As an agender teen, Sasha’s gender identity does not align with either male or female characteristics, and they prefer gender neutral pronouns rather than the traditional he or she. Sasha views gender not as a binary difference between male and female, but as a spectrum with varying degrees of masculinity and femininity, including even the absence of gender. Of course, the English language relies on binary words and definitions, and Sasha is frequently at odds with the gendered words used to described them. By blurring the lines between male and female, guilt and innocence, and victim and offender, Slater implies that most people, regardless of their gender identity, do not neatly fit into binaries. Thus, Slater argues the significance of inclusive, nonbinary language, and the importance of appreciating life’s gray areas.
In addition to gendered pronouns, Sasha’s identity is out of place in other binary circumstances as well. Sasha’s signature outfit, a mismatched skirt paired with a shirt and vest, is a “sartorial gender mash-up” that is “masculine above, feminine below.” As neither a man nor woman, Sasha dresses as both at the same time. While on a family trip, Sasha’s father stops at a roadside rest area, but the public bathrooms are labeled Men and Women. “There’s no bathroom for me,” Sasha tells their parents and proceeds to hold their bladder for a full six hours. Since the bathrooms are labeled in gendered, binary terms, Sasha is not represented in this limited description. Lastly, even Sasha’s own name must be modified to better suit their gender needs. Initially born as Luke, they desire a more unisex name and decide on Sasha, “the Russian nickname for both Alexandra and Alexander, which was Sasha’s middle name.” For Sasha, this new ambiguous, gender-neutral name is the “perfect” way to express their nonbinary identity, which, evident by these examples, is an exceedingly important part of their life.
Because of their nonbinary identity, Sasha attempts to broaden society using nongendered language, further underscoring the importance of inclusive language. As a child, Sasha creates their own language that has “pronouns that distinguish between animate and inanimate objects” rather than “pronouns that distinguish between male and female.” In Sasha’s language, everybody is equally represented and included. After their attack, Sasha petitions Barak Obama’s White House to “legally recognize genders outside of the male-female binary, and provide an option for those genders on all legal documents and records.” As agender, Sasha has never been able to check a box next to their applicable gender, and they garner over 27,000 signatures supporting their basic human right to be acknowledged by their government and represented on official forms. Furthermore, when Sasha notices that their father, Karl, a kindergarten teacher, logistically organizes his students into two gendered lists of boys and girls, they quickly come up with an alternate solution. Sasha reorganizes the class into two lines of “A – M and N – Z,” dispensing with gender all together. “Turned out, Sasha was right,” Karl says. “Kindergartners don’t want to be pigeonholed.” Like Sasha, Karl’s students don’t want their gender projected onto them by others. Instead, the children respond better to more inclusive, nonbinary language.
Slater juxtaposes Sasha’s nonbinary identity and the importance of inclusive language against the binary nature of Richard’s legal circumstances. While Slater condemns Richard’s actions as senseless and cruel, she also appreciates the hardships that Richard endures after one poor, split-second decision changes his life forever. As a sixteen-year-old black boy, Richard is vulnerable to the systemic and institutionalized racism that plagues American society, and this, coupled with his young age, means that he never gets a fair shake. Richard is charged and tried as an adult for hate crimes that he didn’t intend with consequences that he doesn’t fully understand. In this light, Richard becomes less an adult and more a child, less of an offender and more of a victim, even less guilty and more innocent. To view Richard in a binary nature, Slater maintains, is to ignore critical aspects of his case, and it is in this way that she continues to argue the importance of inclusive language and the dangers of binary thought beyond the example of gender.
Binary Thought and Inclusive Language ThemeTracker
Binary Thought and Inclusive Language Quotes in The 57 Bus
Oakland, California is a city of more than 400,000 people, but it can still feel like a small town. Not small geographically, of course. The city sprawls across seventy-eight square miles, stretching from the shallow, salty estuary at the edge of San Francisco Bay to the undulating green-and-gold hills where bobcats and coyotes roam. What makes it feel small is the web of connections, the way people stories tangle together. Our lives make footprints, tracks in the snows of time. People know each other’s parents or siblings, their aunties and cousins. They go to school together, or worship together. They play sports on the same team, or work in the same building. The tracks cross. The stories overlap.
All languages embody the obsessions of the people who speak them, and so Sasha’s language was meant to reflect the interests of people whose world was dominated by growing seasons, grains, and harvests. Instead of pronouns that disguised between male and female, Sasha’s language had pronouns that distinguished between animate and inanimate objects. The word for sun was jejz, which was also the word for day. The difference was that sun was considered animate, a being, and day was considered inanimate, a thing.
Most of us see gender and sexuality and romance as one big interconnected tangle of feelings—this is who I am, this is who I’m attracted to, this is who I love. But as Sasha began exploring the topic online, they found that some people had developed language for combing the tangle into individual strands. In these online conversations, the word sex referred purely to biology—the chromosomes, organs, and anatomy that define male and female from the outside. Gender was the word for what people felt about themselves, how they felt inside. Sexuality was the category for who you were physically attracted to. Romantic was the category for who you felt romantic attraction to. And there was a whole array of distinctions within each category as well. It was like a gigantic menu, with columns and columns of choices.
Discovering the existence of genderqueer identity felt like discovering a secret room. All this time there had been just two rooms: male and female. Now it turned out there was another room—one that could be furnished however you wanted. The more time Sasha spent in the room, the more comfortable it felt. But the person who lived in this new room still had a boy’s name—Luke. By the second half of sophomore year, that name clearly no longer fit.
“I don’t want for people to think of me as a he, and when they say he, not only does it reinforce in their brains that I am a he, it also reinforces in the brains of the people who are listening,” Sasha explains. “It doesn’t really directly affect me, at least to hear it—it’s more like, Huh, that’s not right. And when people use the right pronoun, it feels validating.”
It was tough sometimes, watching Sasha navigate a world that didn’t even have a category for them. Occasionally, Debbie wished Sasha would ease up a little—resist correcting well-meaning relatives who said he instead of they, for example. But there was something admirable about it, too, Karl pointed out. Knowing how shy Sasha was, he admired Sasha’s newfound willingness to speak up, to stand out, to be seen.
“That boy was on fire, wasn’t he?” a man remarks as Sasha pushes through the back doors to the sidewalk. Behind him, Sasha’s mustached rescuer paces the aisle. “Call an ambulance,” he croaks. He goes to the door of the bus and calls to Sasha, who roams the sidewalk with a cell phone, charred legs. “You need to call an ambulance, man.”
“A passenger on an Oakland, Calif., public bus received burns to his legs after his kilt was set on fire,” UPI wrote. The word kilt seemed to have gotten lodged in the minds of reporters. It was in every report, as if Sasha had been on the way home from bagpipe practice. The Daily Mail, in the United Kingdom, even illustrated the report with a photo of a kilt, explaining a kilt is “the national dress of Scotland.”
“What I want is for people to be confused about what gender I am,” Sasha explained later. That didn’t happen too often—people tended to see Sasha as male. So it was a nice change to be seen as female.
“Actually,” [Andrew] said, “I’m starting to identify a little bit as—I don’t even know the word I want to use yet. I like androgynous. I like genderqueer.” What held him back? Fear. Fear of other people’s judgements, their questions, their hostility, their fascination. “Because I fall neatly within the binary, I feel comfortable right now,” he explained. “But if I were to radically shift my appearance in a way that more androgynous, I don’t know how comfortable that would be for me. I mean, I’ve already been asked enough questions about my genitals. I’m just done with that.”