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Volume 55, Number 2 Spring 2022
Edited by Sheree Bielecki, Pacific Oaks College and Olya Glantsman, DePaul University
Written by Sarah Grace Frary, University of South Carolina
Increased transgender visibility within higher education, much like broader societal visibility, has created some welcome changes and some challenges for transgender students. While the increased sensitivity and accommodation of professors or administrators has in general made academic spaces more welcoming and easier to navigate for transgender students, some practices used by faculty, staff, or administrators in positions of power fail to consider the needs or desires of trans students and may cause them discomfort or stress.
One challenge faced by many trans students is navigating the use of pronouns within academic spaces. How pronouns are addressed can seriously impact a student’s well-being. In this reflection, I would like to provide some considerations for how an instructor or mentor might approach pronoun disclosure with the goal of increasing comfort and decreasing coercion, based on the experiences of six trans undergraduate students who advised these recommendations through qualitative interviews and text submissions (and who did not wish to be acknowledged by name), and my own experiences as a genderqueer student.
Misgendering is the act of incorrectly recognizing a person’s gender. When a transgender person is misrecognized as filling a societal role that they have rejected, they may feel as if their reality is being denied, or that a societal role which they felt unfit for has been thrust upon them (Brown et al. 2019). Misgendering may be followed or accompanied by physical or verbal violence, or threats of violence, and misgendering tends to occur in public places. To many trans people misgendering represents a threat to physical and emotional safety. In 2021, the Human Rights Campaign recorded the highest number of trans people murdered (HRC, 2021). These murders are often motivated by the perpetrator’s feelings of being ‘deceived’ by the trans person or disgust with the person upon realization of their identity. Further, trans people are sometimes denied employment, housing and support systems (Abramovich, 2016; Granberg et al., 2020).
Misgendering often occurs within the context of pronoun use. In English, singular third-person pronouns (“he” or “she”) for individuals are gendered and are generally used based on the gendered presentation of a person, but many transgender people are unable to be recognized as their gender because of societal notions of what men and women ‘look’ like, or because their identity is outside the binary of male or female. Some transgender people use pronouns that are not typical singular third-person pronouns (“they”, “hir”, “xe”, for instance), and these people are unlikely to be correctly gendered by strangers. To avoid misgendering and transphobia and live authentically, transgender people are constantly making the decision to either come out (disclose their identity to other people) or not to come out, based on their ecological contexts and moment-to-moment circumstances (Katz-Wise et al., 2019).
The practice of sharing pronouns has recently become more common, particularly within academia, with the intention of making trans students more comfortable. Pronoun disclosure is sometimes required at the beginning of meetings or courses (a practice sometimes called a pronoun circle in trans spaces)—but the context of perpetually coming out and risk-to-benefit calculations isn’t always considered. Trans students and scholars have identified reasons that obligatory pronoun disclosure can be abrasive to trans students, and these are detailed in Figure 1.
This isn’t to say that pronouns should not be addressed in class, and in fact, students identified several practices that they had observed that reflected the sensitivity of pronoun disclosure while still allowing space for students to be open if they choose. Addressing pronouns in class invites trans student participation and reaffirms their dignity and validity, so exploring alternatives is warranted.
First, some students identified that optional pronoun sharing alleviates some burden by allowing students to ‘opt out’. While this doesn’t address all concerns of pronoun circles (for instance, a spotlight effect may still exist in a space where sharing pronouns is optional), this is a start to allowing trans students the autonomy to choose when to come out. In addition, instructors who set expectations of respect for students’ identifiers at the beginning of an introductory exercise (e.g., “I will gently correct you if you’ve used a different pronoun from the one we used in our introductions”) signal support for trans students and show that affirmation is a class value.
An additional avenue for pronoun disclosure, which students identified as being more comfortable than mandatory pronoun circles, is a survey administered prior to class discussions. The survey allows instructors to gather information related to pronouns and names, avoiding misgendering and deadnaming, the use of a name with which a trans person no longer identifies. Deadnaming occurs often on the first day of class because of official school rosters not reflecting name changes or gender transition. If the survey remains open throughout the semester, students can resubmit with changes to their pronouns, names, and other information. A survey defuses the spotlight effect and allows for students to make the decision to come out at their own pace. Instructors, after surveying students, should take note of students whose pronouns may be less automatic to them, so that if the student is misgendered in class by another student, for example, the instructor is ready to intervene appropriately. An example of a pre-class survey is provided in Figure 2 and can be tailored to a course’s unique requirements. [I
Students indicated that pronoun disclosure requires setting the foundations for vulnerability and advocacy for students. Establishing an educational space as gender affirming also requires some reflection of community values in the classroom, intention to follow through, and humility.
Creating a space for students to decide on their own terms what they want to disclose also creates a space where professors or advisors may not know everything about their class or their lab and are in a position to be corrected. This subversion of power cannot be accomplished without the willingness of the instructor to acknowledge their power, the ways they can act in support of transgender students, and the limits of their knowledge.
Instructors can set expectations for the class in their own introductions. By sharing their own pronouns via email signatures and zoom nametags, or giving them during the first day of class, instructors are engaged in signposting—signaling their support for trans students, their intention to create a respectful and welcoming class, and recognizing their own identities as they are comfortable. The syllabus and introduction of the course can also be an appropriate space for setting expectations of class atmosphere for trans students, by explicitly communicating the goal of trans inclusivity and dignity in the class, and how a student—or the instructor—might be best corrected if mistakes in pronoun use are made. Including in syllabi a note that students are invited to correct the instructor—about course material, matters of identity, or other contents of discussion—may also demonstrate an instructor’s intention to welcome student’s knowledge as equal to their own. Corrections should be gentle and brief, and if the error is recurring or further conversation is needed, this should not occur in front of the trans student.
The instructor must also be ready to be wrong themselves, learn to self-correct and accept feedback with grace. This will involve some amount of class collaborative knowledge, wherein the teacher is not viewed as the only arbiter of truth. Obligatory pronoun introductions, or “pronoun circles”, are often perceived by trans people as performative acts of social awareness by cisgender people because they demonstrate an entitlement to knowledge (of another person’s identity), often without the intention to use the knowledge gained. A more empowering approach for transgender students is the opposite: allowing people to introduce themselves without prying and defending a person’s identity with whatever information they give you, is more genuine allyship, and places power in the hands of the transgender student. The knowledge prioritized in this situation is the knowledge of the transgender person, and the role of defending the truth of that knowledge, once professors are given access to it, is action-oriented.
The actions based on that knowledge can include further familiarizing oneself with resources for trans students on campus and in your community. These may include assistance in name changes and student ID services; health services as they pertain to trans student needs; support groups and LGBTQ+ student alliances; counseling and mental health services; and diversity and Title IX offices. Knowing where to find these resources allows instructors, mentors, and staff to step into an advocate role for their students. Continuing to seek out trans voices and scholarship will help instructors to make choices informed by the diversity of trans experiences and best practices as they evolve. Practice, a constant desire to learn, and the attitude of an advocate can make a world of difference to transgender students in your classroom, whether they choose to be out or not.
Sarah Grace Frary (she/they) is a graduate student in the department of clinical-community psychology at the University of South Carolina. She welcomes correspondence and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah Grace would like to also extend an enormous thank you to the students who guided her in building this resource. Although they all chose to be kept anonymous, their vulnerability and conviction in sharing information about their experiences is recognized and commended. This brief article is an adaptation of a presentation given to the SCRA Undergraduate Interest Group in January of 2021. A recording of the presentation, presentation slides, or additional resources are available upon request.
Abramovich, A. (2016). Preventing, reducing and ending LGBTQ2S youth homelessness: The need for targeted strategies. Social Inclusion, 4(4), 86-96.
Brown, C., Frohard-Dourlent, H., Wood, B. A., Saewyc, E., Eisenberg, M. E., & Porta, C. M. (2020). “It makes such a difference”: An examination of how LGBTQ youth talk about personal gender pronouns. Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, 32(1), 70-80.
Granberg, M., Andersson, P. A., & Ahmed, A. (2020). Hiring discrimination against transgender people: Evidence from a field experiment. Labour Economics, 65, 101860.
Human Rights Campaign. (2021). Fatal Violence against the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Community in 2021. Human Rights Campaign. Accessed November 26, 2021 from https://www.hrc.org/resources/fatal-violence-against-the-transgender-and-gender-non-conforming-community-in-2021.
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