Gender is a fundamental expression of individual identity, not just a spectrum but a plane that extends in multiple directions. With it comes societal baggage — expectations of behavior, pronouns, and other aspects of identity. But for many students at Berkeley High School, there are as many ways to use she/they pronouns as there are to be human, all of them valid.
For junior Arunima Stoller, who uses she/her and they/them pronouns interchangeably, gender is intimately linked with expression.
“Gender is how I view myself and how I want the world to view me,” she said. Stoller uses their pronouns to help better unify their internal and external selves. “I’m a very femme portrayed person … I wouldn’t say that I dress (androgynously) … (but) I hope people think of me and refer to me in their mind (by saying) ‘Oh that’s Arunima, and they are yadda yadda,’” they said.
BHS freshman Kai Kort, who uses they/them pronouns with acquaintances and she/they pronouns with people they’re close to, sees gender as something that is both embraced and constrained by society.
“There’s physical expression, emotional expression … verbal expression … everything can be a form of expression,” Kort said. “If people aren’t binary, why do we confine them to binary terms?”
Emily Lao, a senior who uses she/they pronouns, experiences gender in a passive way, not leaning intensely towards any direction. “Sometimes I feel very fully a girl and sometimes … I’m not,” she said. “It doesn’t cause me any issues: I just exist.”
For Lao, the baggage and definitions of being a woman and using exclusively she/her pronouns overlap with their feelings of gender, but do not fully describe who she is. When they define themself, their femininity exists independently of their gender. “If I identified as a different gender, I would still feel equally as feminine,” she said. Terms like feminine and masculine are often assumed to be part and parcel with gender identity, but for Lao, they are separate entities. Lao was able to come to terms with their identity by seeing others around them not conforming to a cisgender, binary norm.
“Meeting people who were comfortable and identifying outside of the gender that they were assigned at birth made me realize, ‘Oh, I don’t have to fit this,’ ” she said.
Labels feel constricting for some, but for others they are essential in providing words for an unnamed feeling and a sense of shared experience.
“I do find it very helpful to find the label: it can sometimes help strengthen your sense of identity, and sometimes help you figure out how you feel or who you are,” Kort said. “My process of discovery usually either starts with overthinking things (or) intrusive thoughts … then I try to think about my gender: how I feel, what I would like. Then I go … to look at labels and see what I identify the most with.”
Their identity evolves as they learn more about themself.
Stoller also emphasized the importance of introspection in understanding her gender. “(In) quarantine I had a lot of time to reflect and … to get to know myself better,” they said. Finding that she/they pronouns fit right was not a sudden moment of epiphany for Stoller, but a slow building of feelings and confirmation.
“I don’t think I really had a big discovery where I was like: ‘this just changed my life,’” they said.
Lao’s experience with self-analysis and coming out was much the same. “It was never a really formal coming out thing. … I just started introducing myself with she/they pronouns and didn’t treat it as much of a big deal,” she said.
Lao, who said that she is most conscious of her gender when working as a woman in STEM, thinks that people of marginalized identities are not as supported as they could be.
“No one’s getting treated differently on the team, but there’s a lot more cis (heterosexual) white men than queer people or people of color,” they said. The issue might be around who is tacitly encouraged and assisted at BHS.
“(Solving the problem is) about making spaces for people to feel comfortable about exploring interests if they’re not cis men,” Lao said.