Sharing pronouns needs to be normalized in everyday college settings

By Victoria Gill-Gomez

News Editor

This is my coming out.

While on the Washington College campus, like many other facets of college life, there seems to be this audible acceptance of the diversity of the student population but no execution for sustaining such an environment. 

In my time at The Elm, this College community continues to show some loose threads in true acceptance and education for various marginalized groups. For gender and sexual identities, I found these loose threads more and more with the use and misuse of pronouns.

Over the past several years dealing with my own body dysmorphia, mental health, and self-identity issues, I have felt this nagging question: who am I? This is not alien to most, if not all, young adults on a campus. But the pressure I felt also came for the need of labels. I have come to realize in the last several years that I, at least as I am defining it right now, am genderqueer.

I prefer they/them pronouns and never before let myself accept that those words are what made me comfortable. Is it shame, because I grew up and decided to continue my education in a heteronormative space?  In the past, what I feared was the conversation around the labels, the need to explain myself in ways I did not have the words for yet. How do you describe feelings from a place in-between?

“I don’t know if there’s a correct way to address one’s identity — except that it should be done as sensitively and empathically as possible,” Dr. James Hall, associate professor of English and director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, said.

This being my last year at WC — pandemic willing — and there are several previous and current memories that need to be acknowledged. The dynamic on campus needs to change in more ways than one. You, my peers, need to adapt as well.

Whenever I conduct an interview, I begin introductions by asking for pronouns of the interviewee. Surprisingly, I am met with two reactions. Dr. Courtney Rydel, associate professor of English and Associate Chair of the English Department, has also observed these reactions.

“My pronouns are [such and such], thank you! What are yours?” Or, a confused hesitation leading to something along the lines of a wave of the hand, “my pronouns are normal,” Dr. Rydel said, reenacting some different responses she’s seen from people prompted to share their preferred pronouns. 

In a recent class, I was made uncomfortable by a professor’s phrasing when addressing gender identity as it related to the course discussion. At the beginning of the semester I assumed that peer introductions or icebreakers would include the mention of personal pronouns. While it was not prompted another student took the first opportunity to make their gender identity known to the rest of the class. While this individual’s pronouns were quickly noted it was also mentioned by the professor that addressing personal pronouns would be brought up for discussion later in the semester. I was hesitant to say mine at that point. 

In a room of majority cisgender individuals there was not a beneficial discussion about or opening up with pronouns. That time passed. 

While pronouns are not a choice — identity is not a choice — students can still have the option to or be guided by a role model to start taking the steps to be open about who they are. This may mean using she/her at one point, realizing that it does not work, and then shifting to they/them. No questions asked.

According to Dr. Hall, giving students a chance to say what their public pronouns are is also a good way to help build a stronger community. Students in my class were simply not permitted to share their pronouns off the bat in a safe, public setting back in August — such as the kind of environment that Dr. Hall promotes.

While this series of discomfort brought on by the professor’s approach was not done out of malicious intent, I was frustrated that I did not speak up, nor did anyone else. But why is my job, or anyone else’s, to explain why I go by they/them?

“To me, trying to make sure I have the accurate and current pronouns for my students is just as important as their names,” Dr. Rydel said.

Identity is not a singled-out period of time or study. It is ever occurring. 

What you want to be called changes while in college. It is rude to call someone by the incorrect name, so why refer to them by anything other than their correct pronouns?

It is understandable that some students may not be open right away or avoid the pronoun question entirely. I avoided mentioning my gender confusion in most classes by skipping the prompt. Even if this is the case, just having a student’s name is enough to acknowledge the space they take up on this earth.

“I do think that there are private pronouns, and that folks are sometimes on a journey where they privately use different pronouns than they use publicly,” Dr. Hall said. “But the classroom is a community that is somewhere between private and public, and so we need to come to some common language about ourselves and how we can have proper discourse.” 

Normalizing sharing pronouns at the beginning of the class is meant to take some of the pressure off. Making an event of it the way this event occurred only adds to that pressure.

Some people may not be ready to tell an entire class, organization, or club of strangers what they identify as, but as their professor, it is important enough to them to relay this information so they can have some semblance of a safe academic environment. No student has to feel obligated to repeat themselves nor to explain why they use their preferred pronouns. It is not a choice.

For Dr. Rydel, her previous students taught her “by their actions” when “they honored [her] by sharing that part of themselves.”

The reason many organizations, collaborative activities, and classes begin syllabus day with introductions that include pronouns is for the purpose of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is so that people can get their anxieties surrounding their identity, in hoping that they will be accepted, out of the way. Singling people out is not a welcoming experience. 

My classmate was proud enough of themselves to be identifying as they did without the prompting. It looked like to me that they were silenced, monitoring their identity for the sake of discussion. 

“Learning starts when we break down basic assumptions and learn how and why we make those assumptions,” Dr. Hall said. “Sharing pronouns questions any of those assumptions from the jump, and it empowers students and the instructor to self-identify rather than to go by social markers that we may be performing for various reasons.”

Dr. Hall lists many avenues to safely bring up sexuality and gender expression in the classroom, something that Dr. Rydel agrees is a professional skill and one to probably be required in the foreseeable future. 

Firstly, be open to critique, to doing better, learning more.

Secondly, do not ask the openly trans* or gender nonconforming students to speak on the behalf of the community; do not use or ask for someone’s dead name — their birth or given name; do not assume there are only two genders or that gender is not fluid.

Faculty, staff, and administrators should better acknowledge that with this coming-of-age that is the college experience, students are often trying on different identities. College is for trying on new systems of knowledge and experimenting with unfamiliar but intriguing methods of understanding the world and the self.

Keep in mind, we are all human and susceptible to make mistakes. I continue to accidentally misgender myself and have to take the time to forgive and learn. Acknowledgment in this layered topic comes from a place of compassion and empathy.

There is also no right way to do this, as it is fully dependent on the context of the situation and group setting. WC is a small enough community with dedicated faculty and staff to start learning and understanding the protection and reassurance they can provide their students.

Dr. Rydel’s advice for colleagues is to “do your best to make it right for students going forward. [Washington College] is pretty understanding, so it’s best to commit to that immediately and fully, [and] not to dwell on what you got wrong…unless you need to apologize, for sure.”

There are important improvements that WC has made before and during my time here: the inclusion of all-gender bathrooms in new construction for instance, and more and more faculty are keying into discussions about how to construct an inclusive pedagogy. Dr. Hall said that the administration has helped developed some software use and tools that help teachers identify correct names in the classroom. 

“I would trust students to tell me how much work there still is to be done,” Dr. Rydel said.

There is still more work to be done. Clearly, I do not feel as if all gender expressions are supported equally on campus, and there is still bias happening. In both extracurricular and academic settings, I have seen friends and colleagues repeat their correct name or pronouns, each time looking more worn out and unheard.

It genuinely could be done out of cluelessness and not maliciousness. However, it is 2020, and it is time to move past our cluelessness.

This discussion continues to be relevant as gender and sexual identity are core factors in how individuals experience the world, process information, and how we are perceived by others. It is okay to ask questions. These methods can ensure a more nuance and complex conversation and thinking about topics that are being headlined across the country right now. 

Dr. Hall continues to come out as an openly gay cis man every syllabus day. He said he realizes there is still a lack of models for queer students as a position of authority.

“I like to quote the philosopher Judith Butler, who said that identity categories are both sites of rallying cries and subversive practices,” Dr. Hall said. “Gender, for example, can be a powerful communal identity system whereby people bond and see beyond themselves into a shared humanity. 

Cisgender individuals continue to control this narrative. I am not saying that there should be forced requirements to learn about these skills or the topics surrounding marginalized communities. Students are already curious to learn more. Faculty and staff should continue to support this curiosity even if it is not academic.

I thought I did not have to come out because it was known by a few and I did not see a need for it. However, this comes from a place of privilege as other individuals are bravely expressing their most authentic self regardless of what the world may throw at them. Those are role models for me, and I have become one for those. Support creates change.

Whether we talk about the issues the world is facing in a lecture or not, the events are still happening. The persecution, the killing, the hiding, the stereotypes, the assumptions, the distaste for this community is sadly ongoing. A person’s identity shouldn’t be left for a later discussion, as they deal with who they are every waking moment.

“Knowing how to interact respectfully with a glorious and diverse world is what [faculty] should be preparing you all to do,” Dr. Rydel said.

Featured Photo caption: A precedent for including preferred pronouns in every introduction should be set in colleges and universities. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

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