(Image credit: GSC Presentation at the Carleton LTC, “Making Class Welcoming for Trans* and Gender Variant Students,” Oct 29 2015)
See part one for a discussion of gender inclusivity as we think through gender pronouns and their relationship to gender expression and identity. We left off talking about what might make folx uncomfortable with pronoun discussions; here we continue our conversation with Tegra Straight thinking about how these interactions might play out in the classroom.
Tegra: One of your questions for me was whether asking for pronouns allows people to be gender fluid in their identities. I think it does as long as you allow people to change their pronouns during the term.
AC: And how do you do that? Do you say it every class–everyone say your gender pronouns?
T: Most of the students I’ve met who are comfortable in their fluidity and talk about it say, “I use she/her/they/them” or “I use different gender pronouns depending on how I’m feeling. Today I’m using…and I’ll let you know if that changes.”
AC: Do I check in again sometime during the term or say something at the beginning of the term?
T: I think that you might, when doing the introductions, just say something like, “I understand this is what it is today. If we need to check in again, shoot me an email, and we can do another round of intros in case something has changed for someone.” I think that is completely appropriate.
AC: The first time I did it in my classes, I was really uncomfortable just because I had never done it before. But I think the students were totally cool with it and they did not bat an eye. I think these were all students who had gone through the orientation where they had talked about gender pronouns. They seemed perfectly fine sharing their pronouns.
T: I think proportionally at this point, more faculty and staff are uncomfortable sharing than are students. But even I can feel uncomfortable with faculty and staff because it can feel uncomfortable if I say my pronouns and no one else does. I’ve been doing this for a while and I can still feel uncomfortable doing it, which doesn’t mean that I don’t think it shouldn’t done. If someone introduces themselves in a way that I think is problematic, I don’t know that I’d correct them.
AE: Your discomfort seems like it’s about the power dynamics of the moment.
T: I think that’s an issue that the faculty talk about when they talk about it being an invasion of privacy. Do you have power in this moment to force students to come out in ways they are not ready for? I would probably argue no, because a student can share whatever pronoun they want and, again, if that changes for them, you can just remind them to let you know. I think students will say whatever pronouns they are comfortable saying as long as we stop attaching a gender identity to the pronouns.
AC: And that’s really hard.
T: I still do it. I have to consciously un-do it as I get to know people.
AC: Part of what the students want when they’re asking us to ask about pronouns is to talk about the non-obviousness of gender identity. The idea is that we think that gender is obvious: we see you wearing a dress and we think that you are a “she”, but that’s not necessarily true.
T: We have a student who dresses fem all the time, in a skirt, and use ‘they/them” pronouns. If they weren’t comfortable introducing their pronouns and even when they do, they probably get misgendered a lot on campus.
AC: The other question that came up…there’s a worry that as faculty that we’re going to do it wrong and our students are going to hate us because we did it wrong. So we might as well not do it. For example, when I was at the Rainbow Retreat last winter, a student talked about how a professor asked students to introduce their pronouns but said, “Tell us your pronouns like he or she” and the student was critical that the professor ended up sticking with the gender binary. And my perspective was like, “Well, they’re trying.” But I also understand the student’s perspective: “You’re basically ruining the whole point.”
T: It really depends on the student and on the day. Sometimes a student will be talking about a class and say, “You know they really messed up on this but at least they tried.” And Rainbow Retreat tends to be a time when people come to vent and just let go.
AC: Sure. That’s fair enough.
T: So that’s some of what it is. And sometimes people do get upset. I think that, ideally, faculty sometimes need to admit that they can learn from students.
AC: I learned about the term “cis-gender” from one of my students about five years ago. I teach about gender and education, and they were, like, “Hey, do you know this term?” and I’m like, “No!” [laughter] They pointed me to Julia Serano’s work, which is awesome.
AE: I had a student who came to me about three or four years ago and told me about a club she was starting for asexual students on campus and that was the first time I had heard the term.
AE: I think I had heard of it, but I didn’t understand it. So she told me about her experience and why she was gathering a group.
AC: You’d never heard the term “asexual” before then?
AE: Not in the way she was using it, I should say. I thought about it as someone who doesn’t want to have sex. And the way it’s coming up now is that it’s a sexual identity. You’re straight, you’re queer, you’re asexual. Which means that maybe you’ll have sex but it’s not the primary way you want to have relationships.
T: That community includes folx who identify as asexual and as aromantic so it complicates it even further for people who might be sexual but don’t hold romantic attractions. So there’s a ton of identities within that community.
AC: Right. The term that students want to use on campus is LGBTQA+ with the A standing for asexual and aromantic and the + standing for other marginalized gender and sexual identities. That seems like a really broad term.
T: Speaking particularly of the Carleton context, we use that acronym and don’t include intersex, for example, because we don’t have any resources and we don’t do any programming around intersex identities. If students wanted us to do more, we’d look into it. If you look at Carleton’s campus, I don’t think it’s difficult in general to be lesbian or gay or queer. I think it can be more difficult if you are bisexual or poly or more fluid in who you are attracted to. There’s a lot of lack of knowledge and discomfort around ACE identities trans and non-binary identities. Particularly, I think QTPOC as an intersectional—
AE: …which is the best acronym ever!
T: They call themselves “QTs.” [Laughter] So that’s been the focus of our office. All of our programming is inclusive of all of the acronym but we have tried to decenter White gay and lesbian experiences.
AC: I’m trying to figure out, we have this very specific term we use at Carleton and I understand that’s the one that students want to use, but does that reflect larger realities, realities outside of Carleton?
T: I think it reflects the movement right now. Our acronym is shorter than the movement. A lot of people include intersex, two spirit, same gender loving…if you’re looking a place that’s just using LGBT, they’re probably not focusing on issues that are important to students at this time.
AC: If we think about history, politics and law and legislation, there have been particular ways in which gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks and trans and gender non-binary folks have been particularly targeted and not supported by our society. Are there similar histories of oppression for the other marginalized sexual and gender identities? For example, there are Christian students on campus who feel marginalized on campus. But in broader American society, Christianity is the dominant religion of the United States and there isn’t a similar marginalization there. I’m trying to keep in mind structures of power in society…but by making it such a large inclusive group, are we doing the students a disservice in not teaching them how power and privilege will play out when they get out of Carleton? And/or are we giving them a false sense of safety and inclusiveness that may not exist when they get out into the work world?
T: I struggle with the notion that by creating a safe space on campus, we’re not preparing students for “the real world.” Our students work in the real world. They have summer jobs, some of them need to have jobs during breaks. Usually these are marginalized students, queer and low-income; these are students who are already very familiar with the “real world.” I think that, particularly if we are focused on trans, non-binary, QTPOC and ACE identities, the role of a four year college is to provide time to be fully supported, time to question, to figure some stuff out, so that when you graduate, you have an even higher level of resiliency to work with. So when you go out and are in the “real world,” you’re going to be able to deal with all the shit you’re gonna encounter. Just because the real world sucks doesn’t mean that we should treat them any worse on campus! They are already used to that, particularly these days. A lot of older folks have this narrative of not understanding your sexuality or gender identity till later on in life. A lot of students have figured out their identities in high school before coming to Carleton and they’ve already dealt with a lot of shit from family, friends, systems. I think our ability to create community and a safe space allows them to process through some of that pain or to get to understand other people’s intersections of oppression. Me as a middle-class, White gay person can learn something from interacting with a lower-income QTPOC person and recognize that I still have a lot of privilege and there are things I can do to make sure that others in my community experience less oppression than they currently do.
AC: That makes sense.
T: It hurts our office because we have to be over-programmed all the time. Laura and I have to work lots of weekends and evenings but I think our office is seen as one of the more progressive spaces on campus so students will come to us if they want to do something more progressive.
AC: I think that’s a shift. When I got here, it seemed like the GSC was a space that was mostly White.
T: Yeah, when I got here, it was White. Particularly white queer women. Within the last three years, we’ve really seen change. It’s partly willingness of my part and Laura’s part to constantly take on criticism and we have a really good working relationship with QTPOC and trying to listen to their needs and what they need from our office. Also, just being really intentional about hiring a staff that’s representative of the Carleton community and of the queer community in particular. Campus is a pretty supportive space. I think a lot of students have a lot that they’re involved in. They feel welcomed but the GSC might not be their primary source of support. For others, it is.
AC: Just to wrap up, what might be three things students want faculty to know to make classrooms a more inclusive space?
T: Obviously, we’ve said pronouns are a pretty big deal. Also, we still have students who say faculty call out the wrong names.
AC: Hopefully that’s been fixed. [Note: currently at Carleton, once on campus, students can enter the name they want to be called into the database so that when a faculty prints out a class roster, they should have those names.]
T: I’ve heard of faculty expecting the students to represent their identity. What happens if you only have one student with a particular identity and it’s the focus of discussion in class? There needs to be better understanding of how to navigate that, making space for that student to share but not making their experience the focal point of the lesson. The last thing would be being aware of mental health issues, and that depression and anxiety are real things that make it impossible to function at a Carleton level/pace. I don’t think it’s just faculty who need to be aware, but something the whole campus has to tackle.
Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality,” 1986.
Julia Serano, Whipping girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2007
Resources at Carleton
GSC: Resources for Transgender and Gender Non-binary Students
GSC: Inclusive Classroom
Vanderbilt Center for Teaching resource: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/teaching-beyond-the-gender-binary-in-the-university-classroom/