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What Are the Risks of Assuming the Sharing of Proper Pronouns is a Best Practice for Trans* Inclusion?

Tomorrow's Academy

Message Number: 
1780

The efforts of student affairs educators to create conditions of trust and authenticity, which allow gender identity and expression to holistically exist across various campus contexts, need to be the core objective of why pronouns are part of an introduction activity.

Folks:

The posting below is fairly long but it looks at an important issue, the best way to engage in trans* inclusive practices on campus, that wasn’t even on the radar for most of us just a few years ago. It is from Chapter 8 What Are the Risks of Assuming the Sharing of Proper Pronouns Is a Best Practice for Trans* Inclusion?: More Than Pronouns: Problematizing Best Practices of Trans* Inclusion, by Kathryn S. Jaekel and D. Chase J. Catalano in the book, Contested Issues in Troubled Times: Student Affairs Dialogues on Equity, Civility, and Safety, edited by Peter M. Magolda, Marcia B. Baxter Magolda, and Rozana Carducci. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. https://sty.presswarehouse.com/books/features.aspx Copyright © 2019 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Time for a 360

Tomorrow’s Academy

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What Are the Risks of Assuming the Sharing of Proper Pronouns is a Best Practice for Trans* Inclusion?

 

Over the past decade, university educators have increased their attention on trans* college students.1As this attention has increased, so too has research outlining how to best support and serve trans* students. For example, Spade outlines basic principles to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for students:2 offering key suggestions such as avoiding roll call, asking students’ proper pronouns, and allowing students to self-identify their gender and names. At many institutions, and specifically within the field of student affairs, these suggestions have taken hold; in fact, it’s become the trend that pronouns (e.g., she, her, hers; he, him, his; ze, hir, hirs; they, them, theirs) now appear on institution and conference name badges, e-mail signatures, and business cards. Moreover, the inclusion of pronouns during introductions comes from the best intentions: to allow individuals the agency to name their gender. 

The pervasiveness of giving pronouns within the field of student affairs is likely because our field values personalization and relationship development. Introductions are a necessary part of forming a group dynamic, whether as part of a student organization meeting, an introductory staff meeting, or the first class of the semester. Introductions in these spaces usually include people’s names and personal information (e.g., hometown, major, previous institution). These spaces are increasingly using the “best practice” that encourages everyone to share their pronouns as an act of self-clarification and self-determination.3        

While many student affairs professionals utilize the practice of asking for pronouns to signal trans* inclusion, increasingly, this best practice concerns us. Our concern is twofold. First, pronouns are merely presumptive of one’s gender and, as such, may give false understandings of one’s gender identity and experiences. Second, asking for pronouns at the start of meetings and class sessions is a mere performance of inclusivity and not an actual strategy for inclusion. Put another way, the act of pronoun introduction could be an act of inclusion if facilitation includes context (self-disclosure as agency and revelation of normative gender assumptions) and the practice surfaces in other classroom strategies to name trans* oppression.4 In short, we must address the conundrum that the simple asking of pronouns is necessary, insufficient, and potentially harmful in efforts toward trans* inclusion and liberation. As such, we explore the potential unseen risks of asking for pronouns as a means of engaging in trans* inclusion. We expand upon our concerns alongside information about how we identify to help readers better contextualize how we interpret these concerns and perspectives. We conclude with discussion questions to trouble the discussion about “best practices” and offer other ways of participating in trans* liberation and inclusion. 

A Note on Terminology

Before moving forward, we first discuss some terminology regarding gender and gender identity. We recognize that there are a variety of ways these terms are understood and used. As such, we offer here how we understand and operationalize these terms. Biological sex, often assigned at birth (i.e., male, female, intersex), is different from gender identity (i.e., gender queer, woman, man, trans*) and gender expression (i.e., masculine, feminine, androgynous, gender nonconforming). For instance, a person assigned male at birth who grows up to identify as a man and expresses his gender in ways that align with masculinities is cisgender 

Trans* oppression functions under the assumption that all people are cisgender (the invisibility of trans*ness). Trans* oppression manifests as individual, institutional, and cultural forms of oppression for those whose gender identity or gender expression does not conform with the gender binary (woman/man).5 Trans* oppression reminds us that while often people assume that one’s biological sex defines one’s gender, such is not the case. Transgender identities (e.g., trans*, trans woman, trans man, gender non-conforming, agender) are vast and complex. Moreover, the constellation of gender identities and gender expressions remind us that gender liberation is about finding the language and expression to define our own genders. Importantly, we use the term trans*, denoted with the asterisk, in this essay both to be inclusive of a spectrum of gender identities as well as to provide a visual disruption. Because in so many ways our gender identities provide disruption, we use the asterisk to provide similar disruption. 

Trans* in Higher Education

As the body of literature that centers trans* topics expands in higher education, individuals have identified recommendations and best practices to engage in inclusive efforts of trans* college students. Scholars have called for better housing options for trans* students,6 better access to gender-inclusive restrooms,7 inclusion of gender identity in nondiscrimination policies,8 and inclusion of trans* topics into curricula.9 The origins of these suggestions are campus climate studies that illuminate transgender, trans*, and gender nonconforming students face more discrimination than their lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer (LGBQ) peers.10 Research centering on trans* collegians has shown these students often face discrimination both inside and outside of the classroom.11 These studies offer stories about students being misgendered, being called by names with which they do not identify, and engaging in often hostile interactions with faculty, staff, and peers around issues of gender. To address these forms of discrimination, researchers have suggested that colleges and universities engage in inclusive initiatives that center on gender inclusive language. This includes the act of asking individuals for their “preferred” pronouns at the start of meetings and/or classes.12        

In light of this scholarship, colleges, universities, and particularly student affairs divisions have produced a flurry of handouts, PowerPoint presentations, and statements on best practices aimed at greater gender inclusion. A quick Internet search results in hundreds of what we characterize here as quick fix documents, all purporting inclusive strategies for implementation in contexts ranging from student affairs meeting spaces to classrooms. Nearly all of these documents begin with the “best practice” of asking for everyone to name their pronouns at the start of meetings, classes, and even in e-mail signatures and on name tags.     

The alleviation of trans* oppression cannot be achieved through quick fixes—in this case, simply asking individuals to identify their pronouns. Instead, we posit that the quick-fix approach of asking for pronouns is an unexamined process that serves mostly cisgender people, allowing them to alleviate their anxiety about misgendering others. Asking about pronouns, especially as an introductory activity, provides others with a quick and easy-to-remember linguistic marker of gender (which is well intentioned) and still does not provide adequate gender understanding. After participants have collected personal pronouns, the significance of gender-inclusive conversations is rarely revisited. This is likely because the “inclusion” (i.e., asking of pronouns) has “been dealt with.”

Masking the Complexities of Gender

Both authors of this chapter struggle when asked for our pronouns and with the notion that our pronouns reveal any meaningful insights about our gendered experiences. Like so many others, simply revealing our current pronouns does not provide accurate information about our genders or gender identities. In many respects, when asked about pronouns, it often feels like forced vulnerability that cisgender individuals seldom experience in those spaces. Our genders come with a context and complexity and refuse the tidiness of pronouns.       

In some ways, the act of pronoun sharing seems to center the edification of cisgender people and their reflection. Those who are cisgender tend to expect others to be cisgender. They might feel surprised by the act of naming their pronouns because they think it is obvious. Naming their pronouns could cause new learning about trans*ness, reflection on trans* oppression, and disrupt cisgender expectations of gender normativity. Simultaneously, the lack of attention to presumptions of what trans*ness “looks like” (e.g., the expectation that all trans* people do not meet normative gender expressions) means some trans* people who are perceived as gender conforming are ignored or not seen as “trans* enough.” Yet, those with more noticeable transgressions of gender norms are often overly scrutinized during an innocuous introduction.      

For example, I (Katy), identify as a gender-nonconforming queer woman. Even when writing about my gendered experiences, I struggle with how to identify my gender as well as what terms I should use and/or with which I identify. While I’m a woman, I am not a typical woman in that I wear what are socially understood as “men’s” clothes, brandish a “man’s” haircut, and have masculine body movements. As such, I am a different type of woman—one who is often mistaken for a man and is expected to engage in a manner consistent with masculinity. I’m frequently misgendered, both in the workplace and in social contexts. Giving my pronouns, regardless of what they might be, gives little indication of my past experiences.    

I am also someone whose gender often shifts based on spaces I am in, as I inhabit different spaces at my university. My gender, how I’m seen, and how colleagues address me in a meeting is vastly different than how my students perceive me. Offering different sets of pronouns in different spaces is a chore, for both me as well as those who do not realize that pronouns can shift based on environments. As such, there are no pronouns I find suitable to convey who I am and how I should be addressed. Instead, the act of asking for my pronouns is a form of performance (i.e., it’s been deemed the “right” thing to do), as well as a means to “accurately” verify and ascribe my gender to ensure others do not feel confused and/or uncomfortable in an event where they must speak about me.    

Oddly, I (Chase) feel pressure to share my pronouns and ask students their pronouns at the start of each semester. This is due to my own belief that this is a helpful activity to eliminate trans* oppression.13 At the time when I coauthored a chapter on trans* oppression, others viewed my gender as incoherent.14 To ask for “he/him/his” pronouns was an act of agency and self-determination (I did not consistently pass as a man). Pronoun recognition was the strongest demand I was willing to make in the early stages of my social and biomedical transition; they were my declaration that I was no longer a woman. For similar reasons, once I could grow what I consider nice-looking facial hair, I was reluctant to clean shave my face. My facial hair was also a declaration of my gender and my achievement to reach a recognizable masculine aesthetic. And it was my fear that without facial hair, my feminine (whatever that means) facial features would be too apparent. Thus, I would not be recognized as I saw myself. Now, in classroom settings, unless I state otherwise, people read me as a cisgender White man. In some ways, this is an achievement, right? I pass, and I pass so well that I get the well-intentioned feedback, “If you didn’t tell me, I would never know you are trans*.” The problem is that I am and always will be trans*. My gender, regardless of the perception of others, does not align with ciscentrism.15 A simple declaration of my pronouns completely erases my years of struggle, self-advocacy, discomfort, and biomedical interventions. My pronouns, without other gender contextualizing efforts, give others the power to determine my gender story and ascribe privileges that do not align with my life. My socialization for more than 25 years was a girl/woman, and I (still) find masculinity is an ill-fitting garment.    

We understand the origins and intentions that spawned the culture of pronouns as a part of introductions (or name tags or e-mail signatures), which is to surface assumptions of equating perceived embodiment with gender identity and expression. Additionally, pronoun assertion disrupts the idea that our gender identities and expressions are clear from a glance at our bodies. Assumptions about how bodies must align with gender identities and gender expressions is a form of trans* oppression, and we should draw attention to these assumptions in our resistance to reifying how bodies and genders must align to be “normal.”      

Concurrently, declaring pronouns, as part of introductions by a facilitator, relieves trans* people of the responsibility of initiating this practice into each group they inhabit. The complexity is that pronouns matter and they also do not matter. We posit that more in-depth discussions about the negative impact of pronouns must be a part of an introduction process. For instance, consider the following: 

·      Do we address the fact that many people give their attention to the person(s) they perceive as gender incoherent and pay little attention to the pronouns of those they perceive as cisgender?

·      Do we acknowledge that trans* oppression means each group begins with the expectation we are all cisgender? 

·      How do we acknowledge that trans*ness requires exposing ourselves to vulnerabilities?

·      Do we remind cisgender people who forget to name their pronouns (cisgender privilege)?

·      Do we interrogate what it means when cisgender people claim no pronoun preference because they have never been misgendered in a way that causes violence or exploitation or fear?

As the preceding questions elicit, trans*ness is still a curisoty16 that enlivens people to examine their gender in ways previously unconsidered. Thus, our goal is for those who facilitate introductions to consider these questions when choosing to include pronouns in an introduction activity.

Minimizing the Work of Inclusion

In addition to our concern regarding the false assumption that pronouns appropriately and adequately represent gender identity, we remain concerned with the ways that the rhetoric of inclusion obscures actual acts of inclusion. Asking for pronouns risks minimizing the ongoing, often hard work of trans* inclusion. Specifically, Ahmed argues that college and university approaches to diversity (i.e., policies, statements, and other initiatives) often obscure the actual act of inclusion.17 That is, by communicating the desire to be inclusive, by naming policies and acts, it instead communicates to individuals that these topics and issues have been “dealt with” and, as such, need no further discussion.   

I (Katy) served on a commission at my university that was supposed to advocate and center the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students, staff, and faculty. Our mission was to promote and develop equitable inclusive practices for queer and trans* university communities. The commission met once a month and consisted primarily of cisgender, straight individuals who self-selected to be on the commission. Meetings began with sharing names and pronouns. Despite this act of inclusion and the mission of the commission, members consistently misgendered each other. Moreover, the meetings routinely occurred in a building that did not have gender-inclusive restrooms (though those facilities were available on campus). Despite the goals of the commission and the adherence to pronoun sharing at the start of each meeting, it’s troubling that larger issues were ignored, such as correcting each other when an individual was misgendered and providing access to inclusive restrooms. Overwhelmingly, in this meeting space, the act of “inclusion” only took place through inquiring about pronouns. After the act of sharing pronouns ended, trans* issues were ignored and pronouns were seldom honored. As such, while the commission’s goals and mission reflected the rhetoric of inclusion, the performance of that mission was not achieved.       

We have seen the effects of the minimization of inclusion manifested through trans* students’ low expectations of their colleges and universities.18 While I (Chase) was a director of an LGBT Resource Center, I sought to create campus traditions about trans* liberation; create programs for, and not just about, trans* identities; advocate about the importance of gender inclusive restrooms; and facilitate trainings on social justice and inclusion. However, I found students often focused on what I consider minimal forms of inclusion about personal dignity: pronoun recognition, name recognition, and restroom access. To be sure, these are essential components for students to function in their day-to-day life, to relieve stress of potential violence, and as an acknowledgment of their personhood. For students, the bar of inclusion was set so low that liberation seemed to end at pronouns. As such, offering pronouns at introductions became their end goal in the cultural shift of the institution, rather than questioning the structures and practices that might create a more holistic and inclusive campus. The notion that inclusion means merely asking for pronouns rather than actions concerns us. We believe colleges and universities can and should do more. 

Considerations for Professional Praxis

We see trans* inclusion as far more than asking pronouns. Rather, it’s a call for structural inclusion embedded throughout the institution. Structural inclusion consists of changes to curriculum, policies, and physical structures that lead to greater gender inclusivity and trans* liberation. For many, the practice of asking of pronouns is the extent of their attempts toward trans* inclusion, whereas for us, it’s just the beginning.    

Pronouns function as a part of trans* epistemology and how we come to name ourselves. Hailed as brave and inspirational by the risks we take to name ourselves, pronoun sharing doesn’t acknowledge that trans* oppression is seemingly insurmountable.19 Nicolazzo argued that pronoun sharing during introductions, like other “best practices,” is a reinforcement of trans* oppression by the simplistic assumption that dismantling trans* oppression is achievable by the “correct” practices.20 We know that pronouns are not a panacea toward trans* inclusion. We recognize gender as rooted in characteristics, effects, and signs vaster than the gender binary, and thus we need complex strategies, not quick fixes, to change the climates on our campuses. We start with pronouns and we must not end with pronouns. We must explain why we ask, what the pronouns mean, and how knowing them is a form of accountability for liberation.21    

Thus, to foster trans* inclusion and lead to trans* liberation, we believe there must be a commitment to go beyond pronouns. Instead, we believe that there should be a shift from “practices” to critical professional praxis.22 Here, critical professional praxis serves as an approach that recognizes the power-laden nature of actions and practices and challenges individuals to engage in critical reflection to address inequities. As such, student affairs practitioners must be aware of what they can do on the individual and institutional levels. On the individual level, student affairs practitioners can be integral to their trans* college students’ success by researching trans* histories, examining and reflecting upon bias (both their own and that of others), advocating for trans* students’ needs, and enacting a commitment to think beyond and complicate their understanding of the gender binary.    

On the institutional level, student affairs practitioners can be advocates for inclusive policies, practices, and spaces. They can serve as advocates for students and help students navigate institutional culture and help connect students to resources. They can remember that trans* inclusion is the responsibility of everyone in all areas of the institution, even if it’s not an explicit part of their functional area. 

Conclusions

The efforts of student affairs educators to create conditions of trust and authenticity, which allow gender identity and expression to holistically exist across various campus contexts, need to be the core objective of why pronouns are part of an introduction activity. If we are to engage in trans* inclusive practice, then we must move beyond symbolic recognition, catering to cisgender expectations of gender conformity, and hold gender as a complicated lived practice.23 The tension, as we see it, is that pronoun sharing at the start of group formation is both about self-determination and produces anxiety. Creating campus communities that are open to the constellation of potential genders means we must think about why we use pronouns in introductions and how that knowledge informs group development. The focus must be beyond personal pronouns, instead attending to what it means to invite gender into our spaces. Pronouns serve a basic function and somewhere they became the extent of trans* inclusion rather than a starting place.     

Our focus is to offer trans* liberation in praxis for those who facilitate welcome activities and introductions in various spaces across campuses. We aim to help others consider how they construct and understand pronoun uses and to consider their role in trans* inclusion. We offer these discussion questions to begin further trans* inclusion conversations that examine how student affairs practitioners can reflect and act beyond pronouns. 

Discussion Questions

1.    Do you have knowledge of trans* students/colleagues in your sessions/classes/meetings? If so, have you done any work to consider their comfort level with pronoun sharing in a decontextualized space? 

2.    How might you utilize pronouns as an introductory tool to go deeper than the articulation of pronouns themselves? How can you frame introductions as the first step toward understanding others and inviting gender exploration, examination, and analysis into your work?

3.    What strategies can you use to engage in trans* inclusion within your sphere(s) of influence beyond pronouns?

Notes

1.    Nicolazzo, Z. (2017). Trans* in college: Transgender students’ strategies for navigating campus life and the institutional politics of inclusion. Sterling, VA: Stylus. We further detail how we understand and use this term in the section, “A Note on Terminology.”

2.    Spade, D. (2011). Some very basic tips for making higher education more accessible to trans students and rethinking how we talk about gendered bodies. The Radical Teacher, 92(1), 57-62.

3.    Beemyn, B., Curtis, B., Davis, M., & Tubbs, N. J. (2005). Transgender issues on college campuses. In R. Sanlo (Ed.), Gender identity and sexual orientation: Research, policy, and personal perspectives (New Directions for Student Services, no. 111, pp. 49-60). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; Nicolazzo, Trans* in college; Spade, Some very basic tips. 

4.    Catalano, D. C. J., & Griffin, P. (2016). Sexism, heterosexism, and trans* oppression: An integrated perspective. In M. Adams, L. A. Bell, D. J. Goodman, & K. Y. Joshi (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice (3rd ed., pp. 183-211). New York, NY: Routledge. 

5.    Ibid.

6.    Kortegast, C. A. (2017). “But it’s not the space that I would need”: Narrative of LGBTQ students’ experiences in campus housing. Journal of College and University Student Housing, 43(2), 58-71.

7.    Seelman, K. L. (2014). Recommendations of transgender students, staff, and faculty in the USA for improving college campuses. Gender and education, 26(6), 618-635.

8.    Marine, S., & Catalano, C. (2014). Engaging transgender students on college and university campuses. In S. J. Harper and S. R. Quaye (Eds.), Student engagement in higher education: Theoretical perspectives and practical approaches for diverse populations (2nd ed., pp. 135-148). New York, NY: Routledge.

9.    Jaekel, K. S., & Nicolazzo, Z. (2017). Teaching trans*: Strategies and tensions of teaching gender in student affairs preparation programs. Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education, 2, 165-179.

10.Garvey, J. C., & Rankin, S. R. (2015). The influence of campus experiences on the level of outness among trans-spectrum and queer-spectrum students. Journal of Homosexuality, 62(3), 374-393.

11.Ibid; Pryor, J. T. (2015). Out in the classroom: Transgender student experiences at a large public university. Journal of College Student Development, 5(56), 440-455; Jaekel & Nicolazzo, Teaching trans*. 

12.Beemyn, el al., Transgender issues on college campuses. 

13.Catalano, D. C. J., McCarthy, L., & Shlasko, D. (2007). Transgender oppression curriculum design. In M. Adams, L. A. Bell, & P. Griffin (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice (2nd ed., pp. 219-246). New York, NY: Routledge. 

14.Ibid.

15.Anon. (2017, August 2). Invalid measures invalidate us: Ciscentrism and ableism in the trans autism literature [web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.writehereithurts.net/

16.Pusch, R. S. (2005). Objects of curiosity: Transgender college students’ perceptions of the reactions of others. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education, 3(1), 45-61.

17.Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 

18.Catalano, D. C. J. (2015). Beyond virtual equality: Liberatory consciousness as a path to achieve trans* inclusion in higher education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 48(3), 418-435; Nicolazzo, Z. (2017, March 8). Imagining a trans* epistemology: What liberation thinks like in postsecondary education. Urban Education, 1-26. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0042085917697203

19.Nicolazzo, Imagining a trans* epistemology.

20.Ibid.

21.Love, B. (2010). Developing a liberatory consciousness. In M. Adams, W. J. Blumenfeld, R. Castañeda, H. W. Hackman, M. L. Peters, & X. Zúñiga (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (2nd ed., pp. 599-603). New York, NY: Routledge.

22.Croom, N. N., & Kortegast, C. A. (2018, May 23). When ignoring difference fails: Using critical professional praxis. About Campus. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1086482218765765

23.West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing gender. Gender and Society, 1(2), 125-151.