For some people, the process of introducing yourself in new classes can be daunting. The thought of thinking of a fun fact about yourself can make people nauseous.
But for transgender and gender-nonconforming students, such as myself, it can be much harder, especially when the group leader doesn’t specifically ask people what their pronouns are. It leaves you in the awkward position of saying your pronouns in an environment where you don’t know how everyone will react, or resign yourself to being misgendered for the rest of the semester.
Singular “they” has been a part of the English language since the 1300s, but during the past decade, the use of “they/them” as personal pronouns has increased. The queer community has grown more accepted by the general public, and gender nonconforming people have grown more common, with several celebrities, such as “Queer Eye” television personality Jonathon Van Ness, coming out as nonbinary.
However, using “they” as a default pronoun is far from common. Instead, professors and classmates often use “he/his” or “she/her” pronouns for people based on their name or gender presentation.
Professors should ask for pronouns when they do introductions at the beginning of the semester, so nonbinary students and transgender students will be respected and recognized.
When students are referred to by their preferred pronouns, it makes them feel more comfortable and included. For binary transgender students who are transitioning from male to female or female to male, a huge part of their transition is the social aspect, not just physical changes. It can cause immense discomfort and gender dysphoria when someone uses the wrong pronouns or refers to a transgender person by the birth name that they may not want to go by anymore, often called a “deadname.”
Without a professor specifically asking for pronouns, it can feel awkward announcing your pronouns to a room of strangers. In my personal experience, I’ve had a very difficult time finding a way to share my pronouns if the professor doesn’t ask.
In my classes where the professor has asked for everyone’s pronouns, I felt a ball of stress unwind a bit in my chest because I wasn’t going to seem weird or out of the ordinary for sharing my pronouns. I was simply doing what the professor was asking.
Asking for pronouns at the beginning of the semester creates a welcoming environment by making it clear that the professor is open-minded and accepting. Even if it’s a large lecture hall, professors often have introduction sheets with basic questions like your name, year and major, and adding pronouns to that is a very simple way to make students feel more comfortable in a classroom.
With my professors who had pronoun questions, I automatically felt more comfortable and more willing to go to their office hours than other professors.
Some may argue that asking for pronouns is catering to a “delusional” belief in genders that “don’t exist.” However, those people are simply living in the past. The fact of the matter is that about 1.4 million adults in the United States are transgender and about 2% of all high school students are transgender, and to blatantly disrespect such a large and growing part of the population is reprehensible.
Using people’s preferred pronouns doesn’t hurt you. Being asked to say your own pronouns isn’t an attack on your gender; it’s simply another question to be asked when you’re in a new setting, and it’s a lot easier to answer than “What’s your favorite type of ice cream?”
Some queer rights activists argue that if kids aren’t out yet, asking these pronouns makes the kids come out, and makes them vulernable to transphobic comments and jokes from classmates. But if students don’t want to come out, they can simply choose to use the pronouns they were assigned at birth. Even if the student doesn’t feel comfortable sharing their pronouns, they’ll know that the professor is open minded and supportive.
Asking students’ pronouns is a direct and simple way of creating an inclusive environment in the classroom in regards to gender and sexuality, but there are other things professors and faculty can do to promote acceptance in and out of the classroom.
For example, a professor of a large lecture may not be able to ask everyone their pronouns individually, but they can tell the class what pronouns they use when introducing themselves (“My name is Amy Johnson, and my pronouns are she/her”) and in their email signatures.
Professors can also make an effort to use more gender neutral language in their lessons by using “they” instead of “he or she” when providing an example of a hypothetical person. Or, when referring to a student in a large lecture hall, if the professor is unsure of their pronouns, they should use “they/them” instead of assigning one of the binary pronouns to the student.
There are more complicated ways to promote diversity and acceptance of gender-nonconforming students, too: the university could set up more workshops for faculty and staff on gender inclusivity, and all courses that touch on gender could acknowledge and include gender variance in curriculums.
But large-scale changes may seem overwhelming and not worth spending time or money on, especially during the uncertain and stressful times our community is going through right now. But simply asking students what their pronouns are is a straightforward way to show support and create a safe community for the transgender and nonbinary students at our university.
As a nonbinary individual, I can say for certain that the most comfortable environments on campus are the ones where professors or faculty have gone out of their way to ask for pronouns or use their own pronouns in email signatures. It’s a small gesture, but for people who rarely receive any type of gesture, it can make a world of difference.
Sydney Miller is a sophomore psychology major. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.