At the beginning of each semester, political science professor Heath Fogg Davis asks his students to write down their personal pronouns on note cards so he doesn’t misgender anyone.
Misgendering is the act of blatantly or unintentionally referring to someone by incorrect gender pronouns.
Davis, a transgender man, took up this approach this year to promote gender diversity and inclusivity in the classroom. He puts a lot of thought into the way he asks students about their gender identities.
Davis has researched and written extensively on the role of gender identity in society. From his studies and his own experience, he chose to have his students write down their pronouns rather than say them aloud to avoid singling out someone who may be genderqueer, or outing someone who may not be ready to share their pronouns with the class.
Along with Davis, professors and administrators are finding ways to be more inclusive and thoughtful of students’ gender identities.
“We’ll see how it works,” Davis said. “I want to see what the students’ feedback is, but I think that it can be helpful if everybody does it. Then it becomes kind of a universal design, and people don’t feel singled out.”
The phrase “universal design” refers to the elimination of unnecessary references to gender in society. In his 2017 book “Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?” Davis discusses how minimizing public references to gender can help create a more equitable society.
“My argument in the book is not that we try to live beyond gender, but [to minimize] the formal use of gender and gender policies because of the ways it infringes on people’s individual autonomy,” Davis said. “In an ideal world, I wish that we all used a gender-neutral pronoun.”
The pronouns they/them are considered all-inclusive or gender-neutral pronouns, meaning that they can apply to people of any gender.
Charlie Catacalos, a sophomore anthropology major and the treasurer of Queer People of Color, has had professors ask students to say their pronouns aloud.
Catacolos, whose personal pronouns are they/them, said they had mixed feelings about this approach because, while this was effective in preventing misgendering, it singled them out.
“I’ve also had professors ask [students] to write down their names and pronouns,” Catacalos said. “I liked that because you don’t have to just say it in front of the whole class, but the professor will know, and they can even subtly correct people.”
In a greater effort to promote gender inclusivity on campus, the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, Advocacy and Leadership suggests that students and faculty have a line of their email signatures with their personal pronouns to discourage misgendering.
Nu’Rodney Prad, the director of student engagement at IDEAL, said discussion of gender pronoun usage started in IDEAL’s Safe Zone training. Created in 2008, Safe Zone is a five-hour training program that educates participants on issues impacting the LGBTQIA community and methods of advocacy. The training can be taken as a single five-hour program or split into multiple sessions and is open to students, faculty and staff.
In 2012, information on pronoun usage was incorporated into the training.
“We want folks to be educated and to understand the meaning behind it,” Prad said. “The binary system of gender and sex has been just socialized into our society. It’s the fabric of how we think. It’s how we write our papers. [Safe Zone is] kind of like unlearning all this stuff we’ve learned about the binary system.”
IDEAL provides training on how to verbally ask people for their pronouns. When people introduce themselves, Prad suggests that they first share their own pronouns to make the other person feel welcome to say their pronouns as well.
He added that if a person feels uncomfortable asking for or telling their own pronouns, they should use they/them pronouns to refer to another person rather than assuming and risking misgendering them.
Some students have also made an effort to be more inclusive. The websites of IgniteTU and UniteTU, two of the three tickets running in the 2018-19 Temple Student Government election, include team members’ personal pronouns.
Though Prad identifies with the pronouns he, him and his, he is not opposed to using gender-neutral language to refer to himself.
Using inclusive language and correct pronouns, Prad said, is an issue of identity and respect.
“You don’t know necessarily what trauma can be triggered when someone is mispronounced or misgendered,” Prad said. “It could create different moments of disdain to where they have been picked on as a child, to maybe how they had been disowned by their family, to how they repetitively have to explain over and over again what it means.”
So far, Prad said several departments at Temple have undergone Safe Zone training. He added that he’s been impressed by the number of questions he has received from departments asking for more suggestions to promote inclusivity.
“We can always do more,” Prad said. “I think we are on the verge of being transformative.”