As another school year begins, here comes that question again: “As a teacher, how should I ask students for their pronouns?”
To be clear: What follows is my own personal opinion. Nonbinary people are not a monolith. Read multiple opinions, as many as you can find.
Also, I laud the effort of any cisgender, heterosexual teacher who wants to genuinely support their LGBTQIA students. Take this and all my writings for teachers in the spirit of wanting to help you do that in the most helpful way possible.
Here is one advantage to asking students for their pronouns: It helps students who aren’t cisgender to feel seen.
Here is one disadvantage to asking students for their pronouns: It causes students who aren’t cisgender to feel seen.
In an ideal world, being transgender would be a bit like having green eyes or liking sausage on pizza or being a fan of K-Pop. It’s just a fact about ourselves, and it may not even be all that interesting.
It is that ideal world, I believe, that cis people who enthusiastically ask for pronouns are seeking. However, if you’re cisgender, you very possibly haven’t really thought through the depth of prejudice that transgender people face in this world.
Murder. Ostracism. Unemployment. Homelessness. Even denial of medical services.
In the last one, I’m not talking just about not being able to get trans-related medical services like Gender Reassignment Surgery (GRS) or Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). Doctors far too often conclude that any medical issue experienced by a trans person, not matter how unrelated, is due to transness. In short, even medical professionals show bias against transgender people.
Our world is a shifting sand of values and perspectives. Happily, far more youth today than when I was young are living in a headspace where being transgender isn’t catastrophic. Most of those youth will gladly tell you their authentic gender.
At the same time, though, there are many youth who are well aware of the dangers of their being out. Here in Detroit, there is a shelter for youth who have been kicked out of their homes for being transgender; it currently has a waiting list. According to the HRC, 2020 was the worst year for homicide of transgender people since they started tracking (2013), and 2021 is currently on pace for topping that.
So a stranger asking a trans youth for their pronouns isn’t a welcome thing for all of them.
“But I’m a teacher!”
Even if you are as trustworthy as you feel, look down the hallway. Do it honestly. Would you trust every teacher in your building? Every single one?
You may have rapport with most of your students. You hopefully have a positive reputation. I can pretty much guarantee there are students who don’t trust you, and it’s not personal: They just don’t trust teachers.
And some of those students are queer.
Another consideration: People’s understanding of their identity can change. This is especially true for adolescents and young adults, who typically enter middle school largely constrained by the expectations of their caregivers and leave college wanting to fly independently. Maybe they see themselves as cisgender in September; that doesn’t mean they’ll have that same self-perception in June.
In my opinion, asking for pronouns should be done with as much awareness of these issues as possible. Don’t act like it’s a big deal, but also don’t do it in a way that makes students feel constrained.
First and foremost, always make sure it’s an optional request. I’ve used “Getting To Know You” sheets with a variety of questions, and I always include the instruction to only answer the questions students want to answer. Putting “Your Pronouns” on there with “Movies You Like” and “Countries You’ve Visited” will give students the ability to answer or not.
And in my experience, most students forget they’ve filled that out by October, so they won’t worry that their answers have changed. However, if you want to be extra sure, include the instruction: “Answer for today; tomorrow you might change!”
I want to reiterate: Always make sure it’s clearly optional. One purpose of the icebreaker exercises is to establish trust; pressuring a transgender student to choose between outing themselves and lying to you does the opposite of that.
Also, I feel strongly that we shouldn’t ask for pronouns as part of a verbal round robin in the entire classroom. Not even as optional. The students who would appreciate it would appreciate it just as much on a worksheet, and the students who would hate it will now have to wait their turn, listening as student after student announces themself as cisgender.
“But I thought nonbinary people asked for this!”
Honestly, I really don’t know where the practice of asking for pronouns started. There are many nonbinary and other transgender people who love pronoun sharing, so maybe there were nonbinary people who did ask for this. I reckon it might have been among adults, though, which is a different scenario.
And as I said, this is all my opinion. I am a nonbinary high school teacher with about a decade of teaching experience. Consider those credentials as you please, and seek other opinions.
Different people in a marginalized community have different desires and expectations. If you’re not part of that community, don’t use what one of us said to criticize what someone else is saying.
Another difficulty with both names and pronouns is that transgender people are not always out to everyone they know. This is particularly true of youth; sadly, they are often at the most risk from their caregivers, who have power over them. Youth have been beaten, kicked out, sent to “conversion therapy”, and sent to other, less tolerant relatives.
If you choose to open this box, make yourself aware of that. Make sure that any student who trusts you with names and pronouns outside of those of their culturally designated gender can also communicate when to use those: Just you? In front of the class? Throughout the building? With caregivers?
Finally, make sure you’ve checked with your building administration with regards to protocols regarding LGBTQIA students. Just because a particular student greenlights you using their pronouns or chosen name, there may be policies in place that discourage it.
Sometimes those protocols are in place to protect students from their own enthusiasm. Those protocols, if developed in consultation with LGBTQIA-affirming student organizations, are good.
Sometimes those protocols are in place to oppress queer students; I do not support those sorts of protocols, but leave it to you whether to respect them yourself.
To recap, if you would like to normalize pronoun sharing in your classroom, I believe the best practice is to ask for them privately (such as on a written form or a Flipgrid video), and make sure the instructions make it clear that sharing is optional and that pronouns are always allowed to change.