When your language denies your existence: being a non-binary Portuguese speaker & writer

So, I’m Brazilian. If you follow me on Twitter (@_renoliveira) or on my personal Tumblr (sunsettprince), you probably already know that – I talk about being Brazilian/about Brazil a lot. I also talk a lot about my first language, Portuguese, and how much it infuriates me sometimes. Now, don’t get me wrong – I love Portuguese, and in a way I probably will never love English. I think it is much more prettier than English, if I’m being honest (overall I think romantic languages are the prettiest languages but that’s me, I guess), but English gives me something Portuguese doesn’t: the opportunity to exist as a non-binary person.

Portuguese is a heavily gendered language. Everything has a gender. A chair is feminine. A wardrobe is masculine. A pen is feminine too,  but a pencil is masculine. A fork and a plate are masculine, but a knife is feminine. And so on. For a English native speaker, I guess none of this makes much sense, but for me it’s normal. If the above paragraph had been written in Portuguese, I would have had to chose between using masculine or feminine language in the first line. I would have had to chose between “announcing” myself as a men or a woman with that first “Brazilian”.

If non-binary genders are not well known in the U.S., the situation is much worse in Brazil – for those not active in the community, that is, and language plays a part in that. Portuguese doesn’t allow you to think beyond the binary of man or woman, so how could someone who isn’t completely one or another exist? Or someone who is neither? The language doesn’t allow this way of thinking. It’s always a man or a woman, um menino or uma menina, and it is almost impossible to get away from that. Everything is gendered, and it is suffocating.

This was huge for me growing up. I know it is for every non-binary person (hell, for every trans person), it doesn’t matter your native language, but when your language reminds you all the time that you are gender x and you kind of feel off about that, it takes a toll. And then, when you finally realize why you feel off about being gendered all the time, you also realize that you can’t do anything about it – it doesn’t matter how many minutes you spend trying to rewrite that paragraph, you will end up having to choose between a or o -, and it gets worse. Writing or speaking when you’re not comfortable with traditional pronouns, even to people you are already out to, is like betraying yourself. You almost feel compelled to add, hey, I’m not a woman/man, and yes, I know you already know that, every time you write/say something to someone.

You can’t even fight for the right of using the singular they, because, well, the plural they doesn’t even exist. It’s he or she. Deal with it.

Writing and speaking in English feels like a blessing after a lifetime of dealing with Portuguese’s gendered nonsense. English has neopronouns that actually work (Portuguese’s are very, very new, and kind of a work in progress that are still not common even in the non-binary community because they are just too hard to incorporate in the language) and well, English has the singular they or, you know, just the plural they (plural in Portuguese is, guess what, masculine even if there is only a single man in the group) (yes, sometimes I hate my first language). Most of the English words are also gender neutral. A English speaker might say teacher when I say professor or professora, or friend when I say amigo or amiga. I’m always having to gender everyone.

(Funnily enough, realizing that when I became more fluent in English made me admire people who translate English books to Portuguese so much. It’s so easy for an English writer to never reveal the gender of a character in a book when it is downright impossible to do the same in Portuguese. Translators are the real heroes, y’all. The acrobatics they have to do!).

In English, I use ze/zir/zirs and he/his/him. I identify as transmasculine and agender. In Portuguese, I still use she/her even to hose I’m out to. There are many reasons for that. In English, when someone use he/his/him, or a masculine adjective/substantive, to refer to me, I feel like it is a reaffirmation of my transmasculinity. I feel really good about it and it makes me happy. The same happens when someone uses ze/zir/zirs; it feels like a reaffirmation of my nbness, of my agenderness. Yes, I’m transmasculine. Yes, I’m also non-binary and agender.

But there isn’t a way to reaffirm my agenderness in Portuguese. There is no ze/zir/zirs that is this easy to use. And the reminders are too frequent in Portuguese. The os show up just as often as the as. I can’t disassociate them from maleness. I can’t use it without feeling like I’m calling myself a man. I’m not a man. Maybe one day I’ll be able to use them like I use he/him/his and English masculine adjectives/substantives, but not yet.

Somehow, I feel like masculine pronouns and words in Portuguese hold more power over me, because I’ve been hearing them my whole life and Portuguese isn’t as flexible as English. You are ele or ela. No they. No xe, ze, fae. Just man or woman. I’m no man or woman.

So, at least in Portuguese, I’m stuck with she/her. Ela/dela. And I don’t like it either.

Which got me thinking about non-binary characters in fiction, and the startling realization that there was a wall between me and them. Because most of them are American and English native speakers and… I’m not. Our experiences are very different. They (or most of them) never had to deal with a language that is hellbent on gendering them every five words, or had to sit facing a blog post trying to dance around the words to find a way to not gender yourself to your followers. When they looked for a substitute to she/he, they had the they, and the neopronouns. I looked, found very poor substitutes that no one used and ended up working my ass of to learn a language that allowed me to express myself better. To write the stories I wanted to tell better. The language of a country I don’t even like (sorry), because mine wouldn’t have me and I was tired of trying to find a way around it. A language I’m still learning, years later.

But at the same time that I want to write in English in part so I can write non-binary characters using neutral pronouns, I have also realized that I want to write non-binary characters I can identify with. I want Brazilian non-binary characters, or at least non-binary characters who have to deal with the same things a Portuguese speaker do. I want the easy identification that comes with using “ze” to refer to someone, the immediate “oh, ze is non-binary!” – if your first language isn’t as gendered as Portuguese, you don’t know the struggle of having to use a traditional masculine/feminine pronoun while trying to indicate that a character is non-binary in a 2k words short story* – but I also want to feel the slow recognition in a character who also doesn’t have words to describe what they are feeling, in a character who has to choose between she or he when they know none of them is what suits them better because they have no choice. I want both things, but (white) American writers will only give me one of them**.

That’s one of the reasons I’m writing a fantasy story based somewhat on Brazil. The language used by the characters is Portuguese, kind of, even if I’m writing everything in English. The non-binary character (let’s call him L, previously Lysander, but his name will be changed) has to deal with everything I’ve written in this post. Initially alone, since he isn’t out to anyone, and then with friends. L doesn’t have an English-like language available like me, that is, a language that makes it easier for people like us to express ourselves, so for him things are even harder.

I don’t write L like that so he can suffer and we can have another sad trans character, but because that’s the reality of many, many people. Even if I was out to literally every single person in Brazil and they accepted me completely, I would still be called by ela/dela. Nothing would change that. Still the wrong pronouns in a language without right pronouns. What should I (or L) do?

Deal with it. And then try to change things. Neopronouns in Portuguese might be a new, fragile thing that doesn’t work that well yet, and every single shit in this language has a gender, but we might still be able to change it or at least make it less worse. Who knows. I still love Portuguese. I still think it is one of the most beautiful languages in the world.

It just needs to stop denying I exist.

* For real. I have tried, many times. But it just sucks. Trying to indicate a character is non-binary in 2k words short story when you can only use she/he can fuck up the flow so beautifully it’s almost funny.

**90% of what the average Brazilian reads comes from the United States, so yeah, Brazilian non-binary people are probably only reading about American non-binary people.

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