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Sonoma student is more than just a pronoun

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“My pronouns are ‘they’ and ‘them’… and it’s important to me that you respect that,” said Sonoma Valley High School student Jose Valdivia when interviewed for an Index-Tribune article about gun violence protests last spring.

And with those six little words, this community newspaper was wrenched into the 2010s.

Born at Sonoma Valley Hospital just a week after 9/11, Jose is, in many ways, a typical 16-year-old.

The things that stress out the rising senior are the same that stress out all teens these days: Too much homework, too many commitments, balancing school with a social life. But what occupies a good part of Jose’s time these days is grappling with issues of gender identity.

Jose has felt different from their peers since preschool, and remembers hearing the word “gay” for the first time in third grade.

“A kid called me gay and when I asked my teacher about it, her explanation resonated with me,” Jose said.

Throughout elementary and middle school Jose felt bullied and developed anxiety.

“For anyone who is LGBTQ, trying to hide it is incredibly exhausting,” they said. “You filter everything you say and do. You have to think about the way you speak and walk and move your hands. You have to focus your entire being on acting normal.”

Jose had an epiphany one day when they saw a young boy with painted fingernails.

“I thought, wow, I wish I could have felt comfortable doing that at his age,” Jose said. “I always wanted to play with dolls, paint my nails, put on dresses, things like that. So I was like, if this kid can have his nails painted, then why can’t I, like, do something about myself?”

That evening, Jose came out to their traditional Mexican Catholic family. It was emotional, but their family responded positively.

High school was a turning point. Jose made new friends and joined the Gay Straight Alliance as well as a youth leadership team associated with Santa Rosa’s nonprofit LGBTQ Connections. One of the Connections leaders is gender nonbinary and their comfortable use of the “they” pronoun got Jose thinking.

“I’ve never felt like the standard idea of what a boy is in western society,” Jose said. “It’s never fit me, but I also don’t feel like someone who was given a male body and is actually female.”

A nonbinary gender and “they” and “them” pronouns is what feels right to Jose.

Could this maybe just be a phase?

Jose believes that gender identity and sexuality are fluid and do change over time.

“When I was younger, I identified as gay and now I don’t like that word,” Jose said. “Now queer is my gender identity. In a sense, it is a phase.”

Jose spends a lot of time thinking about labels and definitions.

“The label that I choose now is genderqueer,” Jose said. “I really like the word queer and how the LGBT community has reclaimed it.”

Jose is especially interested in queer theory, the academic study of the term.

“I think every person has their own definition but, for me, being genderqueer means that I’m different and I’m OK with that,” Jose said. “I’m happy that I don’t fit into a hypocritical heteronormative society.”

Jose is thoughtful and articulate, and this is how they talk, having spent countless hours combing the internet for scholarly articles on LGBTQ issues more broadly, and queer theory in particular.

“It’s is a cool field of literary criticism and sociology that’s about disrupting normalcy in society and deconstructing it,” Jose said. “From there, you learn about different perspectives and terminology.”

The internet has taught Jose a lot.

“I think for most LGBTQ people, the internet is the safest place to be and to exist,” Jose said. “In most towns, there’s no place where queer people can go and hang out, particularly if you haven’t come out yet. On the internet, you can always look up terms, ask questions, talk to other LGBTQ people.”

Jose’s thinking has evolved as they have spent time researching gender identity words like asexual, pansexual, demigirl to figure out what they really mean and to get a sense of what resonates.

“It’s super amorphous and how a person experiences their gayness or queerness is very different from individual to individual and has a lot to do with social class, religion, race, gender and definitely age,” Jose said.

Jose sees a huge generation gap in the LGBTQ community.

“The movement itself has changed so drastically that even though we share an LGBTQ identity, our experiences are vastly different,” Jose said. “There is very little common ground between someone who is Hispanic, transgender and disabled, for example, and an older white gay man.

“I find it offensive when people try to pin all gay people together.”

Jose seeks to improve the understanding and acceptance of broad LGBTQ issues at SVHS with their senior project.

Jose and classmate Jacquelyn Torres want the high school to offer a more LGBTQ inclusive curriculum, with at least one LGBTQ book taught in English from sophomore through senior year, and the brief unit on gay rights in the history curriculum expanded to the broader topic of queer justice.

“When you talk about gay rights, the first person that comes to mind is a white gay male, and not women, not people of color, not disabled people, not non-binary people,” Jose said.

In living skills, they want sex ed to include queer sex ed and for counselors to be trained to deal with LGBTQ issues.

Teachers and most classmates still refer to Jose using “he” and “him” pronouns. Jose plans to formally switch over in college.

“There, I will correct people if they try to address me with ‘he’ ‘him,’” they said. Jose plans on attending a four-year university and is spending this summer researching which colleges are truly LGBTQ friendly.

Jose will broach the pronoun topic this fall at SVHS but is hesitant to press the issue.

“It’s complicated,” they said. “A lot of the teachers wouldn’t really understand or know how to do it. And other students might think, ‘Why should I bother making you more comfortable.’ I don’t expect people to immediately be onboard, but I guess my hope is that they are open to it and that people can ease into and learn to respect it.”

Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.