She, They, He, Us: Transforming Campus Inclusivity Through the Use of Pronouns

November
2021
Abbie Cory, Palomar College
Jenny Fererro, Palomar College
Hossna Sadat Ahadi, Palomar College

Note: The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges but should not be seen as the endorsement of any position or practice by the ASCCC.

Pronouns are an important part of gender identity and an easy way for people to show respect for individuals and their genders. Using a person’s chosen personal pronouns lets that person know that you respect the individual and recognize their identity.

Gender is a spectrum; many people, especially young people, identify as transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, or other identities outside the dominant male/female binary. These people may use what are known as gender neutral or gender inclusive pronouns. Gender neutral pronouns exist as an option when the traditional male or female pronouns do not fit. The most common of these variations is using ‘they’ or ‘their’to refer to an individual person. This usage and other pronouns such as ze—pronounced “zee”—and hir—pronounced “heer”— (see Table 1) offer an opportunity for people to find personal pronouns that fit who they are and help them feel validated.

Table 1

he/she

him/her

his/her

his/hers

himself/herself

they

them

their

theirs

themself

ze

hir

hir

hirs

hirself

e

em

eir

eirs

emself

zie

zim

zir

zis

zieself

ve

ver

vis

vers

verself

tey

ter

tem

ters

terself

sie

sie

hir

hirs

hirself

Using appropriate chosen pronouns is a very basic way to prevent someone from feeling minoritized or disrespected. Scholars from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee LGBTQ+ Resource Center conveyed the following: “It is a privilege to not have to worry about which pronoun someone is going to use for you based on how they perceive your gender. If you have this privilege, yet fail to respect someone else’s gender identity, it is not only disrespectful and hurtful, but also oppressive” (p.1).

Purposely or continually using the wrong pronouns or using gendered language for someone who is gender neutral is an aggressive act, especially when one has been informed or corrected. Misgendering can also have a negative effect on a person’s mental health. LGBTQIA+ community members are already at risk for heightened mental health issues, especially young people. Using neutral language can significantly reduce marginality and mental health risks. For example, The Trevor Project (2020) found that “TGNB [transgender/nonbinary] youth who reported having their pronouns respected by all or most of the people in their lives attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected” (n.p.). This statistic reveals the compelling nature of using students’ chosen pronouns properly.

Making a mistake and correcting oneself is always acceptable; purposely using the wrong pronouns is not, even if one believes the person should use certain or different pronouns. One cannot always tell what pronouns someone uses just by looking at that person. The easiest way to know what pronouns someone prefers is to ask, “What pronouns do you use?”

One can also share one’s own pronouns: “My name is Jenny, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers.” Such a practice indicates that a person welcomes learning about other people’s pronouns. Sharing one’s own pronouns is a very simple way to identify oneself as an ally, a safe person, and someone who cares about the people one is interacting with. When cisgender people share their pronouns, especially when those pronouns seem obvious, it disrupts the normalization of the privilege of never needing to indicate one’s own pronouns to be recognized. Sharing pronouns publicly is about making sure other people know how to refer to you correctly so that you feel comfortable and seen and your identity is respected; it also empowers other people to feel comfortable doing the same.

Faculty should be willing to use gender neutral language to support non-binary, transgender, and all other students as well as colleagues and the community. Such usage also disrupts the assumption that people must look a certain way or have a certain name to demonstrate gender identity, helps to break down the binary gender system, and demonstrates that gender is a spectrum. Avoiding gendered terms like “guys” and “ma’am” to refer to people or groups, using people’s names when possible, and adjusting one’s language to be inclusive rather than exclusive, divisive, or gendered can all have a powerful impact on the people one interacts with and foster a sense of belonging (see Table 2).

Table 2 

INSTEAD OF

TRY

men/women

everyone/people

boys/girls

children

ladies/gentlemen

honored guests/ students/class

mother/father

parents

husband/wife

spouse/partner

guys

everyone/folks/y’all

A great resource for those who are looking to learn more about personal pronoun usage is https://www.mypronouns.org/.

Literature Review

In a review of literature directly related to the importance of institutionalizing pronouns in education, various critical theories stood out. Queer and validation theories provide educators a lens to further understand the lived experiences of communities who identify as non-binary, gender-neutral, and LGBTQIA+. 

Queer theory provides educators a perspective to understand the oppressive power of dominant norms in society as it relates to pronouns and sexuality. Queer theorists have stressed the importance of reducing or eliminating heteronormativity and binary systems. Butler (1999) elucidated the detrimental impact of hierarchical binaries in society. Educators must recognize that cultural identity is progressively changing and continue to reflect and challenge their normative-thinking bias. 

Rendón (1994) alluded to the importance of educators validating students by accepting and embracing their cultural diversity. Students and employees in community colleges encounter overt and covert sexism, homophobia, and transphobia daily, all of which impact student and employee retention. Educators must externally validate students and colleagues on campus (Rendón, 1994). The validation given must be authentic and affirming of others’ agency. When colleges validate and provide a sense of belonging for LGBTQIA+ students, the students’ academic success is improved. Kiekel (2019) explained the lack of engagement provided for LGBTQIA+ students on campus and how this lack directly impacts their persistence and success. As a result, greater disparities regarding campus climate are presented (Kiekel, 2019).

Supportive Practices to Consider

The following lists offer suggestions for supportive practices colleges can consider adopting to ensure gender inclusivity.

Sharing of Pronouns in Numerous Ways

  • Add pronouns near the instructor’s name on syllabi, office nameplates, website bios, business cards, and nametags.
  • Add pronouns to email signatures. Students notice this practice, and it makes a difference for them. One can also add a hyperlink in a signature to mypronouns.org, or the institution’s pronoun guide if it has one, to help offer more information for those who are unfamiliar with the reason behind sharing pronouns.[1]
  • Add pronouns to faculty profiles on the college LMS. Canvas, for example, allows users to include their pronouns to be displayed next to their names throughout the interface. This feature needs to be activated by the campus’ academic technology team.
  • When teaching or meeting virtually, faculty can add pronouns in their Zoom or Skype nametags.
  • When introducing themselves to students or to colleagues in meetings, faculty can include pronouns in their verbal introductions. Consistently introducing oneself with one’s name and pronouns will encourage others to do the same.
  • Include the diversification of pronouns in teaching, including, for example, classroom examples both written and verbal and in test questions, and in communications with students.

Adopting Pronouns Systemically

  • Consider all the places where gender designations, markers, or pronouns are asked for in paperwork throughout the institution, and then ask whether the information is needed, useful, or even used. In some instances, demographic data like gender must be collected for federal, state, or grant purposes. In many other cases, this information is requested out of habit and is often never used.
    • If collection of gender data from students or employees is necessary or desirable, consider removing binary options such as offering only male and female choices and replacing them with a blank for individuals to input how they identify. Avoid adding “other” to the binary options as a nod to inclusivity; this terminology can be dismissive and tokenizing.
    • Remove gendered honorifics such as Mrs., Mr., and Ms. from paperwork and applications.
  • Replace gendered language in all institutional documentation. This change can be a daunting task to undertake all at once; instead, faculty can help lead the charge by using the shared governance process to remind colleagues of the importance of gender-neutral language whenever edits and revisions to the institution’s written materials are being made.
    • Be conscious of gendered language during processes such as the routine curriculum review cycle for course catalog descriptions, routine policy and procedure review, and negotiations for collective bargaining agreements.
    • Consider assigning people involved in curriculum tech review to catch gendered language usage in course outlines of record.
  • Encourage Human Resource Services to review all aspects of their processes, including applications, hiring, and payroll.
  • Encourage student service areas to review all aspects of their services, including enrollment, counseling, software and systems, and student health services intake.
  • Consider ongoing and regular training for employees in departments and divisions, including case studies and common microaggressions.
  • Encourage facilities departments to ensure that signage on campus is gender- neutral.
  • Consider the placement and availability of gender-neutral bathrooms throughout the campus.

Suggestions for Further Attention

The California Community Colleges system can take steps to create inclusive policies and practices that are welcoming of gender-neutral or non-binary students and employees. While each college varies, the following are some areas that could use more attention related to pronouns specifically:

  • Application forms could have a designated area for students to select their pronouns. This practice would also support college campuses to better understand their student populations.
  • The SARS appointment scheduling system—used commonly in counseling and student services—does not have a designated area for pronouns, but placing this information in the notes section would ensure the accuracy of students’ identified pronouns for future use.

The commitment of faculty in the California Community Colleges system should be to model inclusivity; the more pronoun sharing and respect for chosen pronouns is normalized, the more students and employees will become inclusive and accepting of all students, colleagues, and the community.

References

Baron, D. (2020). What’s your pronoun? Beyond he and she. Liveright.

Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge.

Kiekel, C. (2012). Perceptions of Campus Climate and Engagement for Lesbian, Gay,    Bisexual, and Transgender Community College Students. Academic Senate   California Community Colleges 50th Anniversary 1969-2019 Rostrum. Retrieved from https://asccc.org/sites/default/files/Rostrum_2019-50thYr.pdf

Palomar College. (2020). Palomar College pronoun guide. [Brochure]. Retrieved from https://www2.palomar.edu/pages/dei/files/2020/08/Pronoun-Guide-v6.pdf.

Rendón, L. I. (1994). Validating culturally diverse students: Toward a new model of learning and student development. Innovative Higher Education 19(1), 33-50.

Trevor Project Research Brief: Pronoun Usage among LGBTQ Youth. (2020). The Trevor Project.  https://www.thetrevorproject.org/2020/07/29/research-brief-pronouns-usage-among-lgbtq-youth/.

University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, LGBTQ+ Resource Center (n.d.) Why is it important to respect people’s pronouns? University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Retrieved from https://uwm.edu/lgbtrc/qa_faqs/why-is-it-important-to-respect-peoples-pronouns/.


[1] An example of Palomar College’s pronoun guide can be found at https://www2.palomar.edu/pages/dei/files/2020/08/Pronoun-Guide-v6.pdf.

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