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Sex in romance languages

What is academia doing to address the effect of gendered languages on nonbinary people?

Issue 4-03.jpg

Sex in romance languages

What is academia doing to address the effect of gendered languages on nonbinary people?

A note from the editors

The State Press is choosing to publish two versions of this story — one in English and one in Spanish — to more accurately represent the experiences of the diverse community of ASU students we cover in this and other articles. The Spanish version was written and edited by staffers fluent in the language, just as any story would be.

Read the story in Spanish here

Like many residing in the Los Angeles area, Charlie Mate was raised by Mexican immigrant parents. Mate, 24, is just one of a growing number of people today who does not identify as a man or a woman and uses the nonbinary pronouns they/them.

They came out to their mother as nonbinary years ago, and although they felt appreciative of her acceptance, the language barrier became palpable in the form of distance between family members. There has not been a shift in the feminine terms of endearment used to describe them.

“She doesn’t speak English so she doesn’t know how to say ‘them,’ and when she refers to me in Spanish it’s still very like ‘niña’ or ‘mija,’” Mate said of their mother.

When asked about the best diction in terms of referring to nonbinary Hispanic people, Mate said they still have yet to find it.

“I know people use the ‘X’ at the end of words, but it can be pretty awkward to say out loud,” Mate said.

Many academics agree with that sentiment. In Stacey K. Sowards’ “Discussion Forum on Latinx,” an article published by the University of Texas at El Paso, she argues that the term “Latinx” does not fit Spanish syntax in a way that feels natural. Therefore, this creates a barrier between recent Latino immigrants and American-born Latinos.

Gender-neutral identity is seen beyond the realm of academia. Apps like Facebook and Tinder offer users options beyond male and female when choosing a gender for their profile, and for many English speakers, this is not their first encounter with options like “genderfluid” and “nonbinary.” 

Pew Research Center found in 2019 that one in five Americans claimed to know someone who uses “they/them” pronouns. But for people accustomed to the masculine and feminine characteristics attached to even inanimate objects in other languages like Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French, the idea of a gender-nonconforming identity can be more convoluted. 

The use of words like Latinx is increasing within places of higher education, and ASU’s Department of Chicana/o Studies reflected that in 2007 by rebranding as the Department of Transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies.

The department's mission is to be "firmly committed to fostering civic and democratic engagement, cross-border cooperation and the continued scholarship effort necessary to produce much-needed changes and advancements.” 

Carlos Velez-Ibanez, regents professor and founding director emeritus for the School of Transborder Studies, has been with ASU since 2005 and said the name change was inspired by the desire to expand the arena of analysis and study.

“It’s about both sides of the border historically, linguistically and ecologically,” Velez-Ibanez said. 

Most recently, the school’s name was shortened to the School of Transborder Studies, and although the name was not changed with the idea of gender in mind, Velez-Ibanez said he feels it is important to reflect every gender and ethnic background that shaped the diverse history of the border.

He said speakers of a language give meaning to the words they use, not the other way around. As an example, he said although words like Chicana/o were prevalent in the 1930s, they did not become politicized until the 1960s when an influx of American-born people of Mexican descent sought language that adequately represented their presence.

According to research by Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, social mobilization for civil rights in the 1960s questioned the manner in which minorities in the U.S. were being integrated. The idea that non-white immigrant groups had to assimilate into and reduce differences between the native majority population diminished.

At the time, these words began to express political identities, and Velez-Ibanez said the same can be said for the way Spanish is being molded to fit genderless words created with English connotations. 

“Language is a function of use, not a function of definitions,” Velez-Ibanez said. “So we have to go through periods of utility and use and negotiation in order to achieve a kind of parity in the language.”

Even though its current director, Irasema Coronado, has only been with the school since July, she said that she has been working to provide students with the tools to uncover the interconnectedness of Chicano/a/x and Latino/a/x populations across the U.S.

“It's very important for people to understand their history,” Coronado said. “We need to be sensitive to the different experiences that people have.

Coronado said constant change is a good thing, despite the persistence of many generations in using words like “Latino” instead of “Latinx.”

“Other people feel that there's no need (to change) because that's just the way the language is, but if it makes people feel comfortable, I think that we need to be accommodating,” Coronado said.

Mate said that although they have family members who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, their family members often have to choose between more conservative sides of the family and those that use inclusive language. 

Mate said transphobia often affects other LGBTQ+ people because many older Hispanics have a difficult time grasping the difference between gender and sexuality, and therefore disapprove of anything that strays from social norms. 

“(My cousin) dresses in very masculine clothes and gets a lot of transphobic comments even though she isn’t trans,” they said. 

In the perpetual fight to create more inclusive spaces, Mate said they are still seeking language that brings people like them and their mother closer.

“I don’t know how to bring up how to refer to me in a way that’s not confusing for her but also not invalidating my identity.”

Ian Moulton, cultural history professor at ASU's College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, said the language a person speaks can change the way they view the importance of gender in language. 

“In English, we only use gender to refer to people and animals that have gender,” Moulton said. “We take it much more seriously in some ways because it indicates the gender, whereas in French or Italian it doesn’t really mean anything.”’

In contrast to the phenomena of Spanish, among many other languages, there lacks options for nonbinary people to refer to themselves. Though, Moulton said languages like German offer a third gender called neuter. 

“If you have a language with three genders, that's going to have a totally different effect because you have a sort of non-gendered option,” he said. 

For Michelle Rios, a success coach at Earn To Learn who identifies as nonbinary, advancing safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students of all cultural backgrounds is of utmost importance.

Earn to Learn is a matched-savings scholarship program in partnership with ASU where success coaches like Rios work one-on-one with students to help them budget their finances. 

Rios said that their upbringing with Mexican immigrant parents instilled cultural customs like machismo, a concept defined as aggressive masculine pride that often perpetuates gender norms.

Just as these norms can cycle through multiple generations, Rios said holding on to old phrases, even those that create barriers for nonbinary people, is a large part of Mexican culture. 

“Especially for those of older generations, language is really part of their culture, so seeing that change into an ‘X’ or ‘Latinx’ feels like a loss of culture,” they said. 

Rios said they apply their knowledge of the obstacles that come with being nonbinary and a speaker of a gendered language to their everyday work life as they aim to create a safe space for the students they coach.

“All of those that identify with Latinx culture in their blood should feel like they have a place in our community,” they said. “Regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Rios said one of the most impactful moments of their time at Earn To Learn was in a sensitivity training the company conducted in which staff members were given photos of multiple people of various ethnicities, fashion tastes and hairstyles and were told to infer what their gender identity and sexual orientations were. 

“It's that little light that they get when they're like, ‘Oh my God, there's more to this, there's more options, and it doesn't have to be one or the other,” they said. “There's a fluidity to it.”

For Rios, it was not until their time at a university that they said they were able to put themselves first and truly disregard the expectations of others, and they hope to see ASU fostering an environment for students to feel the same.

“Especially at a big and diverse campus like ASU, with such a strong queer community, it’s really great knowing that we have the tools to serve students in that community,” Rios said. “The more they do those types of trainings, the more societal norms break, the more people feel comfortable to be who they really are— not just in their personal lives but in their work life.” 

Reach the reporter at or follow @ziacrespo on Twitter. 

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