Pronouns & Other Language That Matters: A Guide for Educators — Part 2

Aaminah Shakur
7 min readMay 19, 2017

In the first part of this series of resources, I provided you links to glossaries and discussions of Queer language and terminology. I also provided this 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. Today we’re going to talk about pronouns and best practices around the matter.

I began this series because as a non-traditional student I am able to be proactive with my professors in a way younger students may not be able to be, but I still run into issues around how to respect my pronoun and my gender. It is important for professors (and other faculty) to listen to their students and refer to us the way we request. If this issue has never come up before, professors may be surprised or confused when it is brought up. Many professors mean well, but it’s such a new concept to them that it simply doesn’t seem like a priority early in the semester when they are trying to learn students’ names. If it’s not prioritized early, however, you won’t somehow find time to make a change later, and the damage of misgendering your students is already done. This is not an issue you can put off.

I wrote in part 1 about my own process for informing professors of the appropriate pronoun to use for 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.

So here’s how things went down most recently:

  1. I emailed my professor as my customary practice
  2. She responded that this was new to her but she would try.
  3. In class when taking roll, the professor asked individuals directly what their pronoun was.
  4. Step 3 led to significant confusion for the students, and it seemed none had ever been asked this before. It also led to one student making a joke about how he would like to identify as (I don’t remember his exact reference, but it was a kind of warrior), which implies that pronouns are just mythical and meaningless matters. Additionally, in clarifying her question, the professor offered up “he, she, it” as pronoun options before saying “some people are using ‘they’ now”. “It” is not a gender pronoun and is offensive.
  5. The professor repeatedly misgendered me, referred to me once as a “smart woman,” and did not correct students who also repeatedly misgendered me.
  6. The next morning, however, I did receive an email acknowledging that she realized she misgendered me several times, apologizing, noting they are definitely learning.

There were some definitely terrible mis-steps there, and some genuine effort to do the right thing. We’ll see how the semester goes on, but it’s a start.

A lot has been written already about this topic, so let’s jump into resources you can use to educate yourself.

Degendering the Language of Customer Service by RJ Joseph looks at the issue from a customer care in cafes/coffee houses perspective, but it’s an excellent, easy to follow, read. This information can be applied across the service industry, and give you a basic framework of the matter that applies to our conversation as well.

Pronoun Privilege by Elizabeth Reis tackles the issue of how to ask for your students’ pronouns, including noting why your instinct to ask students in class to list them can be harmful.

Why It Makes Sense for Cis People to State Their Pronouns by Malcolm Harris makes a slightly different argument we need to unpack. If you read Reis’ piece first, that will help you understand the potential pitfalls in Harris’ logic. It is true that cis people don’t have to think much about their gender or name it, and putting the onus on trans people to name ours furthers the idea that we are abnormal. Everyone should become comfortable with matter-of-factly stating their pronoun, but it’s important to listen to trans people about how this should happen so that we are not put on the spot. The value of Harris’ analysis is how he reminds us naming pronouns should not become performative, a manner of showing how open-minded or inclusive you think you are.

Asking for Pronouns: For Faculty & Staff by Bryn Mawr College is an excellent, and short, resource to explain what pronouns are and why they matter, best practices for asking for them, some things to avoid, and the importance of speaking up to correct others when you hear them misgender a student.

Everyone Uses Singular ‘They,’ Whether They Realize It or Not by Geoff Nunberg explains the uses of “they” as a pronoun, and how grammar arguments against it are wrong.

The Need for a Gender Neutral Pronoun uses some iffy language around why there are so many gender neutral options (and excludes the singular ‘they’), but does provide an excellent chart and background on some terms now in use.

ETA: As of Aug 21, 2017, TeenVogue has released this concise essay answering the most common questions about the gender-neutral use of “they/them” pronouns.

ETA: As of June 4, 2019, Universal Unitarian minister, Reverend Theresa Soto, offered this reflection on pronouns, particularly to make note that some trans/queer/non-binary people prefer to have NO pronoun used in referring to themselves. One way this may look is asking to simply be called by their name at all times. Rev. Soto reminds us that honoring that request is just as important as any other pronoun request. This short piece also reminds us of this fact: “People’s pronouns or no pronouns don’t have to make sense to you to really matter; in other words, the way they name themselves is rooted in their lived experience and doesn’t rely on your judgment to be valid.”

Here is what I, as a non-binary/trans/Queer student, ask you to consider:

  • Be proactive, but keep it simple and private if possible when asking about pronouns. You can send an email out to the entire class before the first class requesting information you’d like to know about students (example: “Please respond with the following information to help me get to know you! Name you wish to be called, pronoun [he, she, they, another gender-neutral term], your major, your year, do you have any concerns about this class? are there any resources or support you need from me to do your best for this class? Anything else you think I should know or that you’d like to tell me.”) Alternatively, you can have a paper questionnaire to this effect, ask students to fill out index cards with this information on the first day of class, or use an app to run a survey. The key is that this is done in such a way that doesn’t force students to publicly provide information to the entire class that they may not be comfortable providing.
  • If a student approaches you with their pronoun information before you have asked, thank them for the information. It’s that simple. Make a note of it, and assure them that you intend to respect their needs and offer safety for them to let you know if you make an error. Do not tell them this is difficult or confusing for you, or make them feel like they are creating a burden for you.
  • Work towards gender-neutral language in your own speech/materials, and ask that your students do the same in class. You do not need to “out” students to have a general classroom rule that as a community we do not make assumptions about each others’ gender. EDIT to add: Please take into consideration the following image also. Read both parts of the image (or the image description below it) and consider how this works in the classroom setting as well. Habitually using gender neutral language (referring to everyone with the pronoun “they”) can save all assumptions about gender AND does not necessitate asking at all.
Source unknown. Image description: Top portion of meme features a picture of singer Drake making an unhappy face and a defensive/no/stop motion with text to its right that reads “asking strangers for their pronouns, making them doubt that they pass as their target gender, forcing them to either out themselves or lie so that you can feel good about using the right pronouns for someone you probably will never have to talk to again, and basically normalizing asking people ‘so, what gender are you?’ as though their gender, medical history, and contents of their pants should be a matter of public record for anyone who asks” Bottom portion of meme features a picture of singer Drake smiling and nodding, while making a pointing gesture with text to its right that reads “using neutral pronouns for people you don’t know and creating a society in which it’s safe to correct people when they use the wrong pronouns, including reacting graciously when corrected yourself, so that trans people can decide whether or not to disclose depending on their own personal comfort, safety, situation, and give-a-fuck levels without being put on the spot by well-meaning people butting their noses into other peoples’ business”
  • If a student has publicly stated their pronouns, hold other students and faculty to their use. If you hear someone misgender someone, quietly remind them. In some cases, you may need to check in privately with the student who is being misgendered to ask what support they would like to address the issue, especially if it is ongoing rather than a singular mistake that is quickly corrected.
  • If you make a mistake — and you will, we all do! — simply say you are sorry, correct it, and move on. Do not make a student the center of attention over your error, and do not make excuses or extensive apologies based in shame. Mistakes happen. Fix it, move on.
  • Do not ask a student to explain themselves or “teach” about this issue in class. Also, do not allow other students to ask probing questions, make dismissive statements, or otherwise treat a trans or gender non-conforming student as a free teacher. If a student volunteers to do so, or speaks up in class to provide education after experiencing an issue, do allow them to speak for themselves. If you’re reading this, there is no reason for you to ever ask your student for resources on this matter, but do graciously accept any offered.