“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.”