When I began my freshman year at Sonoma State University, I was simultaneously overconfident and naive. Like many eighteen-year-olds, I thought I had everything—especially myself—figured out. As it turned out, though, both my identity and my educational path would be in a constant state of flux during my time in college. In six years, I went to three different universities, changed majors three times, and struggled to find community while navigating unfamiliar spaces.
Years of searching and questioning culminated on the first day of the last semester of my senior year at the University of San Diego (USD) as I sat in a creative writing class, eager to spend more time with words. We began class with students introducing themselves, explaining why they had enrolled in the class, and giving their pronouns. When my turn came, I gave my name and explained that I wanted to develop my creative writing skills. But when I began to state my pronouns, I stumbled. I felt overwhelmed as the question “Who am I?” raced through my head. Shakily, I said “she/her” as I always had and felt relieved when everyone’s attention turned to the next student. As the professor resumed her lecture, though, my thoughts remained focused on how inaccurate “she/her” felt as identifiers.
I spent the next several days thinking and writing about identity, gender, sexual orientation, and how those terms apply to me. Eventually, I realized two important things. First, I find it empowering to be a woman. Second, at times I identify as someone without a gender—I find that empowering, as well. And so, I landed on she/they as the most accurate pronouns for myself.
Conversations with peers and continued inward searching have since helped me better understand the complexities of my identity. I’ve given myself permission to question notions about gender and sexuality that I’ve received from society, such as the expectation that women should be accommodating and stereotypes about feminine emotionality. I now realize that not only can I identify as “queer”; I can also define what that term denotes for me. I believe that being queer means being true to myself regardless of external feedback. It means shaping my own boundaries around gender and sexuality and not buying into society’s normative ideals.
Today, I am in a place of self-acceptance. In my final weeks as an undergraduate majoring in communications, I joined USD’s LGBTQ+ and Allies Commons, an affinity group for queer and transgender people on campus. I also wore lavender cords, a symbol of pride for the LGBTQ+ community, to my graduation. I am fortunate. My same-sex parents, queer friends, and family members have provided support throughout my journey. Their encouragement has helped me find strength at the intersection of confidence in my identity and openness to indefinite growth.
Photograph:For Jessica Mills, college was a time to explore her identity and question societal norms.