Affirming Gender Variance: Names and Pronouns

/ February 14, 2011/ Gender, Teaching/ 0 comments

One thing most teachers don’t think about is the possibility that their students might be gender variant in some way.  Whether they’re transgendered, pre-, post-, or non-operative transsexual, genderqueer, or some other variety of gendered identity or expression, it’s vitally important that you as a feminist instructor make your classroom safe for them from day one.

Though some issues may arise and need negotiation as the course progresses, one thing everyone can do is be careful about names.  For some gender variant folks, birth names can be very triggering.  When used (especially by a person in any kind of authority), these names can cause embarrassment, anger, distrust, and a wide assortment of other negative reactions.  It’s pretty common for gender variant students to email their instructors announcing what names and pronouns they prefer.  Depending on the level of experience and support the student has, it may come off as an assertion or a question.  You should take whatever request they have very seriously and work diligently to use the correct name and pronouns at all times.  (Not all students will think to or get the chance to contact you before the semester starts, so the first day is really important.  More information on that below).

It may happen that it gets confusing.  Maybe the student is not consistent, or others in the class use other names or pronouns.  If you need clarification, don’t be afraid to ask.  But ask in a private place (such as your office with the door shut) or via email.  Do not seek clarification in the classroom or in a public place.  Some gender-variant folks don’t want people to know they are gender-variant, so respect their privacy and their potential preference for keeping the conversation about names and pronouns very brief.

Though gender is complicated and really shouldn’t be submitted to bullet form, here are some suggestions and reminders regarding gender variance in your classroom:

  • Never read the names off the role sheet.  I do a first-day questionnaire that asks for the name on the role and the name to be used in this class.  It also gives them space to tell me if there’s anything I need to know (whether pronoun-related or not).  Most students will use the same name for both spaces, but some people change their names for other reasons that can also be triggering such as divorce, adoption, or religious reasons.  You may choose to use a sign in sheet.  If you use this method beginning on the first day, clarify that students can request their name to be changed via email before sending it around.
  • Don’t ask them about their gender.  You may need to seek clarification about names or pronouns, which is fine, but don’t pry into how they may identify (as transgender, male, genderqueer, etc).  They may demonstrate an openness to talking to you, and by all means be supportive and open.  Your students may or may not have adequate support systems, and your affirmation of their gender may mean the world to them.  At the same time, just like ethnic minorities, gender variant folks tend to dislike being marked as worthy of any more comment or curiosity than the next person.  Sometimes your “being cool” is more supportive than more purposeful demonstration of being an ally.
  • Pronouns are difficult.  Some people may use pronouns such as he, him, his, she, and her, but some gender variant folks prefer gender non-specific pronouns such as ze and hir or they and them (singular).  Be prepared to Google these if they’re unfamiliar.
  • Gender is difficult.  You may read your student as female-bodied, find out they prefer the name Robert, then find out they prefer the pronouns she and her.  You may read your student as male-bodied, find out he prefers the name Alexander, and prefers the pronouns she and her.  It’s complicated, but try to hold back your assumptions about what it all means.  Just do what you can to sort out what names and pronouns you need to use and leave the rest up to your student.

It doesn’t often happen that you have a gender variant student, but being open and prepared for supporting gender variance in your class may actually encourage gender variant students to choose your class over another.  If we as practitioners of feminist pedagogy are really in support of overturning gendered oppression, this is a fantastic way to start.  It’s hard enough being a gender variant person in a world that marks you as invisible or worthy of contempt and hassle.   Making your classroom safe for such identities and expressions may be the haven of a student’s semester or entire college career.

For more information on being an ally, see the following links:
An article in Gay Chicago Magazine by Erica Chu
A blog post on Genderbitch by Kinsey Hope

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