As much as I love the start of a new semester, the new school year brings the same old awkward class introductions. Besides the annoyance of introducing yourself to people you already know, there’s a whole politics to gender pronouns. Revealing pronouns in class is helpful for me because I most prefer they/them pronouns, but I still end up dreading pronouns. Though it’s nice to have my pronouns properly recognized, these class introductions often come with a set of difficult hurdles for nonbinary and transgender students.
Before I was comfortable and confident identifying outside of masculinity, pronouns were a lose-lose game. As each person would state their preferred pronouns, my heart would race. One by one, people would introduce themselves, and I would count the number of people left until it was turn, all the while debating what to say. Neither option was a good one. The first option was to use he/him pronouns, which feels like I’m lying to myself and directing others to see me in a way that I don’t see myself. The second option is to use a gender neutral alternative like they/them. This option feels like jumping into the deep end of a pool when I’ve only ever read about swimming. That would be making a declaration about myself when I’m not sure that it’s true. Doing pronouns once at the beginning of the semester gives these options so much more weight. There’s no option to change your mind mid-semester.
An often unspoken rule in classes is that you’re free to be silent when it comes to your pronouns, but that feels like an admission in itself. The message communicated when you’re silent is that you might not be sure, but you’re probably not cisgender. That’s not fair to people questioning their gender because it invites people into a possibly private identity exploration. For me, it was not possible to tell the truth about my identity while preserving the personal and private nature of my gender confusion.
The biggest issue I encounter with pronoun introductions is that they frequently have no context. Why are we declaring our pronouns? That question isn’t as simple as many assume. Pronouns can tell you how to talk about someone, but they can’t tell you someone’s gender. I’ve been in several situations in past semesters where I assumed that everyone was cisgender based on the pronouns they used. This is a terrible assumption, but it’s an assumption that is rarely challenged.
Another result of a lack of context is that these introductions feel like something we’re supposed to do, rather than something that is helpful. Sometimes declaring pronouns feels like a politically correct bludgeon on the class. It is as though each student is saying “I’m only doing this because I have to do it.” That kind of attitude gives anti-trans crusaders like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson fuel to further their message. Other times, using pronouns in introductions feels like jockeying social capital. Rather than being forced to do it, people want to use pronouns in introductions because it makes them cool. It’s the verbal equivalent of juuling.
Instead of the current system, we should provide context for why we reveal our pronouns in introductions. Classes should establish that pronouns are not the same thing as one’s gender. Part of the point of sharing pronouns is that no one should assume someone’s identity. In that vein, no one should assume someone’s gender based solely off their pronouns. Classes also should explicitly establish that people are free to stay silent when it comes to their gender or pronouns, and it’s important to resist the urge to speculate on how they identify.
Context is necessary for every social interaction, and without the proper context, going around the room declaring pronouns may harm the people it’s designed to benefit. Stating the purpose of an action before doing it goes a long way to ensure that the action is received as intended. With the proper groundwork laid out, we can implement respect and care to trans people outside of the first day introductions. If classes take an extra two minutes to explain the purpose of stating pronouns, I believe trans and nonbinary students will feel more supported. With the proper context, class introductions can help you to stop assuming that you understand another’s identity. It may be a small action, but it’s a big step to recognizing someone’s humanity before their gender or pronouns.
Connor Aberle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.