Pronouns & Other Language That Matters: A Guide for Educators — Part 1

Aaminah Shakur
7 min readMay 17, 2017

As of this spring, I am a junior at an art and design college, studying for my first Bachelor’s degree while in my 40’s. My first semester the most stressful culture shock (aside from being surrounded by people my son’s age) was the frequent usage of the n-word by students on campus. That has improved and I’ve watched the campus become moderately more ethnically diverse (though support and respect for students of color is still lacking). I was also warned in advance what to expect from disability services and can confirm that too is a problem area my school seems slow to consider fixing. What turned out to be more surprising to me within an art school is the lack of awareness of and support for LGBTQ students.

I’m non-binary, meaning all of my documentation lists my gender as “female,” but that is not accurate to who I am. I am also femme (at this time - I haven’t always been and may not always be), which means I am most often assumed to be a cisgender woman, though there are definite “markers” of my queerness for those who pay attention. I am open about my various marginalizations because I am privileged as an older adult student by knowing and being secure in my identities and safer to name them. It is a duty I feel to be open and speak up to educate educators about these matters because there is a power differential by which younger students may not feel safe or secure (or have the ability to be out at all) to ask for support or speak about their needs. I know that by being vocal I help to create space for other students to live in their truths and to be treated with respect and cultural competency. It is not an easy task for me, however, and I am harmed by the intentional and unintentional failures of professors, administrators, and others to respect me.

My own practice is to email professors to introduce myself to them before classes begin. I let them know my name (yes, it differs from the legal name on the roster), my pronoun (they), and a couple of other pertinent things (major, why I’m excited about taking their class, if there are any concerns I have particular to my disabilities.) The chain reaction of my email varies. Some professors merely thank me, then proceed to misgender me constantly throughout the semester, and I have not figured out a non-confrontational way to address that yet. Others (Ok, twice. This has happened twice. And one fellow queer professor was proactive about it.) take the hint and send an email to the class asking for some basic info to be emailed back privately, including pronouns. Those are the professors who, even if acknowledging it is new to them, have never misgendered me after. And then there is my current situation which I will discuss in more detail in part 2 of this series.

One of the most persistent issues over the course of my time at this school has been around pronoun usage. I am writing this now, after dealing with several egregious errors on the part of a professor I have just begun taking a summer course with. I write this to put a human face to these issues, and to collect a variety of resources into one place that can help educators to educate themselves. I am going to group the resources and provide some of my own thoughts on them as well.

A Note On the Limits Of My Scope: I cannot write this to encompass languages I do not know, nor am I able to address all of the complexities of how language varies in different geographical contexts. This guide is unfortunately limited to discussions of the English language within a U.S.-centric context. Also, while this is written particularly with college level faculty in mind, it can and should be applied across all levels of education and modified as needed for age-appropriate discussions. Hopefully it is also useful as a jumping off point outside of academia. This resource is not intended to serve every possible need, and I hope others create or find resources that fill the other needs.

Understanding Terms I Used Above: Let’s start with the terms I used in my intro paragraphs above, because you may have already been confused.

Non-binary — Under the trans umbrella, non-binary means one’s gender is outside of the binary of man vs. woman. This can look many different ways, and is sometimes used in conjunction with other terms like bi-gender, multi-gender, third gender, and agender. Some non-binary people do not have a gender at all. Others are something completely outside of male or female. Others are both male and female. Still others are something more than but inclusive of male and/or female. Some people are gender-fluid, meaning their gender shifts and changes. The main point is to understand, non-binary means challenging the binary assumption that there are only two genders and that all people fit into one or the other. Other terms I use to describe my gender are Two-Spirit (an English-language term unique to Indigenous cultures’ understanding of gender-variance), multi-gender, and Queer. (EDIT to add: Here is a wonderful new article as of July 19, 2017 that further discusses non-binary identities and provides some personal perspectives of non-binary individuals. EDIT 2: published on July 28, 2017, here is a fantastic video by The Guardian featuring several non-binary people talking about what that means for them.)

Femme — Femme is a type of presentation or expression of gender. It is not necessarily a gender in and of itself (though it can be), but the presentation one puts out into the world. Femme looks many different ways, but it implies some degree of “femininity” in one’s external choices, including clothing, make-up, posture, and mannerisms. Please note, however, that it comes from a queer perspective of gender. Cisgender heterosexual women are not femme and should not use this word. Femme refers to a queerness that intentionally uses femininity.

Cisgender — Cisgender merely means someone who agrees with the sex and gender they were assigned at birth, and generally means they have not had a reason to question it. Cis is short for cisgender, just as trans is short for transgender. It is not a slur, it is a simple statement of fact — if you agree with your birth assigned gender, you are cis. Being cis is systemically privileged in relation to being trans.

These terms are covered in better detail in the resources in the following section.

Basic LGBTQ Vocabulary: Let’s start here, with defining some basic terms and acronyms that educators may not be familiar with. It is important to note that language is constantly evolving, and that not everyone within a community agrees with the changes. Words that were previously slurs may be reclaimed by many and still be rejected by others. Terms that are specific to a cultural context may still be challenged by others of that culture.

Queer Terminology: From A to Q

LGBT A-Z Glossary (a section after the glossary also explains “problematic” and offensive terms to avoid)

LGBTQIA Resource Center Glossary of the UC Davis (includes a variety of broader social justice terms as well)

EDIT to add: This is a handy little slideshow put up on 8/14/17 that explains a few terms in really simple language.

A Note on Other Language Issues: I’ve come to detest a few commonly used terms/phrases and would like to challenge us all to be mindful of when and how we use these words.

“Identifies as…”: When we say someone “identifies as… (gay/trans/queer/asexual)” there is an inherent judgment of that identity. Identities are real things, and in this context the implication is that the identity is made up or not to be taken too serious. I don’t “identify as” queer, bi-sexual, and non-binary. I am queer, bi-sexual, and non-binary.

“Preferred pronoun”: It’s just a pronoun. Prefacing with “preferred” implies it is optional. My pronoun is “they”. It isn’t my “preference.” It is the correct pronoun for me.

“Tolerance”: This term has begun to go to the wayside but seems to be making a comeback recently, perhaps because of our current political climate in the U.S. Tolerance is something extended by someone who feels morally superior. It does not require or imply any genuine respect. In a similar sense, the buzzwords of “diversity” and “inclusion” have become watered down to the point of losing their true meaning and instead becoming dog-whistles of dangerous territory for many marginalized people.

EDIT to add: The Daily Dot published this guide on July 27, 2017 on “Talking About Transgender People With Respect”. Among other things, it discusses how language is constantly evolving and the responsibility to continue to educate oneself on what is acceptable and respectful versus outdated and offensive.

This seems like a lot for you to chew on, so I’m going to stop here for now. You can expect part 2 within a week. In part 2 I will cover resources on the issue of pronouns — how to respectfully ask for them, why they matter, and why stating pronouns should be a standard practice.

Until then, here is an excellent resource of Policy & Practice Recommendations for use in colleges and universities (they can be modified for use in any educational setting), provided by the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals.

Part 2 is here.