns in their lists of names. .

Experts say three main factors are behind the phenomenon: more information about gender fluidity on the internet, an increase in high-profile celebrities such as Demi Lovato and Nico Tortorella adopting gender-neutral pronouns, and pronouns appearing more frequently in communication technologies.

“I see more young people stopping and evaluating who they are regardless of what people expect of them,” said New York-based health and sex educator Justine Ang Fonte. “It’s a powerful pause, a powerful reflection and exercise. This leads to significant achievements for everyone involved.

What’s in these words?

At first glance, words like he, he, she, and she seem insignificant; they are short and monosyllabic, and they are not as formal as the proper nouns they represent.

For those struggling with gender identity, however, pronouns are much more than a group of words that can function as nouns, Fonte said. Using someone’s correct personal pronouns is a way to respect them and create an inclusive environment, just as using someone’s name can be a way to show that person that you see and appreciate them. .

Additionally, actively choosing to ignore pronouns someone has reported using could imply that intersex, transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people do not or should not exist. Many who switch pronouns go from the binary he/him or she/her to something more expansive like they/them. Others opt for different versions of these traditional words – pronouns such as ey/em, ze/zir, xe/xir and more.

While some call these alternate pronouns “neopronouns,” other experts say they’re not new at all.

Dennis Baron, Professor Emeritus of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has spent more than 40 years researching a neuter third-person singular pronoun in English, and his 2020 book, ” What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond Him and Her,” sheds light on this topic.

Baron’s interest in pronouns has led to the discovery of over 200 coined pronouns over time. He noted that William Shakespeare regularly used the singular “they”.

“We tend to think of pronouns as a closed category, but over time they’ve become very open,” said Baron, who uses it. “These are common words. We tend to regard them as unimportant. And yet they are powerful.

Fluidity is at the rendezvous

A growing subset of young people are taking another approach: they are adopting identities for which all pronouns will work.

Take Sylvia Chesak, for example. The 14-year-old from Cincinnati said he uses ‘any pronoun’, which is a conscious decision to accept any pronoun at any time – a reflection of a gender identity that Sylvia called it rich, deep, complicated and beautiful.

“With my old pronouns, I just had a hard time picturing myself as her/her and I had a hard time just hearing her,” Sylvia wrote via text message. “When I realized I was uncomfortable thinking of myself like that, I started exploring more pronoun options. I saw someone online who used any pronoun and started imagining myself identifying like that. It was the first time I felt comfortable imagining myself and who I was, and I decided to feel good about myself. my skin (then) I would start using any pronoun.

Sylvia added that about a third of their classmates in ninth grade have changed pronouns in the past two years.

“People my age are very open about gender/sexuality identity, often asking spontaneous questions about people’s pronouns,” Sylvia wrote. “I’m happy to be in a community that understands the importance of pronouns, while also being willing to discuss them in any environment.”

These kind of comments make Ignacio Rivera happy.

Rivera, who uses the pronouns them/them, is the founder and director of HEAL Proect, a nonprofit organization based in Somerville, Mass., that teaches children about healthy living.

Rivera noted that genderless pronouns apply to all people, not just those in queer and gender nonconforming communities. They added that it is essential to encourage young people to explore their own identity in a variety of ways.

“To deny young people this right only speaks to the power and control that adults have over young people; it doesn’t allow them to live life on their terms,” Rivera said.

Expand the conversation

Pronouns are certainly part of the zeitgeist in the modern era.

Actors, singers, and celebrities who have come out as non-binary or gender-fluid in recent years include Lovato, Tortorella, Cara Delevingne, Ruby Rose, and Sam Smith.

Pronouns also appear in children’s and young adult books.

The 2021 children’s book “What Are Your Words?” focuses squarely on the subject, presenting it in an accessible and understandable way for children as young as 4 years old.

Author Katherine Locke penned the words to the book, hoping it will spark conversations between children and adults about gender and pronouns in general.

“I want kids and parents to understand that pronouns can change, just like we can change,” said Locke, who uses them. “A lot of adults don’t have the language to talk about pronouns and gender. Children do it naturally. The book is a time for children to model the behavior of their parents. It’s a chance to learn that what children discover is worth celebrating.

Maia Kobabe, a non-binary author and illustrator who uses the pronouns e/em/eir, turned her life story into the 2019 autobiographical graphic novel, “Gender Queer.” The book contains images that prompted school boards in 11 states to ban or challenge it last year. At the end of the story, Kobabe took readers on a journey to gender independence.

“I started to think of the genre less as a scale and more as a landscape,” Kobabe wrote. “Some people are happy living where they were born, while others must take a journey to reach the climate in which they can thrive and grow.”

Spark conversations with others

It’s one thing for tweens and teens to adopt new pronouns; it’s something completely different for the adults in their lives to embrace the new words.

Fonte, the sex educator, suggests adults can incorporate a simple query about pronouns into their standard greeting when meeting a young person for the first time.

“Besides asking, ‘What’s your name?’ you may ask, ‘What are your pronouns?’ ” she says. “We can’t assume a specific pronoun or gender identity because someone wears a skirt or plays football.”

For parents of children changing pronouns, the initial answer is everything.

Data from the Family Acceptance Project, an ongoing research effort at San Francisco State University, indicates that how parents and families respond to children when they go out or share information about their gender identity has lifelong effects on the mental health, well-being and physical health of children.

Rivera of Project HEAL said the best way to digest news of new pronouns is with curiosity.

“You can say, ‘Wow! Thanks for telling me. What do these new words mean to you?'” they said. “If something interests you, it means that the youngster will be comfortable answering you. If you’re interested in what they have to say, they’ll feel safe and keep sharing.

Jessica Carroll, director of programs at Positive Images, an LGBTQ center serving children in Sonoma County, Calif., said parents can admit they’ll likely “destroy” a child’s new pronouns multiple times before incorporate words into everyday language. Carroll added that it’s up to parents to adapt.

“Don’t wait to be corrected. Make the effort to correct the mistakes,” she said. “Showing that you are committed to adopting a young person’s pronouns will go a long way to making that child feel heard and seen.”

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Matt Villano, who uses the pronouns he/him, is a freelance writer and editor in Healdsburg, California.