When words matter

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Last week, The New York Times reported that the Department of Health and Human Services is leading an effort to have government agencies “adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.’”

While these efforts have not yet yielded any attempts at legislation or new policies, some colleges and universities have already issued statements emphasizing their support for their transgender students, faculty, and staff. We wanted to collect here some of these statements–and we’d love for you all to post statements from your institutions if any. While it’s important that colleges and universities take concrete steps to make their spaces truly inclusive for people of all genders, words can and do matter in such moments. In making these statements, we think that these institutions are recognizing the particular vulnerability of these communities under the current government, even before this move. Indeed, in making these statements, educational institutions are aligning themselves with trans, intersex, and gender-expansive individuals, communities, and organizations who have been responding to this latest assault not just with fear and concern but also with defiance and resistance. For example, trans activists organized a “visibility event” this past week in the Twin Cities where they asked allies to literally stand with them as they/we lined up for 40 blocks along a central street in the cities. We hope that these statements serve as an inspiration and model to other colleges and universities that have yet to reaffirm their support for truly gender inclusive campuses, and remember–please post other statements you know of in the comments!

Statement by faculty at University of Massachusetts Amherst College of Education

Statement by President of Reed College, Hugh Porter

Statement by President of Amherst College, Dr. Biddy Martin

Response by administrators at Stanford University (yay, Adriana’s alma mater!)

Statement by President and top-level administrators at Brandeis University

Statement by Dean of Penn State College of the Liberal Arts, Susan Welch

Statement by Interim Chancellor of UMass Boston, Katherine Newman

Statement by gender, women, and sexuality studies department at University of Minnesota

 

How now down brown Take 5: Stereotype threat, gender pronouns and the gender binary

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In this post, we address a question sent to us by our colleague, Anna Moltchanova, who teaches in the Philosophy Department at Carleton College. Anna asked us whether there’s a downside to having students introduce their pronouns in class and identify themselves as a particular gender in that it might introduce stereotype threat and affect their performance in class, especially since the first class of the term can set the tone for the rest of the term. She noted that philosophy is a field that is very gender-imbalanced and she wanted to know if there are ways to counter stereotype threat. She also asked, given the gender imbalance of the field, whether deconstructing the gender binary in such a context may cause some unintended retrograde consequences.

Thank you, Anna, for giving us a chance to think through this complicated set of issues that you raise about how to ensure a more equitable learning environment for all students, given how male-dominated the field of philosophy is.

As Claude Steele and other researchers have defined it, stereotype threat describes a situation where a person’s performance on a task is negatively affected by their concerns about how they will do on a task, because their identity group is stereotyped as not being skilled or capable of that task. Researchers have demonstrated that any group can be susceptible to such a threat–in this talk, for example, Steele gives the example of how a White man might be under stereotype threat when asked to perform in a rap battle! There are a few conditions where stereotype threat gets “activated”—the stereotyped identity has to be “primed” in some way and the person has to care deeply about doing well on the task. Is it possible then that being asked to share gender pronouns could “prime” a female student in a philosophy class?

From our understanding of the research on stereotype threat, that is not out of the realm of possibility, but we’d want to weigh this possibility against the alternative. Given how important it is for people to be recognized as the gender they are, in this case, we’d venture to say that the possibility of triggering a stereotype threat seems lower than the possibility of the harm caused by mis-gendering students. One of the main things we understood from the conversation that we had with our friend and former Carleton colleague, Tegra, is that asking for gender pronouns ensures that we’re not assuming people’s gender based on our perceptions of their gender expressions (you can check that two-post conversation here and here). In other words, the moment where we are sharing our pronouns is not the first moment in which we are gendered in a classroom. It is difficult not to automatically assign gender identities to everyone we encounter—in fact, that’s one of the hardest habits that we have to break in order to ensure that we’re allowing everyone to tell us their gender rather than assuming it. Given that, asking for pronouns allows individuals to claim their own gender identity.

Once you or we have decided, then, that the benefits outweigh the costs of asking for gender pronouns, we can look at the research on stereotype threat that has shown that there are ways to mitigate its effects. It’s important, for example, to talk about doing well on a specific task or in a field as the result of effort and growth, rather than some idea that some people (or some genders!) are “naturally” better in philosophy than others. The idea of a growth mindset can allow women students to understand that philosophical intelligence is malleable rather than fixed. Studies have also shown that it’s important to think about the situational cues being given to students about who belongs in a particular department or field or what researchers calling “belonging mindset.” Promoting a growth mindset and paying attention to what implicit and explicit messages are being given to students about who “belongs” to a department or field can help encourage students from traditionally underrepresented groups (based on gender, race, socioeconomic class) to see themselves as philosophers or physicists or mathematicians. Such messages are conveyed in myriad ways: the gender balance of faculty in a department; the identities of speakers in a department; whose voices and perspectives are included in the curriculum and so forth.

Finally, you ask whether incorporating the notion that gender is non-binary risks necessary attention to the ways in which women have been historically marginalized in the field of philosophy and continue to face such marginalization. We were discussing just this issue in a different context recently. Anita mentioned that she saw a post by an alum during the Kavanaugh Senate confirmation hearings about how the discourse around gender and sexual violence reinforced the gender binary and made invisible the experiences of trans and gender expansive survivors of sexual violence. For a moment, Anita was taken aback and annoyed–can’t women (and clearly at the time she was defining women as cis-women) not have the spotlight for just a moment to focus on their experiences of harm? Then she took a step back to remember that expanding our definition of who has been harmed doesn’t subtract from the harm that one particular group experienced. Indeed, as we expand our understanding of who has been harmed and how, we gain better insight into the way power is structured. It also allows us to build broader coalitions in the fight against power structures. In this case, it is not just cis-women who are harmed by patriarchal structures, but all women and all people who are seen as not belonging in philosophy because of their race, class, gender, and other social identities.

P.S. Neither of us are experts in the concept of stereotype threat, nor are we in male-dominated fields, so we welcome any anecdotes, experiences, strategies, and generous critiques you may have (especially if you’re in White/male-dominated fields).

Suggestions for further reading:

Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), 29-46.

Beasley, M. A., & Fischer, M. J. (2012). Why they leave: The impact of stereotype threat on the attrition of women and minorities from science, math and engineering majors. Social Psychology of Education, 15(4), 427-448.

Davies, P. G., Spencer, S. J., & Steele, C. M. (2005). Clearing the air: identity safety moderates the effects of stereotype threat on women’s leadership aspirations. Journal of personality and social psychology, 88(2), 276-287.

Spencer, S. J., Logel, C., & Davies, P. G. (2016). Stereotype threat. Annual review of psychology, 67, 415-437.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American psychologist, 52(6), 613-629.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797-811.

Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Aronson, J. (2002). Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 34, pp. 379-440): Academic Press.

Gender, power, academia

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[Image source: in the same Chronicle section we link to below, there are a number of powerful images.]

In today’s links round up, we wanted to highlight two of the short essays that were featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently in a section called “The awakening: Women and power in the academy.” This collection features responses from college presidents and faculty around the themes of women and power in academe.

The first one we want to highlight is called “Power is still too white: All women do not yield power equally” by Keisha N. Blain. Blain, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburg, reminds us that it’s important to keep paying attention to the intersections of race and gender when we have conversations about women in leadership positions, pointing out that often it is White women who have benefitted as opportunities for women have increased in the academy.

The second one we want to highlight is written by Alyson Brickey, entitled “The academy’s pink collar: Adjunct issues are women’s issues.” Brickey, an instructor of English at the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba, points out the important fact that much of the teaching in colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada is now being done by contingent faculty members and that women make up the majority of those faculty members (53%). She calls on those of us who are permanent faculty to “do the work of holding our institutions to account” and to stand with contingent faculty in their demands for “paid parental leave, better funding packages, quality affordable child care, and comprehensive health benefits.”

Let us know what essays resonated with your experiences in academia, especially as they relate to gender.

Gender Inclusivity in the Classroom, part II

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(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.

AC: Really?

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.

 

Inspirations/Resources

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/

Gender Inclusivity in the Classroom

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(Photo credit)

Note: In the spirit of collaboration and learning, this post is the first in a series (we hope!) of conversations we will have with cool colleagues and friends about various classroom and campus topics. All conversations are edited for readable clarity and relative concision.

This is the first part of a conversation we had with Tegra Straight, the Assistant Director of the Gender and Sexuality Center at Carleton College.

AE: We’re drinking! [glasses clink]

Tegra: Let’s get that on tape.

AC: We’re really excited to talk to you. I was thinking about this topic in part because the faculty retreat this year had ‘diversity training…’ as a theme and one of the things we talked about was gender pronouns.

AE: Yeah, and it’s clearly not comfortable yet for everyone. I remember a small group meeting last year when the facilitator joked, “introduce yourself and include whatever you need to include,” but didn’t use pronouns. And, going around the room, no one else did until a faculty member affiliated with Women and Gender Studies used pronouns. A few folks later, another WGST prof did.Then me. Out of the 16 or so people, only we three people did it.

T: You see the same thing in Student Life. The GSC staff, maybe a couple of the other identity-based offices, if they remember, but hardly ever other offices.

AC: That’s why we want to talk about it. The first time I remember being asked to say my pronouns was about four years ago at a training at Carleton. My answer then was “she/her but I don’t really care.” I wasn’t being facetious, and I think that’s actually true for me. I’ve been called “sir” before. My story from Japan is that some woman [Note: Anita is totally assuming this person’s gender!!!!] came up to me and said, “Are you a boy or a girl?” in Japanese. I have stories like that but for me, they haven’t been traumatizing events. It’s strange but it doesn’t bother me when people misgender me. It’s not that I don’t think my gender isn’t important… I don’t know. That’s just been my experience. Having read this piece on asking for gender pronouns in the classroom, does asking for gender mean assuming that gender is important for people in a particular kind of way? Also for students for whom gender might be more fluid, are we asking them to choose something? Those are some of the questions we’ve been thinking about.

AE: The larger issue is this kind of discomfort that some faculty seem to feel around the naming of pronouns…it feels…what’s that word?

AC: Like it’s violating people’s privacy.

AE: Yes, that’s it.

AC: But before we get into this, we’d like to steal a question that our favorite podcasters ask…

AE: If this were a podcast, it would be organized much better. People would be like, “Could you two stop talking? You have a guest!”

AC: Shut up!

T: It’s all good. It’s not a podcast. [Note from editors: T finally gets a word in edgewise. Sorry, Tegra!]

AC: So what do you do and why?

T: What do I do? I’m the assistant director of the Gender & Sexuality Center. That’s my professional life. Non-professionally, I do a lot of random things. I like to garden. Recently, I’ve gotten into petsitting, a way to make some money and have dogs in my life. Some community stuff but not a ton. Because my job is ridiculously intense and we have a lot of evening and weekend hours. In that job, primarily, Laura [Haave, the director] and I take a co-[director] approach to a lot of things. A lot of the events coming from our office, I or Laura are responsible for all of the logistical details. Brainstorming with students, publicity, advertising, speaker contracts, mostly I do all that. I supervise the student workers. I oversee the two [residential] houses affiliated with our office. I’m also an advisor, have five sophomore that I advise. I’m the co-chair of the Restorative Justice committee and one of sexual misconduct support advisors. That’s kind of my day to day.

AC: And why do you do what you do?

T: I feel like I just fell into the “gay for pay” space [laughter]. I’ve also always related well to college-aged students, young adults. At Carleton, it’s a specific age range of college students, but anywhere else, that could be from 18 to whatever. I’m just a very relatable person. When I was in undergrad and was pre-med, like half the people in higher ed who are first gen students [term used for students who are the first in their families to attend college], I recognized that bio and pre-med wasn’t where I wanted to go. I realized that I really enjoyed helping out students figure out the process of higher ed. I worked a lot in both housing and admissions during undergrad. That just flowed into grad school.

AE: What’s the degree title?

T: Depending on where you go, the titles are different. Mine is higher education administration with a specialization in student affairs…Our program had more of a research focus…but we didn’t do any counseling. I think we all should [have some training in counseling] because it’s a part of the work that we all do. Particularly if you’re doing transformative advising on the faculty side, all of that is about their non-academic selves, which you can’t split from their academic selves. But all of the conversations I have with my advisees are all about their lives. Maybe that’s because that’s the approach I take. I do what I do because I like people, I like to talk to people, and I love to learn new things and I constantly do that at the GSC.

AE: What I love about what you just said is that I feel like I would say the same thing. And yet there’s two very different places where we ended up…there’s a million different places where you can end up where it’s basically, “I love people. I love learning different things.” Which is very cool.

AC: I don’t really love people.

AE: No, you do not. [laughter]

AC: But I do like the learning and I like that people learn. Tegra, how have you changed because of your work at the GSC?

T: Since coming to Carleton, probably learning more about oppression and social justice, and in particular, joining the queer community because that’s been in recent history, has taught me the importance of personal experiences and the personal connection to what identity labels mean. All that has shifted my hard T to somewhere in the middle. Personal experience matters so much in the work that I do, it’s become a constant.

AE: Thinking about identity and labels, and how we work to help students figure out how to name themselves, these things are related to the issue of pronouns and the work that y’all [GSC staff] have chosen to do. Clearly you’re all movers and shakers on this issue on campus. And those buttons you put out two years ago [Tegra: and last year], those are amazing. The students all get it. The first and second year students all have theirs. So why? Why did you decide as the GSC to do this?

T: A lot of the work that we do reflects what our students want to see. We try to hire a really diverse staff, in terms of race, gender, across identities. We try to hire students who represent a lot of aspects of Carleton’s LGBT community. Also we connect with our student groups. We hear from them what they are interested in, what do they need to feel safer or more comfortable at Carleton. Pronouns and, just, more intentional work on the classroom space becoming more inclusive and welcoming for trans and gender non-binary students became the biggest call. Carleton, in particular, has a high number of gender non-binary students. Those experiences can be confusing because the narrative across media is about trans people, particularly White trans women. So non-binary people aren’t really represented in media and you don’t read about them.

AE: Can we clarify? What do we mean when we say “non-binary” students? What are the steps they’re taking that helps them see that identity as possible and what do you all offer them?

T: I don’t know that there’s anything that we offer them other than a safe space to question their gender and talk about the labels they want to use or if they want to use labels. A lot of students are coming into Carleton with that already. I think social media has become a space to find communities around a lot of different identities. We have a lot of students coming to Carleton as non-binary. It’s about processing through what they’re feeling, their internal selves, what they’re feeling about their bodies, what feel comfortable for them as they get dressed in the morning. Does that include certain things, does it not include certain things? I think non-binary looks different for a lot of people. Some students dress in masculine ways but identify as non-binary. Some people are more fluid about the masculinity and femininity that they express. Some people are more androgynous and will mix it up at the same time. It means different things to different people which is where that individual experience and definition becomes really important.

AC: Maybe this is a basic question. How’s that different from trans identities and experiences?

T: For me, and this is not necessarily the perspective of the GSC, for me personally, trans usually has some type of more solidified end point. You were assigned woman at birth and you are a man. So you might identify as a transman or trans as an umbrella term. Whatever identity you were assigned to doesn’t fit your current narrative. You self-identify in ways that are different from what you were first assigned. Gender non-binary is called different things in different places—gender non-conforming is another way that’s more commonly referred to in academic or higher ed spaces. We use “non-binary” here because that’s how our students identify. Regardless of what you were assigned at birth, you don’t feel like you fit with any gender. Or you feel like you can go back and forth among genders. Agender is similar. You are a person with gender that can be expressed in many ways.

AE: I think my question is going to show my age…one of the things we talked about in the late 80s around lesbianisms, we wouldn’t have called it queerness exactly, then… One of those ideas back then was that you chose to be queer as a political claim against heteronormativity. For students who identify as gender non-binary, how much of it is a choice or how much of it is about seeing identities that are not them? Or how do we separate out those things?

T: Personally, I could identify as lesbian or queer, but I chose queer because of the ideology that it’s associated with in a way that lesbian isn’t. I don’t think that a non-binary identity is political in that sense. I do think that, because society has a strict definition of what it means to be masculine or feminine that’s usually associated with women and men, this other way of being has been created for people who feel like their way of being doesn’t fit society’s expectations of how you should express your gender or your sex. I think in some ways a lot of the language in the queer community is a response to the rigidity of society and how we have created constructs around gender. Kind of what you [Anita] were saying before about being misgendered as a woman because of masculine presentation, it surprises me when it happens to me because, in my eyes, I can be a woman and be super masculine. That’s not a contradiction. I want to be pregnant, I want to be a mother, and I want to be masculine, and that’s what comfortable for me.  But for society, that’s constantly a double take that you have to do. I always wonder, if the gender roles didn’t exist in society, would we still have the identity labels that we do? Would you have gender non-binary folks if they could express their gender in any way they want and society didn’t care? I don’t know.

AE: And if maternity or paternity weren’t associated with any particular kind of gender expression.

T: I do think that trans might always exist–discomfort with a particular body that you have. That could exist regardless. Identities that are based on gender identity and expression where you don’t have discomfort with your physical body that you have…

AC: I guess the pushback would be that how is that different from saying that we should be colorblind? Is the argument about being genderblind the same?

T: I think it’s different if being colorblind or genderblind is ignoring the differences that exist that are organized around a person’s gender or race, versus validating each person’s expression of gender or race. When Laura and I had a conversation, we discussed your question of what’s the difference between being gender neutral and gender inclusive? Gender neutral to me is almost being colorblind. The author in this article suggests that everyone just use “they/them” pronouns. Sure, that gets around the discomfort of cis-students having to hear pronouns that they weren’t expecting but that doesn’t get at the root of the transphobia that makes those students uncomfortable at the moment. I think it’s better to be gender inclusive where you’re talking with your students about why they’re having the reactions they’re having and wanting to honor the pronouns that people want to use in that space, rather than just having a blanket statement about using “they/them” pronouns for everyone and maybe misgendering everyone at that point…especially if they all agree as a group, maybe. But just to prescribe it seems to be like a colorblind approach.

AE: I love how you put this. Part of being gender inclusive is getting at why this might be uncomfortable, and getting at the root of this discomfort. I’m imagining doing that in my class, I’m not having trouble imagining having that discussion but what about for faculty who teach in fields where all they have time and space for is having students say their gender pronouns during the introductions. Is it still worthwhile doing even if there isn’t a chance to have a follow-up conversation to help students understand why you’re doing what you’re doing?

T: I would say from feedback we’ve gotten from students it’s always better to do it. All of the students I’ve talked to on campus, the GDG [gender discussion group on campus] wanted faculty to introduce the pronouns, recognize and use the pronouns that the students want to use. If as a faculty member you’re uncomfortable doing that, that’s what our space [GSC] is for. Come in and have a conversation with me or Laura about how do i make this more comfortable? Or if someone says I use “real boy” pronouns–

AC: [interrupting] What is that?

T: Real boy. Like when you said, “I use she/her but I don’t really care.” For some people, that means you can use whatever and I don’t really care. For others, it’s like you’re being kind of an ass saying that. Some people might say “I use men pronouns.” And then I would ask, “what does that mean for you?” Sometimes it’s good to ask a question, sometimes you just let it go.

AC: Also, I assume as a student, most of the  time you let it go if a professor says that in class.

T: For me, it even depends on what group of students I’m with…an example, the RAs do a resource rotation to get to know the various office. An RA came to GSC we do introductions, and the RA said I use male pronouns. I asked, “What do you mean by that? Men can use any pronouns and that why we do the introduction with pronouns. What you look like doesn’t necessarily relate to pronouns.” So if the point of that circle wasn’t for me to get them to understand what we do and the language around pronouns, I maybe wouldn’t have pushed, depending on what the group and how comfortable I am. If someone says something that’s blatantly problematic, I would say something…

AE: No matter what.

AC: What I got from the LTC presentation was that you ask students to share pronouns among other things during introductions but if a student doesn’t share, I should just let it go. I feel like as an instructor, I always have to reveal my gender pronouns, I have to role model, I feel like I don’t have that choice that our students do. Or at least I hope that how students see it because I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable doing it. Maybe that’s some of my resistance or maybe that’s just my cis-privilege. And I need to get over it.

T: As a faculty member if you’re uncomfortable disclosing your gender pronouns, you can just use your name. “You can just refer to me as ‘Anita’ in this class.”

AE: It is really funny to me, though, about the way people talk about the discomfort, that it’s about this recognition that they’re tracking something, that they are cisgender. Oh, you can call me “she,”  and it’s not a surprise.

AC: But that’s the problem, I could look feminine and not use she/her pronouns.

T: I feel like the discomfort comes because we naturally assign identity labels to pronouns when we hear them. If I hear someone who I perceive as using “she/her” pronouns say they use “she/her” pronouns, okay, I’m going to assign a cis-identity to them, if someone looks masculine and uses “he/him” pronouns, I’m going to assign a cis-identity to them, if they use “they/them” I might assign them as gender non-binary or agender o trans. The problem is that we need to get faculty and people in general to stop associating a gender identity with the pronouns that people use. Particularly for people who are fluid. Pronouns can mean any number of things. They woke up today and that’s the pronoun they wanted to use.

Next blog post: we continue the conversation with Tegra, talking about gender fluidity, best gender-inclusive classroom practices, and learning from students.

 

Inspirations

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