Making Class Welcoming for Transgender and Gender-Variant Students
Faculty, staff and teaching assistants are all responsible for creating welcoming and inclusive environments in the classroom. In recent years, cultural, political and legal resistance to the oppression of transgender people has resulted in greater visibility of the issues facing this population and growing recognition of gender identity and expression discrimination. As these issues gain greater attention, and as obstacles to trans people’s participation in education and employment are addressed, we will likely continue to have more trans people in our classes. These tips may be helpful in ensuring that your classroom is a welcoming place for Montclair State’s trans and gender non-conforming students, and ensuring that unintentional exclusionary practices are reduced and eliminated, allowing students to perform at their full potential in class. This reaffirms our institution’s commitment to not discriminate based on gender identity and expression.
Classroom Guidelines and Community Standards
Set a tone in the classroom of respect and critical inquiry. When establishing the guidelines for class at the beginning of each semester, include something like: “It is important that this classroom be a respectful environment where everyone can participate comfortably. One part of this is that everyone should be referred to by their chosen name, the correct pronunciation of their name, and their chosen pronoun (like she, ze, he, or they).” Doing this sets a tone for challenging assumptions about people’s bodies, their identities and the ways they present themselves in terms of gender, and also race, ethnicity, class, dis/ability, sexual orientation and country of origin. This can also encourage critical engagement with the authors and subjects of texts and ideas in our classes.
Avoid calling the roll or otherwise reading the roster aloud until you have given students a chance to state what name and pronouns they use, in case the roster represents a prior name. Refrain from projecting the course roster on a screen for the class to see. If you use an attendance sheet, make sure to update it so that it lists used names rather than legal ones so as not to out students.
Names & Pronouns
Allow students to tell you what name and pronouns they will use in your class, on the attendance sheet, and for submitted assignments. Avoid making assumptions based on what is on the class roster (which automatically lists legal names at this moment in time) or the student’s appearance. A great way to accomplish this is to pass around a seating chart sign-in sheet and ask them to indicate these two items in writing, and then use them when you call on students or refer to them in class.
Please note: faculty cannot require transgender students to use legal names in class or when submitting class assignments, quizzes, exams, etc. Faculty are legally required to honor a student’s used/”preferred” name. For more information on these requirements, view the Dear Colleague Letter issued by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, the American Council on Education issue brief, or contact Ebony Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When facilitating a group discussion, ask people to identify their gender pronouns when they go around and do introductions. This will allow everyone in the room the chance to self-identify and to get each other’s pronouns right the first time. It will also reduce the burden on anyone whose pronoun is often misidentified and may help them access the discussion more easily because they do not have to fear an embarrassing mistake made by another student or the instructor. Model this by saying, “In our introductions, please state your name and pronouns. I’ll start: my name is Simon and I use the pronouns he, him, and his.”
If a student has a previous name and/or pronoun that you are aware of because you knew them before it changed, or because it is on the roster, do not use it or reveal it to others. Well-meaning comments like “I knew Gina when she was Bill,” even if meant to be supportive, reveal what might feel like personal information to the student, and unnecessarily draw attention to their trans identity.
If you make a mistake about someone’s pronoun, correct yourself. Going on as if it did not happen is actually less respectful than making the correction. This also saves the person who was misidentified from having to correct an incorrect pronoun before it is planted in the minds of classmates or anyone else who heard the mistake. As teachers, especially, it is essential that you model respectful behavior and keep in mind that students pay especially close attention to the ways we interact with our students in the classroom.
Whether in office hours, when speaking with students in groups, or when speaking with faculty and staff, when someone else makes a pronoun mistake, correct them. It is polite to provide a correction, whether or not the person whose pronoun was misused is present. Allowing the mistake to go uncorrected ensures future uncomfortable interactions for the person who is being misidentified. For example, if a colleague uses the incorrect pronoun for a student, simply respond saying “I believe Gina uses she and her pronouns.”
Avoid asking personal questions of trans people that you would not ask of others. Because of the sensationalist media coverage of trans people’s lives, there is often an assumption that personal questions are appropriate. Never ask about a trans person’s body or medical care, their old name, why or how they know they are trans, their sexual orientation or practices, their family’s reaction to their gender identity, or any other questions that are irrelevant to your relationship with them unless they invite you to do so or voluntarily share the information.
If you aren’t sure of a person’s pronoun (and there isn’t someone around to let you know), ask, or refer to them by their name only— making a pronoun assumption is the worst option. One way to be respectful is to share your own first. “I use the pronouns he/him/his. I want to make sure I address you correctly. What pronouns do you use?” Another way is to ask, “How would you like to be addressed?” This may be challenging at first, but a person who often experiences being addressed incorrectly may see it as a sign of respect and that you are interested in getting it right.
Statements You Can Include In Your Syllabus
- Use the syllabus to set standards and create a respectful climate. “This class will be conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect. I encourage your active participation and welcome both respectful discourse and reasoned debate. However, if your language or conduct at any time demonstrates a lack of respect for anyone’s race, gender identity or expression, sexuality, culture, beliefs or abilities, you will not be permitted to participate further.” – Adapted from “LGBTQ On Campus for Faculty & Staff”
- Use the syllabus to share your pronouns and name and to model behavior you’d like to see in your class. “Please share with me if you use a name that is different than what is on the class roster, and/or your gender pronouns. Please address me as “Dr. Smith.” My pronouns are “he, him and his.”
- Include the Human Relations Statement on Campus Climate for Civility and Human Dignity on your syllabus.
Additional Campus Resources You Can Include In Your Syllabus
- CAPS – 973-655-5211, Russ Hall
- Office for Social Justice and Diversity – 973-655-5114
- University Health Center – 973-655-4361
- University Police – 973-655-5222
- Women’s Center – 973-655-5114
Taking it Further
If you want to take your awareness of these issues further, here are some additional ideas to consider.
- You can attend a Safe Space Training session offered by the LGBTQ Center at Montclair State University.
- You may educate yourself about trans history, trans law and trans resistance. There are wonderful resources on the internet, in addition to many articles and books. Organizations that serve trans and gender variant communities include:
- Include trans issues on your syllabus and help your students learn how to talk about issues of gender respectfully and understand their importance. Important trans struggles, as well as those of intersex and other gender-variant communities, can be found in housing, health care, employment, criminal justice/policing, education, public benefits and legal protection. Also, trans studies is relevant to cultural studies, literature, history, sociology, medicine, law, science and economics, and has a place in any discipline. Including these issues offers students an introduction to scholarship that is usually left out of academic fields.
- Think about how gender norms, or ideas about what women and men should be like, might be being enforced in your classroom or in other parts of your life. What does it mean to stand up against the rules of gender, both in the classroom and in other areas of our lives? How might we be enforcing gender norms on our selves or our loved ones with well-meaning advice or guidance?
- Exploring these questions can deepen our commitment to gender self-determination for all people and to creating learning environments that invite gender non-conforming students and teachers to fully participate.
Frequently Used Terminology
Transgender people and gender-variant communities often use these terms to talk about self-identity. Because individual people and communities use identity terms in different ways, it is important to gain further understanding of the terms than we have provided here.
- Trans – short for transgender or transsexual; is also sometimes used as an umbrella term for those who identify anywhere along the gender variant spectrum
- MTF – male-to-female trans identity marker
- FTM – female-to-male trans identity marker
- Genderqueer – identity marker for those who consider their gender outside the binary gender system
- Gender-variant – umbrella term for all of the above non-normative gender identity markers
- See full terminology
Using language that reflects respect for students’ self-identity – using their chosen name and pronoun, not assuming the gender identity of students, pronouncing names correctly, etc. – communicates that you are invested in creating and maintaining a classroom welcoming to all students.
Original text by Dean Spade, Assistant Professor of Law, Seattle University School of Law.
Edited by Avi Cummings, Graduate Student, UW Madison Dept. of History, and Simon Fisher, Graduate Student, Dept. of History; LGBT Campus Center, UW-Madison.
Adapted for Montclair State, 2015.