2019 Spring Italy Madi Pfaff Temple Rome Temple Semester

Being a Nonbinary Traveller in a Romance Country

Mi chiamo Madi e io sono non-binario. Italian is a romance language and uses grammatical gender to communicate nouns, articles and many adjectives. The word for they/them is “loro,” and it is still atypical for romance languages to have a separate word for the third gender. However, it is not impossible: in Spanish there is “les,” which is a third form of the masculine and feminine “los/las” (“them”); in the Netherlands there is “hun” and in Sweden there is “hen;” while in Germany it is common for nonbinary people to choose to be called “it” (personally that feels inhumane). Generally speaking, what I have seen while scouring through various personal blogs, accounts, and grammar webpages, has been that many nonbinary people choose to be misgendered and simply use the pronouns assigned to their assumed sex at birth. In Italian, even if one were to say “that person,” they would still have to indicate their gender using the correct article “la persona” or “lo persona.”  While Italian has a word for nonbinary, it does not have a gender neutral descriptor. I go to Rome in full knowledge that not only will I constantly be misgendered by others to be understood, but I will also have to misgender myself to communicate.

According to Erin Crouch in The Establishment’s article ‘What Happens If You’re Genderqueer— But Your Native Language Is Gendered?,’ I could have avoided the issue completely by studying in China, Estonia or Finland. Crouch writes, “Chinese, Estonian, and Finnish are examples of genderless languages, which don’t categorize any nouns as feminine or masculine, and use the same word for he or she in regards to humans.” Crouch adds, “In English, these terms include they as a singular, ze/zir or zie/zir, ze/hir or other variations, and Mx. in written forms.” My pronouns are “they/them,” although I am familiar with the pronouns above. I came out a little under a year ago and understand that some people have trouble using the third option, so I simply ask that they call me by my name as much as possible. Although I believe in its existence somewhere, alas I have never seen the “Mx” option on any form I have filled out.

So why study abroad in Rome? Why not pick a country where I won’t have to constantly reinforce and explain myself to practically everyone I meet? Because I believe that the experience I will have in Rome will simply be another part of my gender non-conforming experience in this world. I have to explain myself in Philadelphia nearly every time I step out my front door, and my pronouns exist in my spoken language! As a painter, I believe that it is my duty as an artist to make work that is relevant not only on a personal level, but politically. I want to use this semester abroad as my platform to tell people through my work what it’s like to be a nonbinary person in a country where my pronouns don’t exist.


Photo credits: Skyler Burkhart

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