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Deconstructing Gender: Latinx Queer Identity in Los Angeles

in The Word is Text by

by Jose Medrano Velazquez

PLEASE NOTE: This article will be discussing queer identity and will use terms that might not be familiar to most. Please refer to the bottom section of this article for definitions.

In today’s America, we seem to be one of the most progressive countries for LGBTQ+ individuals, yet our understanding of queer identity is not as strong as it needs to be. The struggle of transgendered and genderqueer individuals in particular is often ignored or their identities are targeted and invalidated by both the cisgender heterosexual community as well as even other members of the LGBTQ+ community. Although queer issues come in a variety of forms from politics and policy to media representation, this article’s goal is to provide insight on the non-binary experience within Latinx culture. Keep in mind that queer people of color disproportionately are affected by hate crimes. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that 50% of LGBT homicide victims in the U.S. were trans women of color.

A few days ago I sat down with a longtime friend from high school (who friends have nicknamed Kho) who was designated female at birth, and identifies as non-binary. Both they and I are non-binary individuals who come from Mexican families and live/were raised in Los Angeles, CA. We had a discussion about the struggles that come with our identities as non-binary individuals in a seemingly progressive city that still has it’s boundaries.

Many of us are familiar with the idea of “coming out,” but we tend to think of coming out only in terms of sexuality and not gender. Sexuality and gender are independent of each other. I came out as bisexual (now identifying as simply queer in both gender and sexuality) to my mother at the start of my freshman year of college in 2015. At first my mother was tremendously upset and tried to use her Catholic ideals against my identity, claiming that God did not want that for me and that although she loved me she could not accept my sexuality. It is interesting how she turned to religion although she is not a very religious person; it is clear that catholicism is very much instilled in Mexican life. Over the last three years she’s grown to accept me and more recently I did not need to come out but I started to explain my non-binary identity and how I don’t feel comfortable with the gender expectations and masculinity of man, and that I also do not feel I can relate to womanhood or femininity. My gender and experience with identity is unique and doesn’t need labels. She still does not fully understand it all, and of course gender is a social construct that’s really challenging to deconstruct. I am fortunate however to have a mother and also friends and cousins who accept me for who I am and want to see me grow. The only challenge is my grandmother who is aware of my identity and keeps trying to impose masculinity and finding a girlfriend to get married and have children with even though I’m only 20.

For Kho, the situation is a lot more complex. Although their friends embrace Kho’s identity, they still haven’t been able to come out to their family. Kho says they started realizing their genderqueer identity and sexuality around 2010 when they were 13 but still has not been able to come out to due to circumstances at home. Their family is shaped by a patriarchal mold where their father is a driving force of machismo and enforcing gender roles. Kho was forced to wear dresses and act feminine when they were younger and felt pressured when all they wanted to do was “put on cool light-up sketchers and run with the guys.” One of the biggest moments of rebellion yet self-care was when Kho cut their hair. They told me, “The biggest thing with my dad was that I was notallowed to cut my hair. When I was in middle school I had hair down to my hips. I, of course, was tired of it. I wanted a pixie cut or hair at my shoulders but he said that was for boys. I remember when I first cut (my hair), he didn’t talk to me for two weeks. He completely ignored my existence.” When things started to click for Kho, they started asking themselves: “What does that mean for me? I don’t wanna be completely masc(uline) so I don’t identify as trans. So what does that make me? A tomboy?”

Another issue that Kho has had to deal with is their father’s treatment of their brother. Anytime Kho’s brother shows his feelings, cried, or done anything really seen as feminine (and as we’ve both noticed, in patriarchal society anything perceived as feminine equates to weak), he is harassed and told to “man-up.” Kho has to be a support system for their siblings and helping them feel comfortable regardless of how they have to act at home. It’s important to look at why the family structure is the way it is, and Kho brings up why it might be so: “His dad was even worse than he is. My dad lived in the pueblos…in the smaller towns they’re still looking at things in a very old way.” Personally, I grew up in a household of women. My grandmother is the matriarch and my father hasn’t really been around since I was 12. Yet interestingly enough, masculinity is still expected.

Toward the end of our conversation, we talked about the idea of an androgynous space: a space that plays with aspects of both femininity and masculinity and aspects that rebel against that idea of binary self expression. We fantasized about a world where we all can coexist without gender and gender roles influencing our perceptions of each other. There is massive privilege in living in Los Angeles where we can safely express ourselves as we see fit, and our issues of outward expression and feelings at home are relatively minor in comparison to the suffering that those in other countries (and even other states) go through daily. Still it is important to keep in mind that our identities aren’t something we woke up one day and chose, our identities are fluid and natural and the way others interact with us can be harmful to our mental health and self esteem. Both Kho and I have decided to use our Los Angeles privilege to live empowered lives, and maybe hopefully inspire others along the way. We’ve also noticed that many like us and especially those younger than us are starting to deconstruct gender.According to J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group, only 48% of Generation Z identifies as “completely heterosexual,” and most reported knowing someone who identifies with pronouns such as “they/them.” It’s a day by day process but by understanding our cultural backgrounds and misconceptions, we can begin to deconstruct the ideas of gender that bind us.

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Queer Identity Vocabulary (According to Merriam-Webster with annotations by Jose Medrano Velazquez):

Cisgender: of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth. ** The concept of being cisgender can vary across cultures and the gender roles each culture assigns to a given sex. The term designated at birth refers to the gender (and its roles) one is expected to take on based on their sex. Those who identify with their culture’s definition of their designated gender are cisgender.

Transgender: of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth; ** A reminder that transgender is an adjective and not a noun.

Binary: a division into two groups or classes that are considered diametrically opposite. ** In the context of queer identity, the binary refers to the idea that the sexes male and female must be opposites and that gender is linked to sex. This is far from true. A human can be born intersex, which is both in their chromosomes and physical, and gender does not match sex.

Non-binary: relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female. ** Similar ideas of identity include gender queer, gender variant, gender fluid (which could possibly identify with both parts of a binary). The idea of gender queer or non-binary/variant identity is that an individual feels most comfortable identifying on their own terms, and not based on designated norms ideas that society might have about one’s assumed gender solely based on appearance or sex.

A final note: remember that one’s outward appearance (physically AND the way they might dress) and sex is irrelevant to that person’s gender identity or even sexual identity or their pronouns. Only a single individual has the right to identify as they like, and we might (consciously or not) make assumptions, but we must respect what they identify with and not what we want them to identify as. That individual also gets to choose their own pronouns (which are also not tied to outward appearance or sex) based on whatever they feel comfortable with. A common pronoun is the singular they/them/theirs which makes no assumptions

The El Popo Newspaper was first published in 1970 by students concerned about the lack of a Chicana and Chicano perspective in newspapers. As a result, students called the newspaper, El Popo. The paper was named El Popo after the volcano El Popocatepetl. Involved in Chicana/o Movement of the 60’s and 70’s, students saw a connection between the smoke spewing volcano ready to erupt and the student movement ready to engage. Thus, throughout the El Popo’s forty-six years, the name continues to symbolize and to represent the spirit of each generation of students that contribute to the pages of the El Popo Newspaper. Faculty Advisor/Publisher Carlos R. Guerrero, Ph.D.