Ni él, ni ella: Being Nonbinary in Spain

Colvin Colvin
April 9, 2018

A part of my study abroad experience that’s been ever-present in my daily life but hasn’t yet made an appearance on this blog is how my gender has been translated from English to Spanish, in both language and culture. In English, I use they/them pronouns, and go by my last name. While I still enjoy a good flowy skirt as much as the next person and adore florals, in the States it’s easy to explain and express my nonbinary gender, because English accommodates those concepts. But here in Spain, neutral pronouns don’t exist, Colvin is hard to pronounce, and gender roles are different and, in some ways, stricter. I’ve had to re-learn how to present and explain my gender to others; I’d like to say that it’s a story with a happy ending 100% of the time, but the reality is that sometimes it ends with me accepting defeat, responding to Claire or Clara, and using feminine pronouns and adjectives.

The best outcomes have consistently arisen in situations where the other person has some familiarity with English or is part of the LGBTQ+ community. If the person I’m speaking with has a basic understanding of English grammar, I’m able to refer to the concept of neutral pronouns and know they’ll understand, even if they’re unsure how to convert that into Spanish usage or are unfamiliar with how that can be applied to a single person and not just an object or group. On the other hand, members of the LGBTQ+ community are much more likely to be familiar with the concept of nonbinary genders, even if they’ve never met anyone like me before. Sadly, much of LGBTQ+ media and community are English-based and on the internet, so even Spanish-speakers who are familiar with the concept rarely have an idea of what to say in Spanish. Although these situations have thus far not resulted in a solution for how to refer to myself in Spanish, it makes me feel much better to know that the friends I’ve made here understand and respect my gender, even if we lack the vocabulary to accommodate it in conversation.

Before I even applied to study abroad in Salamanca, I was already aware of one potential “fix” for the lack of gender neutrality in Spanish: replacing the -o or -a at the end of words with an -e or -x (pronounced as -e either way). For example, “Clara es una chica muy guapa” would become “Colvin es un chique muy guape” or “un chicx muy guapx.” Some of my Spanish-speaking friends in the U.S. use this with me, and I’ve occasionally brought it up in U.S. Spanish classes with some success. However, this solution is accepted mainly in U.S. based progressive Latinx circles; suggesting it to Spanish friends here has gotten me weird looks and some negative responses. Additionally, it feels disrespectful and rude to explain to a native Spanish-speaker how to use their own language, so I’ve avoided bringing it up with anyone except the closer friends I’ve made here. In almost all cases, especially in classes, I’ve accepted the use of -a words referring to me. Maybe because Spanish isn’t my native language, or because everything has a gender in Spanish, being referred to as chica doesn’t bother me nearly as much as being called a girl does. Nonetheless, most of my good friends here make an effort to refer to me as chique or amigue when possible, and that means a lot to me. Additionally, I’ve been re-named Colvi here—leaving the N off makes it much easier for a Spanish tongue to pronounce—and I find it endearing and a perfect fit.

The other half of figuring out how to express my gender in Spain has nothing to do with the language itself, but rather, the culture. Salamanca is a smaller, more conservative city, and although there is a thriving LGBTQ+ community here, there is a different mentality than in Barcelona or Madrid. So many Spanish girls seem to perform femininity in the same way here: long dark hair, platform shoes, hoop earrings, the skinniest jeans I’ve ever seen, and perfect not-there makeup—sometimes walking down the street can feel like living in a Zara advertisement. It can be very tempting to join them: there are two Zaras here, and it seems so simple to fit into that formula of femininity! However, my Polish and Irish ancestry has guaranteed that no matter what I wear, I’ll never fit the Spanish ideal of feminine beauty—I’m too tall, too blonde, too pale, and too strongly-featured—and in many ways that’s enabled me to ignore the pressure of gender norms here and keep dressing in my own style. I’m not sure what, exactly, my clothes, hair, and piercings convey here, but I know that I personally feel comfortable, and that’s the important part.

In my three months here I’ve changed my appearance a bit, in part in the hopes that it would help to better convey my gender and sexuality in the context of Spanish culture. The most noticeable is that I cut my hair—I shaved the side of my head (sorry, mom!), which is much more common in Spain in general, but especially among feminine and non-binary LBGTQ+ people. I’ve also began favoring certain outfits or items of clothing more than others, and in a different way than I would in the U.S., although it’s almost all clothes I owned prior to coming to Spain. For example, I try to wear looser jeans and my Doc Martens more frequently than I might in the States, because here they set me further apart from the feminine standard. However, I haven’t given up on what I like best, either. I still wear florals and skirts very regularly, regardless of how people might interpret my gender, because I like my skirts! Just like in the U.S, gender presentation is a balancing act between social context and personal taste.

Coming from Chicago to Salamanca has presented some challenges with regards to my gender identity and presentation, but it’s also been an eye-opening experience, as it’s shown me just how dependent on social and linguistic context gender really is. Although I haven’t found a perfect answer to the question of how to exist as nonbinary in Spain—or in Spanish—I’ve discovered that the question isn’t as all-consuming as I feared it might be before I left. Good friends, good style, and a good haircut are all I need to feel comfortable with myself, regardless of the language or culture I’m existing in.

Con amor, su amigue, Colvi

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Colvin Colvin

Whenever I have access to a kitchen, my hobby of baking and decorating cakes, cupcakes, and countless other sweets gets out of hand! Not even a tiny dorm kitchen can stop me from making enough cake to last my entire hall a week. A fun fact is that I have only been to Taco Bell once in my life.

2018 Spring
Home University:
Loyola University Chicago
St. Louis, MO
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