Non-Binary Students and Pronouns

A Guide for Public School Educators

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

In an earlier article, I discussed binarist language and provided some ideas for avoiding it with your students. In this article, I’m focusing specifically on pronouns.

First of all, though: Thank you for taking the time to read what follows. For many people, the increasing visibility of non-binary persons and the accompanying language can seem overwhelming. However, when you help create a climate that respects marginalized students, studies have shown that all students feel safer and respected.

If you’d like to learn more about creating a school environment for LGBTQIA students, or create a GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) at your own school, GLSEN offers some excellent resources and guidance.

Every year, the third Wednesday of October is International Pronouns Day. This year, that’s October 21, 2020.


What’s the deal with pronouns anyway?

In these times where many of us are engaged in virtual learning through Zoom, you may have seen someone have pronouns listed after their name. Many institutions have begun encouraging people to list their pronouns in their email signatures.

I personally have mixed feelings about this practice, which I’ll discuss later, but I know it comes from a compassionate place when cisgender people engage in it.

In English, our pronouns are the most consistent way of reinforcing the flawed view that everyone is either a man or a woman.

Imagine you’re in a coffee shop with a friend. You forgot to give the barista a tip, and your friend is going back for something else. If you’re like most people, you’re going to use a gendered pronoun for the clerk: “Hey, can you give this tip to him while you’re there?”

When we stop to think of it, this is such a strange behavior: Why do we need to know the gender of a complete stranger, someone we might never see again, in order to talk about them?

And we might get it wrong. When we make assumptions based on what people look like, we could simply be wrong. Perhaps the person we think is a “man” is a trans woman or a non-binary person. Or a cis woman who happens to look “manly”. Or perhaps they’re a “man” but don’t care for that characterization.

If English had evolved a different way, this would not be an issue. Even as it is, we often use the third-person plural “they” in the singular for someone whose gender identity we have very little information about: “Someone left their book in class yesterday.”

We could have developed “they” as a singular for those cases where we don’t know someone’s gender for certain, or in situations where someone doesn’t identify with either “he” or “she”. We could have gone farther, getting rid of “he” and “she” entirely: Many languages do just fine without them.

Instead, English has kept the gendered pronouns (so far, at least), and for decades English teachers and style guides have taught that “they” is only to be used as a plural. The style guides are currently moving towards accepting gender-neutral singular “they”, and I likewise encourage teachers to re-examine their own curricula.

Okay, so… You didn’t answer the question. What’s the big deal?

A growing number of people are using pronouns that reflect their authentic selves. On one level, the pronouns themselves are meaningful: As a trans woman transitions to her own identity, for instance, each time she’s referred to as “him” is another reminder of a past mask she’s trying to shed. So observing a person’s pronouns is an act of respect.

On another level, pronouns are symbolic of an entire identity. In general, it’s not just “him”, it’s Mr., and Sir, and all the language that goes with it. A non-binary person might use the pronouns “they” as a way of signaling their identity.

However, it’s not as easy as “he” for men, “she” for women, and “they” for non-binary people.

I’ll speak specifically about non-binary people. Some of us are fine with the pronoun that aligns with what we were designated at birth. Some of us use neo-pronouns, such as “zie”, “fae”, or “thon”. Some of us use “it”, but be extraordinarily careful: “It” is often used as an insult (“If you’re not a he or a she, you’re an it!”) and should only be used for those people who explicitly use it.

Some reasons for opposing “they” include habit (some English teachers really insist that “they” can’t refer to a single person) and the use of “they” for people with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Some people just don’t like “they”.

However, “they” is the safest route if you honestly don’t know. If you’re in a position to ask someone their pronouns, absolutely, ask. If they tell you not to use “they” for them, respect that. But if you honestly don’t know, “they” is safest.

Also, some people are okay with people using some incorrect pronouns. I’m fine with “he” because I’m used to it… for now. But it’s still incorrect.

“Incorrect”? You’re talking about “preferred pronouns”, right?

The phrase “preferred pronouns” is often used, but a growing number of us are speaking against it. It reminds us of the outdated “sexual preference” (which is now properly called “sexual orientation”), and suggests that our gender identities are a whim.

So I now speak of someone’s pronouns, or someone’s correct pronouns. As I said, there may be some incorrect pronouns that a person is more willing to accept and some that they’re not, but they’re all incorrect.

If you’re a cisgender man, for instance, how would you feel if someone called you “she”? Would you say, “My preferred pronoun is ‘he’?” or would you say, “Um, I’m a man. Why’d you call me that?”

In my experience, most cisgender people would ask the second question, or some variation of it, if they didn’t get openly offended. So why would we call pronouns for non-binary people “preferences”?

You’ve used the word “cisgender” a few times now. What’s that? I heard that was an insult.

“Cisgender” is a term for people whose gender identity matches how they were designated at birth. It’s not meant as an insult at all. Some cisgender people have had it used as an insult against them by transgender people, usually in response to them making anti-transgender comments.

There perfectly valid reasons to talk about cisgender people. I believe much (but not all) of the anger directed at J. K. Rowling, for instance, would have been diffused if she were using “cisgender women” to differentiate the experience of women who had been so-designated at birth (“assigned at birth”) from the experiences of transgender women. Instead, far too many people differentiate “women” from “transgender women” (and “men” from “transgender men”).

Trans women are women. Cis women are women. Referring to “women” and “trans women” implies that trans women aren’t “real” women.

Likewise, trans men are men. Cis men are men.

“Cisgender” or “cis” was introduced to give a clear way to speak about a set of people. It is not an insult in itself.

Okay, so I believe I’ve covered why people announce their pronouns, and why it’s crucial to respect someone’s pronouns, but how do you find them out?

It’s becoming a trend right now to put one’s pronouns in their Zoom name or email signatures, or to wear pins or otherwise make one’s pronouns known.

If you’re cisgender, the proper reason for doing this is to normalize announcing one’s pronouns. It can be an act of allyship. But I have mixed feelings about this.

For one thing, we don’t go around announcing our sexual orientation to everyone. Why would we generally announce our gender identity?

I’m more concerned, though, about the impact being different than the intent. If I’m in a room where everyone else’s pronouns match their birth-designated gender, I may feel more isolated, not less.

Also, as it becomes a trend and even something that institutions are “encouraging”, it becomes harder to know that someone’s doing it out of genuine allyship and not just social pressure or a need to signal faux progressiveness.

So please, cisgender readers, feel free to announce your pronouns. I think it does do more good than harm. But don’t assume that should be the entirety of your trans allyship.

Another thing I’ve heard of cisgender teachers doing is asking students on day one for their pronouns. I feel that, if you do this, you should do it with extreme caution and self-awareness. Some transgender students will jump at this opportunity and see you as an ally.

But many transgender people are still very much living in fear and anxiety, and not all of us are as trusting. A transgender student might lie because they don’t trust you, and then feel guilty about lying. (Another vocabulary clarification: “Transgender” includes anyone whose identity doesn’t match their birth designation, so non-binary people are generally considered transgender.)

In short, if and when you do ask for pronouns, make sure to do so in a way that keeps the announcement discreet and lets each student know that it’s a voluntary question. If you really are a trustworthy ally, you’ll hopefully be able to demonstrate it with time.

Which brings me to the issue of deadnaming. Deadnaming is using a name that a trans person has abandoned, particularly the one that appears on their birth certificate.

For people who are not teachers or similar roles, the rule is fairly simple: Don’t deadname. Ever. Likewise, use proper pronouns. Don’t use incorrect ones.

For people who are teachers or are in similar roles, the rule is more complicated. You may have trans students who are only out to you, not to parents, not to other teachers, and not to classmates. Or perhaps they’re out to some group of people but not to others.

Ask a trans student not just how they want you to refer to them, both in name and pronoun, but also which name they want you to use when. If a trans student wants you to deadname them when calling their parents: Deadname them when calling their parents.

It is absolutely not your job to reveal a transgender student’s identity to anyone. It is your job to protect that identity, and not reveal it to anyone unless you have your student’s explicit permission.

I know that this might seem very complicated, but try not to get overwhelmed. If you use incorrect pronouns, correct yourself and move on; you don’t need to make a big deal of it. Most of us are dealing with decades of seeing English pronouns as “he” and “she” and nothing else.

The key here is building and maintaining a culture of respect. The effort will be appreciated, even if it might not always feel like it at the time.

If you have read this far and still have questions or want clarification, please do make comments. Thank you for your willingness to support LGBTQIA youth!

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