In late August of 2021, a Mexican student was participating in a virtual classroom discussion. In the Zoom window, next to the student’s name were two pronouns: “they/him.” Yet, one of the classmates refers to them as “her.” “I am not [her], I am [them],” they cried. Their emotional reaction to being misgendered went viral.
The video detonated a series of discussions across countries and social media platforms about language inclusivity.
The discussion mostly centered around adapting language to accommodate nonbinary people. Nonbinary people are those who do not identify as either female or male. ‘They’ and ‘them’ are gender-neutral pronouns that most non-binary people prefer.
In Spanish, however, things are a little more complicated as gender carries a bigger weight in the language. Instead of saying “classmate”, you would say “female classmate,” compañera, or “male classmate,” compañero. As a general rule, ‘feminine words’ end with “a” while ‘masculine words’ end with an “o.” When you talk in English you could simply switch a couple of words for “they or them” and make it neutral. This is not possible in Spanish.
In order to make Spanish more inclusive, some people have adopted inclusive language, changing the last letter of gender-based words to a neutral “e”: compañere, amigue, hermane. In the U.S. the “x” was adopted for the same purposes, such as for the word “latinx.”
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, not every person feels like they fit into the category of men or women, “some people have a gender that blends elements of being a man or a woman, or a gender that is different than either male or female. Some people don’t identify with any gender. Some people’s gender changes over time.”
“The truth is, it is a question of identity,” said Erandi Aguilar, a communications student in the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Aguilar is nonbinary and uses “she” and “they” pronouns.
This idea of gender fluidity is not new and has been part of different communities, notably in many Native American cultures.
The video that went viral sparked controversy, rejecting language inclusivity and with many people claiming that you cannot simply change the language.
There are people who “say that it’s a Western thing or it’s like an American thing that people are imposing on Latinos and we’re trying to sound white… when, in fact, activists in Central America and Mexico have been also using the x for a long time,” said Sebastian Ferrada, a professor in Emerson College who studies Latinx Studies.
“I think it’s just indicative [that]… language evolves over time. The way that we speak now is not how people spoke, you know, 30-40 years ago, or 100 years ago,” said Ferrada.
Languages often change, and just because a word, phrase, or way of speaking didn’t exist before does not mean it cannot be adopted.
“Languages change. Languages are not static, in fact, one of its characteristics is variation, and a variation can lead to change. That is to be expected,” said Maria Leonor Orozco Vaca, researcher of the Hispanic Linguist Center. “The abnormal thing is to assume that languages do not vary and do not change, that is something impossible.”
What and how language changes depends on society, she said.
“There are changes that are taking place very slowly, that hardly a person is going to see throughout their life,” Orozco said. She also mentioned that others are faster, and explained how these changes are motivated by social reality.
The fact that language inclusivity is not valid because it was not prevalent in Spanish before, and that “that word does not exist” are two common arguments that Orozco hears from those who oppose language inclusivity. She disagrees with both arguments.
“Words like ‘elle’ or ‘amigue’ are real simply because people use them. Just because a word is not in a dictionary, it does not mean it does not exist, it just means that “the dictionary hasn’t picked them up,” she says.
Both Orozco and Ferrada agreed that people often use someone’s way of speaking to discriminate against them, saying that their way of speaking is either good or poor. Orozco calls this “linguistic biases” and Ferrada commented on how this sometimes pushes racists and classist ideas.
“What’s really about is that kind of deep-rooted transphobia. And it’s like, we don’t want to acknowledge or they don’t want to acknowledge trans and gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people,” said Ferrada.
In reality, there isn’t a superior way of speaking a language, just like a community’s way of speaking isn’t better than someone else’s.
But language inclusivity simply comes back to respect.
“It’s not that it’s right, it’s not that it’s wrong, it’s just about having empathy,” said Aguilar. She explains how not respecting someone’s pronouns is hurtful for them. “If someone tells you that you are hurting them, well just listen to them.”
What’s really important is not to make people uncomfortable, said Jess Alarcon, a Mexican high school student who identifies as nonbinary. “For example, a cis, heterosexual man would be irritated if someone calls them “her,” because they usually [get irritated] and well it’s just about respect. Tell me how you want me to treat you and I am going to treat you like that, with whatever pronoun. What’s important is that you feel comfortable,” they said.
When it comes to the video that went viral, both Aguilar and Alarcon thought the student’s reaction was awaited.
“I don’t think it was a bad reaction, but a human reaction,” said Alarcon.
“It was hurtful when I saw the video for a second and third time because I thought that I am going to be that person very soon,” Aguilar said. “I would’ve reacted the same way. If I were them I would do the same thing. I relate, I relate and a tear fell. I send them a hug.”
Inclusive language is more than just changing how we orally speak.
Aguilar shares how platforms should also be changed. She referred to the forms that students are often directed to fill out. In school, for example, Aguilar said there’s “the gender list, ‘men’ and ‘women’ that hasn’t been updated in university. That’s a little uncomfortable.” There are also expressions like “bienvenido”, which is a male form of welcome.
Outside of school, Alarcon also feels judgment.
“Usually in the street, [because] of the way I dress, people look at me nastily. But really I take it lightly because people are so judgy,” they said. “I had rejections from people who I used to be friends with after I started [identifying] myself as nonbinary they didn’t [understand] and they alienated and didn’t want to spend more time with me because they didn’t [understand]. I tried to educate them but they weren’t interested.”
In Spanish, using inclusive language is not as easy as switching to they/them, but both Aguilar and Alarcon agree that trying is the key.
Aguilar’s first tip is to have patience. “It’s normal to make mistakes,” she said.
“The most important thing is to get educated,” Alarcon said. “Simply get educated and respect everyone and every gender identity.”
Aguilar also shared that using inclusive language doesn’t have to radically change how you speak every day. “I think it depends a lot in the context because if we talk about a conversation between two cis, heterosexual men that are talking about inclusive language well obviously I don’t think they’ve been interested in changing the word compañere for example,” they said. “So I think that the more people are in the conversation the more you should be more careful with how you address others. I think it’s too soon for everyone to think at what level we need to normalize the words but I hope it’s soon,” she said.
Nevertheless, Ferrada adds that it is not the job of nonbinary people to teach everyone about language inclusivity.
But Alarcon says that it is okay to ask questions as long as you are respectful and empathetic.
“We can tell when it really is about [not knowing] and when it really is about bothering someone,” she said. “Don’t be afraid, simply ask and start using [the language].”