The dreadfully delightful first day of class in a seminar room is sticky and stuffy, and you have a lump in your throat because you regret wearing jorts. The professor strides in and everyone silently shifts in their seats, iPad pens in hand. Once the professor is settled with their folder and tablet in front of them, they say welcome, share their pronouns and ask that each student goes around and gives their name and pronouns.
For the past two years, when I’ve been etched in this inevitable Goldwin-Smith tableau, I scan the room: Are there any other queer students? How many? This may seem shallow, or identity-essentialist, but it’s not. In order to share my pronouns with people in a shared space, I need to feel supported. In a new space where fellow students’ attitudes on the existence of multiple genders is unknown, sharing my preferred pronouns does not come easy.
If only one person in the room chuckles at their introduction with disdain — “I guess I’m a he” or worse: “I don’t have pronouns” — I won’t soil my jorts in offense, but merely worry if this person will respect me. The disdainful student’s response makes me, the gender queer student, an “Other” by making light of the act of sharing pronouns. Of course, not all people whom I will encounter in life will respect me, but in a small humanities classroom, establishing mutual respect is key for generating a collaborative and generative environment.
Gender queer students’ — and especially gender questioning students’ — discomfort in this pronoun-sharing circle might be spared with the instructor’s simple addition of the following words: “if you feel comfortable sharing.” This way, cisgender students who are unversed or uninterested in gender terminology do not have to make a show of having the same pronouns as what they were assigned at birth, and gender queer students will not feel pressure to present their non-conforming pronouns to a room full of strangers.
The addition of “if you feel comfortable sharing” also gives time for students to get to know each other before sharing more information about their identities and building mutual respect across differences if there was initial discomfort (which is not the end of the world). I personally feel more comfortable sharing my pronouns on an individual level, which is informal and more intimate. If the instructor worries about misgendering a student, they may simply use they/them pronouns, as I have been using in my reference to the instructor of a non-specified gender.
It might seem counterintuitive that emphasizing pronouns may actually fail to make gender queer students feel more comfortable — some instructors even have students repeat their pronouns at the beginning of every class, perhaps to make space for students’ gender fluidity. I love this idea. At the same time, gender queer students might feel painful pressure to continuously present themselves to the classroom as being non-conforming. Every gender queer person is different and might hold a different opinion; this is why it’s so important to add “if you feel comfortable sharing.”
I write this article because it’s important to keep the conversation alive about making LGBTQ+ students feel comfortable.
It’s easy to forget that the queer community is under threat because, as I am often reminded by older generations, many queer people are fortunately living beautiful lives in this country. However, from the Don’t Say Gay law taking effect in Florida and K-12 schools becoming a battleground over supporting queer youth, to three-fourths of House Republicans voting against the right to same-sex marriage, 40% of homeless youth being LGBTQ+ and 2021 being the deadliest year on record for trans and non-binary individuals, it’s clear that queer people need to feel safe, protected and respected by allies in their communities. This clarity comes with a perspective shift; that your gay best friend can thrive as her fullest self is not enough evidence to say that LGBTQ+ people are being treated equally on the national level.
When asking others to share their identity or story, the best thing you can do for LGBTQ+ students, and perhaps other students of marginalized identities, is to give students maximum opportunity to choose whether they participate. As instructors or as leaders looking to be more inclusive, the most kind thing to generate in your space is the freedom for students to say “no, I don’t owe you that information.”
ED Plowe is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. With Gratitude runs alternate Tuesdays.