The following content and linked resources have been curated as a primer for instructors to better meet the needs of transgender and non-binary students. This resource is broken into three sections: Why Pronouns Matter, Making Mistakes, and Making Your Classroom More Inclusive of Trans Students. Potentially unfamiliar vocabulary is in bold text.
These resources are best reviewed before the planning phase of course design, so the instructor has ample time to consider how they will implement trans inclusive pedagogy in addition to working through any discomfort they may have in advance. Some of the resources can be used as content in class.
Why Pronouns Matter
Because gender is so deeply woven into our upbringing and socialization, it is one of the most internally difficult aspects of our worldview to challenge. And because gendering (the social assignment or designation of a person’s gender, usually on the basis of perceived sex) is often a key aspect of our interactions—from the use of pronouns to the social scripts we’ve internalized—the way we think about gender is constantly on display through our words and actions. This leaves people we encounter susceptible to our perspectives on gender.
People who are cisgender (meaning, people who were assigned a sex and gender at birth that is in agreement with their self-designated gender) have the privilege of having their gender affirmed through the normative ways people address them, such as through gendered pronouns, honorifics (Ms., Mr., sir, ma’am), and other gendered words applied to them (woman, man, wife, husband, etc.). When cisgender people are misgendered (meaning, they are referred to in a way that does not affirm their self-designated gender), it is an anomaly, and any offense they take at being misgendered is validated.
People who are transgender (meaning, people who were assigned a sex and gender at birth that is not in agreement with their self-designated gender) frequently experience having their gender negated through misgendering. And any offense they take at being misgendered is often invalidated, dismissed, mocked, or even responded to violently. The routine invalidation of trans people through misgendering contributes to a culture that punishes and dehumanizes transgender people for existing.
With the prevalence of anti-trans violence and homicide, it is imperative that we all commit to humanizing and validating the genders of trans people. As instructors, we have a further responsibility to create a space in which our students feel safe, valued, and respected, as these are crucial conditions for engaged learning.
A good starting place is to commit to using appropriate pronouns inside and outside of the classroom. Push yourself to not make assumptions about which pronouns a person uses. Instead, create conditions for students to share their pronouns at the beginning of the semester (more on this below).
While there are many pronouns a person may choose to go by (and all should be diligently used when a student designates them as their pronouns, regardless of your familiarity with them), the most common pronouns you are likely to encounter are:
He/his (singular, usually masculine specific)
She/hers (singular, usually feminine specific)
They/them (singular, the most common gender nonspecific pronouns)
Ze/hir (singular, gender nonspecific pronouns)
Further viewing and reading on pronouns:
- “Why Pronouns Matter” video and transcript http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/08/why-pronouns-matter/
- “Pronoun Etiquette” by Dean Spade https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/Pronoun-Etiquette-Sheet.pdf
- “Designated Pronouns” Spectrum Center, University of Michigan https://spectrumcenter.umich.edu/article/designated-pronouns
- “What to do (and not do) when someone asks for different gender pronouns” a comic by Robot Hugs http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/11/pronoun-etiquette/?utm_content=bufferf64c8&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer
Avoiding misgendering entirely is of course preferable, but even with the best intentions, we sometimes mess up. Until you become practiced at using pronouns that are dissonant with your assumptions about a person’s gender, you are likely to make mistakes, and how you respond to them is important. In the moment we make a mistake, we might become embarrassed, defensive, dismissive, or even angry. Those feelings are normal, but can cause more harm than the initial mistake if we react to them.
When you make a mistake and misgender someone, you should do four things:
- Apologize. A simple, “I’m sorry” will do. This is not a good time to express your embarrassment or explain why you misgendered them. Simply saying “I’m sorry” acknowledges that you recognize you made an error, and you regret any harm your error might have caused.
- Correct yourself. Again, keep it brief. If you used “she” to refer to a student who has designated “he” as his pronoun, simply say, “I meant ‘he,’” and move on.
- Do better. Students are likely to understand that mistakes are human, and the habits of deeply engrained gendered language are difficult to unlearn. But if you repeatedly misgender your students, it appears to them that you don’t respect them enough to put in the necessary effort.
- Center their feelings. If the person you misgendered seems noticeably upset, follow-up with them in private. Again, this isn’t a chance for you to be defensive or focus on your guilt or how hard this is for you. Nor is it appropriate to ask the student to explain why your mistake upset them. You want to avoid putting the student in a position in which they have to prioritize your feelings and needs over their own. Make your follow-up about their needs and how you can best support them.
When you respond to your mistakes this way, you help restore trust and safety for your trans students, and you affirm their gender, even in light of your mistake, by acknowledging that your mistake was a mistake.
When a student makes a mistake and misgenders someone, correct them. If it happens more than once, speak to them privately about their mistake and explain why it’s important that they respect the designated pronouns of their peers
Further reading on making mistakes:
- “Etiquette about accidentally misgendering trans people” Things of Things https://thingofthings.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/etiquette-about-accidentally-misgendering-trans-people/
- “How to React after Accidentally Misgendering Someone” Q Center http://www.pdxqcenter.org/how-to-react-after-accidentally-misgendering-someone/
Making Your Classroom Inclusive of Trans Students
In addition to using the correct pronouns for your students, there are several ways you can make your classroom a more inclusive space for transgender students.
- Give students the opportunity to tell you the name and pronouns they want used in the classroom before you call attendance or use a pronoun for them in class. While the University of Michigan allows students to designate pronouns on Wolverine Access, do not assume that all students have registered their pronouns through the University.
-Have students fill out a “getting to know you” form on the first day or over email before the first day of class. The form can include a line to indicate the name on record with the university, the name they want you and their peers to use with them, and the pronouns they designate for use by the people in this class. Make clear that you will take attendance with this form, so students can be sure that you recognize any name discrepancies without them having to indicate those discrepancies out loud.
-Introduce yourself with your pronouns. (ex: “My name is Alex, and I use he/his pronouns”), and then have students do the same. This normalizes the practice of introducing oneself with pronouns, instead of making it something only transgender students have to do. It also sets up an expectation that everyone in the class should commit to using the pronouns each student designates for themselves.
-Have students make name-tags or name tents that include their pronouns. This can be helpful for building cognitive links between the student, their name, and their pronouns.
2. Include trans issues and content by trans people in your course. Many course topics can have significant impact on trans people. Including trans voices and issues in your syllabus demonstrates a valuation of the experiences and contributions of trans people.
3. Make your course policies and language trans-inclusive in your syllabus.
-Consider including specific ground rules about respecting designated pronouns and other gendered language
-Include resources that will be helpful for transgender students in the resources section of your syllabus, such as:
-The location of the nearest gender-inclusive restrooms, and a link to the gender inclusive restroom map: “Gender Inclusive Restrooms at the University of Michigan” https://spectrumcenter.umich.edu/article/gender-inclusive-restrooms
–Instructions on how to change designated pronouns with Wolverine Access https://csprod.dsc.umich.edu/htmldoc/eng/dftie/lsaa/htm/cc_ss_genderid.html
-Gender Inclusive Housing interest form link https://spectrumcenter.umich.edu/article/gender-inclusive-housing
-A link to the Spectrum Center (University of Michigan’s LGBTQ resource and support center) website https://spectrumcenter.umich.edu/
Additional resources for creating trans-inclusive classrooms:
“Making Classrooms Welcoming for Trans Students” http://cruciferous.livejournal.com/15984.html
“Fostering Trans Inclusion in the Classroom” by Stacy Jane Grover https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2016/07/22/foster-trans-inclusion-higher-ed-start-classroom-essay
Resource developed and hosted by LSA Inclusive Teaching Initiative, University of Michigan (http://sites.lsa.umich.edu/inclusive-teaching/).