In my role at Western, I have the privilege of participating in conversations with students, faculty and student services professionals about ways we can shift our language to be inclusive of people with diverse gender identities. Though sometimes subtle, these shifts are powerful in their recognition that transgender people — and particularly people with non-binary gender identities — are possible, and present.
As we introduce ourselves and build community, integrating opportunities for people to share their personal pronouns is one tangible way to recognize the existence of transgender people, and to demonstrate that we are welcome.
Discussion about respecting people’s gender pronouns is hardly confined to college campuses. Although much work remains, there is growing awareness that some people identify their genders between or outside the normative bookends of the gender binary. And that we need language to reflect this reality. (There are a lot of great resources for learning more about non-binary gender diversity. The Lives of Transgender People, by Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin, New York: Columbia University Press 2011, is an excellent book available from the Western Libraries.) Organizations and publications including the American Dialectic Society, American Psychological Association, Washington Post, New York Times and Seattle Times are all reckoning with the fact that accurate and respectful discussion of gender-diverse people requires using the personal pronouns people use for themselves.
On one hand it is simple. Start by weaving into introductions a moment to share your own pronouns along with your name, and to invite others to share theirs, and explain why you are doing so.
Yet holding dialogic space for people’s gender self-determination also requires ongoing intentionality. Shifting our language to avoid assuming gender confronts pervasive social and administrative systems of gender regulation. Challenging these systems is not effortless. It requires practice and persistence.
In the video Ask Me! produced by Campus Pride and the Chronicle of Higher Education, LGBTQ college students speak about what they want their professors to know. A dominant theme articulated by these students is the dignitary harm caused when gender is incorrectly assumed, and the benefits for everyone in a learning environment when the gender identities of all students are actively respected. When we reflect back the pronouns students use for themselves — in dialogue and in our writing — people are present, joyful, excited to learn. Beautiful possibilities are generated by making active the recognition that every individual — including trans individuals — knows best who they are.
Langley is manager of Equal Opportunity Programs in Western’s Equal Opportunity Office.