Olivia knows how the world sees them. The 13-year-old often has to pause conversations to interject, saying, “Please ask people their pronouns before addressing them,” and, “Please respect my pronouns,” after someone has taken a glance and incorrectly labeled them as female.
While some people are receptive and eager to not misgender Olivia, a seventh grader at Public Academy for the Performing Arts in Albuquerque who declined to give her last name for fear of discrimination, other people are not.
One reply Olivia has received sticks out to them: “No, [I will not address you by those pronouns]. That’s not normal.”
Reactions like that do not differ from what the majority of social interactions are like as a noncisgender person, Olivia explained.
Santa Fe Prep junior Atlas Power wholeheartedly agrees, then quickly adds that he believes “most people are trying their best” to respect people’s pronouns, but a lack of education on queer history and existence makes it difficult for a lot of people to understand the importance of doing so.
But even many people who are accepting of visible queerness and gender fluidity in society have an idea about what that should look like.
“Androgyny is seen to be a skinny, white woman dressing masculine,” said Annie Liu, 25, who works at Santa Fe Playhouse. For society to finally be ready to embrace everybody, Liu explained, they can’t take a fraction of the community and call it inclusion.
Salem, a sophomore at the Academy for Technology and the Classics who declined to give their last name, describes a better way to visualize the spectrum of gender beyond the boxes of cis male and cis female.
“A multiplication grid,” he explained, with male (blue) and female (red) in opposite corners. There’s room for people who are neither (yellow), and people who are fluid (purple). Within the spaces between, or included in multiple, is room for any person looking to find their gender.
Progressing to adulthood is frightening and foreign when there’s no blueprint to follow.
“I didn’t know how it would be for us [queer teens] as adults,” Salem said. Being able to recognize his queerness for most of his life, he said, “It’s not something where you can realize a turning point.”
There are powers at play for queer youth, though. Leaders and allies of the LGBTQ+ community are taking compassionate steps to create a more equitable and supportive environment for teens.
“I am a man, but I can empathize [on the queer/fluid/demi/nonbinary experience],” said Kevin Bowen, head of Human Rights Alliance of Santa Fe.
Bowen sides with Power, saying a lot of fear and hatred toward LGBTQ+ people comes from a lack of understanding and not growing up in a society where people were allowed to present themselves as anything other than the gender they were assigned at birth.
Another ray of hope for queer and trans youth is knowing there are adults out there like them, that their gender and existence are not just a phase, that there’s a path to adulthood, a family and a profession.
Mark Westberg, a well-known Santa Fe performer, sheds light on their gender-fluid adulthood, highlighting that your gender is your own, and “it doesn’t need to pass anybody’s test.”
Ultimately, your gender is not something you have control over, and neither does anyone else, they explained. The only decision is whether you are going to tap into the complexities of gender within yourself, and that decision is yours.
“You will eventually find the unconditional love that you are so incredibly deserving of,” said Westberg, acknowledging that coming out is scary, and there are legitimate dangers that queer people face.
Power shares his experience with accepting his identity, saying, “I’ve never really presented myself the way society wanted me to.” Younger Power was more or less unfazed by being “different” though, he said.
“In second grade, I had an identity crisis: I’m a tomboy who paints his nails,” Power said. But even now, he said he struggles within himself.
“It feels strange for me to date a guy who’s femme because I’m femme,” before adding “That’s so stupid! … Femme and masc really mean nothing!”
Exposure to the community can help young people discover and embrace their identity. An example is 16-year-old Jacob Morales. “I was heavily in the queer community before I knew how I fit into it,” he said. “When I found a term that worked for me … it just felt safe.”
Despite this, Jacob said he still ends up experiencing anti-LGBTQ+ language, education and behaviors.
“Knowing there are people out there who are not OK with me existing is scary,” he said, trying to compact the queer experience into something society as a whole can empathize with. Still, Jacob is glad he is not alone in bringing visibility to the stories of people from every gender.
Many feel there is much left to be done. While LGBTQ+ people are able to speak for themselves, there are still many people who aren’t willing to listen. One way to create a more inclusive culture is to teach children about the expanse of gender in schools.
Making others aware of the realities nonbinary, trans and gender-fluid individuals face is the first step of creating a more empathetic society where people are no longer belittled by strangers, classmates and even medical professionals; where bathrooms are no longer hostile or taboo environments.
And where “it’s a phase” is no longer said to anyone whose identity lies beyond a restrictive and often harmful norm.
Emma Meyers is a sophomore at Santa Fe Prep. You can contact her at email@example.com.