The Problem With Pronouns

Supporting trans and gender-fluid students requires the courage to try until you get it right.

Jordan walked in on the first day of school full of slouchy teenage mojo. As I surveyed the class, matching names to seventh-grade faces, I took a longer second look at Jordan. Eighties throwback skinny jeans, oversized black hoodie, sneakers created for skateboarding, and side-swept, chin-length hair—nothing about Jordan’s appearance marked an “obvious” gender identity. 

For weeks I danced verbally around Jordan because I didn’t want to use the wrong pronoun. 

I was so awkward. I overly used Jordan’s name: “Jordan, you’ll be the leader of your group, and Megan, you’ll also be with Jordan. Jordan will lead discussions by showing Jordan’s think-alouds about the text.” I made a special effort to get to know Jordan and Jordan’s friends, hoping to hear one of them utter a pronoun in reference to Jordan so I would know which direction to point my speech. I had no idea how to have a conversation about gender identity with Jordan.

I am a member of the LGBT community. I volunteer my summers in my community’s LGBT activist center, and I work diligently alongside colleagues to bring LGBT issues into classrooms. But I had no idea how to address the fact that, eventually, I’d have to find out which pronoun to use for Jordan. 

Three weeks into school, hypervigilance of my pronoun usage failed me, and I called Jordan “him.” I was wrong. I embarrassed Jordan. I felt the full weight my failure fall on me in a matter of moments. 

Gender is a social construct. A person may identify with a gender different from his or her biological sex or may express his or her gender in a manner that does not fit with society’s expectation of what a boy or a girl should look and act like. Because gender is so fluid, queer theorists tells us that it’s not only acceptable but also necessary to ask students what pronoun they’d like us to use. Taking the time to do this with Jordan would have saved me—and her—considerable embarrassment.

Further, queer theory offers pronoun usage beyond “him” and “her.” One gender-neutral pronoun becoming more widely accepted when referring to a person in singular form is “they.” A second option is using pronouns that completely depart from traditional usage, such as the gender-neutral “ze” (pronounced “zee”) or “hir” (pronounced “here”).

The problem with these gender-neutral pronouns is that—because they are still not mainstream—using them inevitably draws attention to the person they reference. Students not previously exposed to gender construction, expression and fluidity may be hostile to these ideas; using alternative pronouns could worsen the situation for a transgender or gender-queer student. Creating an inclusive environment for transgender and gender-fluid students means taking the time to have those tough conversations and changing the way we approach gender in the classroom—steps that can pave the way for using gender-neutral pronouns safely if that’s what a student prefers.

In 2010, the LGBT advocacy group GLSEN released a study and a set of recommended practices for creating safe classrooms. The study cited as the most critical steps the need for inclusive language; availability of supportive staff members; curricular resources that include representation of LGBT people; and anti-harassment polices needed to create a safe school environment for LGBT students. The study went on to include important special considerations for trans students. The researchers recommend that teachers must “explicitly address issues and experiences specific to transgender students.” Discussing gender identity, gender expression and society’s narratives about gender roles in the classroom creates a space where students can not only critically examine the construct of gender, but also become more accepting of others’ gender identities. 

Additionally, Campus Pride provides resources to help colleges and universities become more inclusive of the gender spectrum. Some of these policies and talking points can be applied in middle and high schools, and the site also links to other organizations that promote best practices for gender inclusivity. 

Big strides have been made by and for transgender and gender-fluid students. The group Privacy for All Students has helped the “bathroom law” gain real momentum in California. Facebook recently made a widely publicized shift to add multiple gender identity choices to its profile settings. In our efforts to honor, respect and validate transgender and gender-fluid students and others, we must promote these successes as we work through our own ignorance and mistakes. We must hold each other accountable but also with the utmost compassion as we work toward a more inclusive reality for all of us.

Ricket is a high school English teacher in Ohio.

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