While English is the language Elias speaks most often, Arabic is the language of their faith. “It helps me a lot with connecting to God,” they told me over the phone. It’s also the language Elias speaks with their partner, a Syrian activist, when they don’t want the outside world to intrude on their conversations. “Whenever we’re in public and we’re trying to be private, that’s the language we default to,” Elias said. Since Elias is hard of hearing, American Sign Language serves as another tool—especially when they’re somewhere too loud or simply too stressful. “If I feel overwhelmed in a space and I don’t feel comfortable talking, I’ll sign—and I taught my partner some signs just so that if I ever go nonverbal they’re like, ‘OK, this is what I need to know.’”
Elias’s non-binary gender identity is often a source of stress. While language can offer relief, it can also add layers of complication. In English, it’s theoretically easy to get around the gender binary: Genderqueer people can state their preferred pronouns, and the rest of the world simply has to honor those preferences—as I did while writing this article (Elias prefers they/them pronouns). However, they don’t always find themselves in spaces where it’s that easy.