The Pronoun Problem

ow1deLuHere’s a teaching conundrum I have never faced before: I have a student whose gender identity is unclear to me.

My first impression from the student’s online ID picture: woman. My (not immediately conscious) impression from our first classroom encounter: very pretty gay man. My impression after 10 minutes of 1-on-1 conversation in my office: no idea. Maybe a very boyish transgender woman? I really can’t tell. And the student’s name is no help at all.

Clearly, no one’s gender is any of my business, but eventually there may be pronoun issues.

Do I ask? If so, how do I ask?

The best thing about my job: I never know what interesting knot I will need to untie next.

Image by Kevin Tuck


12 responses

  1. Yes, you ask. At some point — as kids make us all more and more aware of gender’s fluidity, and as there are more and more gender-nonconforming kids in our classes — we’ll have to make it standard practice to ask. The transgender kids I teach appreciate when they are asked about pronouns. So, you COULD ask everyone to either go around the room or hand in on a card maybe something about themselves and also the pronoun(s) they would like you to use when you call on them. The card idea might work best as a new semester/way to get to know you-type-of thing. But in any case, yes, it’s always best to ask. And not offensive.

  2. I’d ask. Um… how… If you’re alone with that person again, you could ask in private. Knowing me, I’d probably be a bit self-effacing and light in the sense of, I know pronouns are less fixed then they used to be (possibly insert joke about how old you are, but how glad you are times have changed), what pronoun would you prefer be used for yourself?

  3. I would check with a guidance or admissions counselor. Usually they have to put the gender on some kind of report. You could also check with previous teachers who taught this student.

  4. Hey there, trans academic here. In my experience I have informed my instructors and peers either through an email or through personal introduction on syllabus day/first day of instruction. It seems that your student hasn’t done as much, and that could very well be the result of many different things. Either way, I find that if someone is coming from a good place and asks what pronoun set I prefer I am not going to feel offended at all. Sure, it can feel a little embarrassing for all involved (even as a tutorial facilitator it feels odd being a kind of authority figure and trans) but you are being erring on the side of caution and respect.

    So, short answer: yes, do inquire.

  5. Hi Siobhan, I’ve been reading and appreciating for quite a while, so it’s nice to finally feel like I have something to give back. I volunteer for a youth group that also provides PD about gender and sexual orientation; this is exactly the kind of exercise we have people practise. If you want to see the workshop material, it’s here.

    To address your specific concerns: as you allude to, there’s a big difference between asking someone about their gender identify (somewhat relevant but deeply personal), their genital biology (not relevant and not appropriate), and their pronoun preference (totally relevant, totally your business, since you want to address them respectfully).

    So. Assuming you’re asking only about pronouns, not about deep-seated identity issues or body parts, it doesn’t have to be a complicated conversation. I recommend against starting with a pile of apologies or explanations of your discomfort; the goal is to put the student at ease. The chances are pretty good that the student already knows that others have a hard time reading their gender! It’s not like it’s going to come as a shock to them. (“Oh my god! Are you serious?? I had no idea!” *grin*) Therefore, pussy-footing around is not likely to spare them from some shocking realization.

    On the other hand, stating your commitment to queer and trans-positive environments may help.

    I would also recommend against checking their admission paperwork.. First off, increasingly, institutions are not asking this question, or if they are, it’s part of a voluntary disclosure similar to other employment equity-related questions. Second, they may have felt obligated to put the same gender marker on their application that they have on their birth certificate and driver’s license — which may not be the one by which they want to be referred. Thirdly, more and more people are identifying as agender, bigender, etc. For these and other reasons, people may prefer to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns (commonly the singular “they”, which is grammatically perfectly respectable).

    Lastly, whatever other profs have decided on the student’s behalf doesn’t tell you anything about what the student finds respectful. At the very least, the student might have a different preference now or in your class than they did before or elsewhere.

    That leaves asking directly. In private is probably a good idea, or at least off to the side, rather than in the middle of class. Does one of these sentences sound like it would fit for you?

    “It’s important to me to respect everyone’s gender. What pronoun would you like me to use?”
    “I use she/her pronouns. What’s your preference?”
    “Is that the same pronoun you would want me to use when we’re in class?”

    If you’re nervous, practising out loud with a friend can really help!

    The good thing is, this way you know exactly what they prefer, and they know that you care. The not so great news is, there may be others in your class whose preferred pronoun isn’t the one people assume. That’s the downside if we as instructors are the ones who choose how and when to ask the question. To put that control in the hands of the students, what would you think of circulating a short questionnaire on the first day of class with questions like, Preferred name? Pronoun? What helps you learn? (or something like that). That way, it also helps you discover that Ashleigh-Maria actually goes by “Lee”, and someone in your class will be using speech-to-text software to type their papers, and whatever other information they want you to know. If you think they might not know what you mean by “Pronoun”, you could always put a few prompts ( __he, __ she, or ________________________… and leave a space for whatever they write in).

    Good luck, hope you’re let us know how it goes!

  6. So many incredible comments here. I’d have taken Maeve’s approach. The underlying sentiment, I believe, is “please enlighten me.” It will be interesting to hear how this worked out. As a teacher who’s had a few trans students, so much of these issues are a work in progress and a lot of times we fumble even when we’re trying to do the right thing. It’s okay to be human.

    FYI: When I married, my MIL asked me to call her “Mom.” I already had a mother, so that was not an option. I spent 20 years avoiding any situation where I had to address her directly! When I finally called her by her first name, it was such a relief!

  7. Pingback: He, she or . . . ? — Joanne Jacobs

  8. Pop quiz or some other form with a signature line “I, Mr/Ms/Miss/Mrs/____ Firstname Lastname, didn’t cheat on this exam/read the syllabus/like to eat chicken/whatever.” Or add “pronoun preference” to some sort of getting-to-know-you worksheet. That way no one is embarrassed – pace the various transgendered folks here, there are people who project a rather androgenous appearance without doing it intentionally.

  9. It’s also possible that the student doesn’t want/care to have their gender known. Most people who do want to be easily identified as a particular gender, make sure to send signals with their clothing/hair/makeup, etc. Even if they are transitional, they send these signals. If their appearance and self-presentation is truly ambiguous, they may want to be projecting ambiguity; you don’t then have to worry about making a mistake.

  10. Thanks so much for raising this issue. Mylene has very gracefully offered such wonderful advice. I would follow her approach. Thanks, Mylene!

  11. Being genderfluid myself I would want you to ask instead of assuming. That yes can be scary because I have seen people who merely want to know and educate themselves on the issue and people get offended. I see the differences in malicious intent to assault someone’s gender identity and the actual curiosity and want of knowledge. I would ask of course in private. Never assume the gender just simply ask, “Insert name, Do you have a preferred pronoun that you would like me to refer to you as?” If they get offended they get offended. I know I wouldn’t, I would appreciate it.

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