“They” and the Emotional Weight of Words

Language is the space in which we carve a place for ourselves, where we demand to be seen. A reflection point for culture, community, and family to acknowledge our existence on our terms. For decades, “butch” was the only identity and term available to those of us who identified as “masculine of center.” Like many others, I lived in that space. There was much about it that I loved: the community of brotherhood, the worship of femininity, the gentility of the old-school butches. Yet, like so many other words, butch failed to capture the full depth of my soul. Its White cultural origins and resulting denial of my Black body took its toll.

I went in search of myself. I took a detour on the road to law school and, instead, went to study gender at the London School of Economics. The lone student in my Gender Research program, I cobbled together stories, interviews, and research on how our gender identity and expression become language that makes us visible in the world. In the powerful piece from the disability justice movement, “Disease Is Not A Metaphor,” essayist and librarian Cyrée Jarelle Johnson argues that “there are not more important things to think about than words, because the things that you say are the substance of your thoughts, which become the things that you do and the biases you keep close to your chest.”

Over the past decade, young people of color have created an alternative conversation around identity that has since spilled into everyday lives. From social media to college campuses and community spaces, the emergence of terms like “boi” has challenged the language and imagination of people everywhere. Instead of he or she: “they.” And they are using multimedia platforms to push the boundaries of the understanding of masculinity and femininity. It’s hard work. The daily pushback against a world that is constantly trying to make you stay in a gendered box makes you resilient but incredibly tired. Doing it in a way that offers people the humanity they themselves sometimes deny to you requires grace.

Almost every day, whether at work or standing in line at the grocery store, we too often miss opportunities to meet someone where they are in their gender understanding and help them change the way they think about gender. Instead, we’ve made it perfectly normal to educate someone by “checking” them on their lack of understanding. This approach inadvertently creates a call-out culture that reinforces hypermasculine negativity. One of the most powerfully feminine things one can do is to create; it’s a courageous act. We should be encouraging people to create and build new ways of approaching language, not cultivating fear and shame around not knowing the right thing to say.

The way forward starts from a place of vulnerability and love. A daunting feat, yet, in my life and work, it has been profoundly moving.

It begins with relationships. Even in small interactions, we can create connections that allow us to challenge one another with a goal of greater understanding. At restaurants, I gently let folks know we don’t go by “ladies” and offer up “folks,” “peeps,” “homies,” and “fam” instead. When they inevitably apologize, I remind them that we are only just meeting. How would they know the language I choose to reflect myself? I have no expectation that they will know my preferred pronoun. The interaction makes it clear that they should not simply assume gender preferences and that asking is actually welcomed.

Pronouns can be the basis from which all of us learn to see and respect each other’s identity. “What pronoun do you prefer?” is always welcome. It shows respect, intention, and commitment to see me as I see myself.

The entire lexicon for how we understand gender is shifting. For many of us, it can be a weighty, disorienting experience. But for a handful of us, this is a moment of freedom. If each of us does our part to challenge old language that pushes us back into small gender boxes, all of us will be a bit more free. Eventually we will align language with the complexity and beauty of our bodies and our authentic selves.



Cole wrote this article for Gender Justice, the Summer 2016 issue of YES! Magazine. Cole holds an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics and has worked as a community facilitator, strategist, and consultant for the past 15 years. In 2010, Cole launched the Brown Boi Project, the first program in the country to bring Trans men, Queer men, straight men, and masculine-of-center women of color together to build a new vision of masculinity. They work to change the way communities of color talk about gender in the United States.


Shiva, Shakti, BBP and an Ethic of Love

by Niralli D’Costa

In my spiritual tradition, Shiva (the divine masculine) falls at the feet of Shakti (the divine feminine) in full surrender and devotion. He is unconditional awareness and absolute love and She is the dance of creation and destruction that is the continual unfolding of the Universe. One cannot exist without the other.  On a social level, love is expressed as justice. Justice reflects a balance in relationship to various parts of a whole. In the realm of society, the divine masculine principle can be seen as promoting balance through justice while the divine feminine is expressed in the diverse manifestations of individual identity, roles, and expression.

At a time in our culture when both masculine and feminine energies have been distorted to reflect human ignorance and greed, we see the manipulation and commercialization of the feminine in the form of life negating standards of beauty and the exploitation of Earth’s resources, and the abuse of the masculine in power imbalances resulting in inequality and injustice. Under these circumstances it can be easy to feel angry and want to deconstruct the systems that are responsible for so much suffering. As a result many of our social movements excel at critiquing the social structures and norms that cause so much pain and suffering for us all, but seem to have forgotten the essential link between love and justice.

The Brown Boi Project draws this connection between love and justice by building transformative relationships based in mutual reciprocity at the crossroads of the gender justice, racial justice, and lgbtiq social movements.  Relationship based social change is at the core of Brown Boi’s work of generating new models of healthy masculinity. Brown Boi asks people to examine the privilege they hold because of their masculinity in our male dominated society. This kind of reflective work requires the kind of love and awareness that Shiva as a representative of the divine masculine represents.

Brown Boi works with people of color that identify with masculinity across a spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation including straight cisgender men, queer men, gender non-conforming and trans men, and masculine women. This inclusivity reflects an embrace of the divine feminine manifest in the diverse range of human experience and expression. Brown Boi’s gender justice framework is rooted in the understanding that transforming masculinity lies in coming into right relationship with the feminine both within and out in the world. If you have ever been in a BBP space you have felt the sense of inclusiveness and embrace of the continuum of gender expression and racial identities. Beyond that there is a feeling of safety knowing that your challenges and shortcomings will be met with authenticity and love. BBP invites us to show up with all of who we are, knowing that without full acceptance, transformation is not possible. Just as Shiva does not exist with Shakti, the BBP knows that the work of social transformation does not exist without relationships based in love.


Niralli D’Costa (MFT #54007) is a Holistic Psychotherapist and founder of the Oakland Holistic Psychotherapy Center. Niralli teaches people to access the wisdom inherent in their bodies and in 2013 launched the experiential workshop series Moving Through the Chakras. To learn more about Niralli’s work visit her website at http://www.nirallitara.com

Photo Credit: Vay Miko Hoang, March 2011 Cohort