I follow a script to introduce myself on the first day of classes. I state my name, where I’m from and my major. Then, I share my pronouns: he and they.
Sharing pronouns during a first-day-of-school introduction has become as common as sharing a major at GW. But in my experience, the University’s well-intended inquiry to state pronouns has slowly become trans and gender nonconforming students’ ire.
Habitually disclosing pronouns at the start of a new semester or at a social event is intended to signal to transgender students that their existence and identity is recognized and respected by peers. Although the ask means well, the practice can often make trans people feel uncomfortable because they are put on the spot in front of a large group or class. Learning everyone’s pronouns during an introduction is a step in the right direction, but there are additional and sometimes better ways to make transgender students feel included. In addition to asking for people’s pronouns, the University should foster more open dialogue about gender identity and pronoun choice.
Many professors and student leaders ensure asking for someone’s pronouns is commonplace at GW. Nearly every resident adviser tacks pronouns on their doors, and some classroom introductions include sharing pronouns on the first day. But cisgender students and professors may not consider a few critical issues that arise by asking for pronouns. The ask assumes that someone has the information readily available. Those experiencing gender dysphoria may struggle to find which pronouns, from he and him to them and theirs, work best for them. We should not force them to give a concrete answer.
Asking for pronouns can often be a discreet way of “clocking” transgender students in a crowd of cisgender people. I have sat in class many times listening to a dozen students rattle off binary pronouns. But when I share my pronouns, suddenly all eyes are on me. What was meant to be a quick introduction now becomes an awkward and tiring process of explaining the gender binary, my identity and the history of the singular “they” to students I usually do not know. While being openly gender nonconforming is not troubling for me, there are trans students who may be upset needing to expose themselves in a similar way to a crowd.
Disclosing pronouns also does not take into account the fact that people’s gender identities change over time. It becomes clear that the expectation is not designed to help trans students and those with fluid identities to feel included. Instead, the ask feels more like a pat on the back for cisgender people.
But students and professors can change the way they ask for someone’s pronouns. Rather than being announced to the class, pronouns could be shared with a professor in a private survey. Students should ask when and where it is acceptable to use someone’s preferred pronouns. Correct those who misgender someone, even if that person is not in earshot. If you misgender someone, accept corrections and apologize with grace. These small gestures would help trans students feel heard and valued.
The University should also educate students and professors about gender identity and the experiences of trans students. Teaching cisgender people about the existence of trans people could prevent people from making assumptions about gender. Using non-normative pronouns like xe/xim or they/them when someone does not know an individual’s pronouns would also make trans students feel less out of place or put on the spot to share personal information. Offering these pieces of advice could be incorporated into online or in-person diversity trainings.
Sharing pronouns in class can be stressful for students whose gender identity is not yet set. Or, it can simply put trans students at the center of attention when they do not need or want to be. By changing the way we are asked about our pronouns and educating students about their trans peers, the University can make trans students feel more comfortable in the classroom. The concern over pronouns might not make sense for students who have never experienced gender dysphoria, but myself and the other trans or gender nonconforming folks I know want and deserve to be treated with respect. Proper pronoun use is not solved with an “ask first” policy.
Jack Murphy, a sophomore majoring in philosophy, is a columnist.
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