Two years ago I joined a musical project whose meetings begin with participants sharing their names and preferred gender pronouns (PGPs). PGPs are terms like “she/her,” “he/him,” “they/their,” and “ze/hir”—gender identifiers many people don’t spend much time thinking about. One of the ideas behind having people introduce their PGPs is to create as inclusive and welcoming a space as possible for all members of the group, and especially for transgender and genderqueer folks—those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and which much of society expects and sometimes forces them to embrace. Activist and Seattle University law Professor Dean Spade has argued that the frequent use of pronouns associated with trans people’s birth genders, birth names, and surgical statuses is a manifestation of transphobia. (On the other hand, cisgender people—those who present as and identify with the gender they were assigned at birth—usually have the privilege of being referred to by the gender pronouns with which they identify.) The members of the group I’m involved with try to avoid making assumptions about other people’s gender identities and ensure respect for all by allowing each person to name their preferred, rather than assumed or assigned, pronouns.
If making space for PGP introductions can be a tool for fighting transphobia, how can such practices—and the ideas upon which they are based—be brought to the attention of students and faculty in higher education? What would it look like for students in small classes to share their PGPs at the beginning of the semester? (Well, actually, it might look like this.) Just last week a number of newspapers picked up on an Associated Press report about PGP usage on American college campuses. The version published in The Sacramento Bee (“Redefining gender: ‘Preferred’ pronouns gain traction at US colleges”) opens with a profile of a PGP go-around at meetings for an LGBT group at Mills College. Despite the fact that only women are admitted as undergraduates at Mills, many of the group’s members prefer to be identified by gender-neutral pronouns like third-person singular “they” and “ze.” Besides for the role that PGP awareness can play in complicating gender binaries, as we see in the Mills case, the article makes clear that the issue of pronouns ties in to other fronts on which transphobia and cis-centrism can be fought at universities:
At the University of Vermont, students who elect to change their names and/or pronouns on class rosters now can choose from she, he and ze, as well as the option of being referred to by only their names. Hampshire College in Massachusetts advertises its inclusiveness by listing the gender pronouns of its tour guides on the school’s web site. And intake forms at the University of California, Berkeley’s student health center include spaces for male, female or other.
But here at CUNY, a friend who has taken several courses on gender and sexuality at the Graduate Center (GC) told me that instructors in those seminars have never asked students if they wished to state their PGPs. As far I know a Doctoral Student’s Council (DSC) proposal to provide gender-neutral bathrooms at the GC—an effort intended to reduce discrimination of gender non-conforming and transgender students, faculty, and staff—has been sidelined. (The DSC resolution for this proposal does state that other CUNY colleges have created gender-neutral bathrooms and mentions relevant policies at other universities.)
Of course, the issue of pronoun usage is also central to student writing. This is a can of worms worthy of a separate entry, so I’ll just say here that it seems like writing support programs and faculty should be thinking about it systematically. As described in the above-mentioned AP article and is evident from other online forums, many professors are grappling with how to deal with the growing presence of gender-neutral pronoun “neologisms” in student papers, but they seem to be dealing with them in mostly ad-hoc ways. Furthermore, comments responding to web postings about this issue (as well as articles about PGP usage in journalistic writing) betray a fair amount of cis privilege. Clearly, deeper discussions about “trans-anxieties”—the kind of discussions driven by queer and critical pedagogies that have been advocated for over a decade—are still needed throughout the academy.
Some Resources (most already linked to above)
- A pretty good guide for high-school clubs to incorporate PGPs into their activities; also has a table of common gender-neutral pronouns
- Glossaries for terms relating to gender, gender-based oppression, and guidelines for not being transphobic
- A great blog posting by a professor who tried asking students to share their PGPs
- A good article on combatting transphobia using queer pedagogy
- On the lighter side: Anti-Oppressive Baby Animals and an AMAZING COMIC about a gay man who is tired of being told he’s not gay because he dates trans men.