OPINION: Problematic Pronoun Policies Pressure Students To Define Gender Identity

Within the last decade, colleges across the nation have instituted various practices and policies on campus to accommodate transgender, non-binary, and genderfluid students. The 5Cs are no exception to this process, but they can do more to protect students outside the gender binary.

In my first week of classes at Scripps College, some of my professors asked everyone to include their pronouns in their introduction to the class. As a Two-Spirit student, I was struck with terror over the realization that I had to come out to an entire room of strangers.

Two-Spirit is a term used to unite various gender identities of indigenous and first-nations peoples. The term is interpreted based on an indigenous person’s specific tribal and cultural history.

I am a descendant of the Serrano people, specifically the Yuhaaviatam band, who are indigenous to Southern California. My Two-Spirit identity is informed by the stories of different gender practices that I have learned from my elders.

I would describe myself as being able to speak in the language of wahiyam (coyotes) who have expressions of masculinity and the language of tukutaam (wildcats) who have expressions of femininity. My understanding and expression of gender is specific to me and the traditional stories of my people. In contrast to the gender binary presence in the English language, gender pronouns do not exist in my native language Serrano.

I learn more about my traditions and my people’s history to understand more about my gender experience. My journey of gender does not end once I step foot on campus. Once inside the classroom, I often become hyper-aware of my gender in relation to other students and faculty.

The classroom pronoun introduction practice is not presented as being optional or provided in a more discreet manner, such as writing your pronouns on a sheet of paper to be given to the professor. Instead, everyone is instructed to “share their pronouns” out loud and being the only student in the room to not comply may be misinterpreted as being transphobic, not understanding the exercise, or being trans. Professors can attempt to make a safer space for trans students by prefacing introductions with a statement to share what you feel is relevant.

It is next to impossible to make every space, especially classrooms, safe for everyone. Nevertheless, we can try to make things safer for marginalized individuals. Professors that specifically emphasize that sharing pronouns is optional can provide trans students more comfort in choosing not to disclose pronouns.

After all of the focus in the room is usually diverted to me once I have stated my pronouns, I come to the realization I may have just revealed myself as a target for violence. This can be difficult for students who do not ‘look like’ or ‘pass for’ what cisgender people expect our gender to look like.

While I am certainly proud to be out with my Two-Spirit identity, it is certainly not without its costs. The 5Cs exist within a settler colony — thus, the burden of educating settlers about Two-Spirit’s history of gender fluidity falls upon me.

Once I have disclosed my pronouns and gender identity to the class, I sometimes feel the forced responsibility to become the representative of Two-Spirit people. My gender identity is unique to my cultural history and is not representative of another tribal person.

However, my process to become comfortable enough to be out of the closet was a journey of self. Because professors typically only ask for pronouns once a semester, students who are questioning or gender-fluid may feel immense pressure to make a decision that could affect them for the rest of the semester.

My gender pronouns change as my feelings and emotions evolve. However, pronoun introductions in classrooms are almost always done at the beginning of the semester and never spoken of again. Pronouns are not finite for all trans people, and when professors only discuss pronouns in the first class, it communicates the lack of awareness regarding trans students’ experiences.

Though I might have said my pronouns are they/them/theirs in one class, my pronouns will often change. Offering students the opportunity to disclose their pronouns when they decide over the course of a semester can normalize and create a safer space for trans students.

The emotional labor of educating cisgender people on pronouns should not be the sole responsibility of trans students. We are already attempting to minimize the barrage of violence and aggression we experience in our day-to-day life. To become better allies and accomplices (people committed to dismantling structures of oppression) to trans students, cisgender people should routinely evaluate their practices of pronoun introductions.

After another first week of classes passes by, I am stuck wondering what we could do to make the lives of trans students like mine feel more valued.

Carolann Duro SC ’20 is a sociology major interested in decolonization and digital art. You can find them jammin’ on their planner outside Pitzer College’s Pit Stop Cafe. ​