liv: Composite image of Han Solo and Princess Leia, labelled Hen Solo (gender)
[personal profile] liv
So my brother (here known as Screwy) is a sessional teacher in a university. He decided, on the advice of a trans friend, that he would include asking for preferred pronouns during the intros in the first class of term. However, one fresher in his class, whom Screwy read as trans but who isn't out, was made visibly uncomfortable by this. This student later wrote in Screwy's teaching evaluation that this exercise could potentially out them, and respectfully requested that Screwy should not do that again.

As a result, Screwy feels really bad because his good intentions of making his class a safe space for people with diverse gender expressions backfired and actually made one of his students directly unsafe. He asked me to mobilize my right-on gender queer friends and seek advice for how he can do this right in future. I definitely share Screwy's aim of wanting my classes to be gender diverse safe spaces, but I have never dared ask for pronouns at the same time as asking for names, even though I can see the arguments for why it's good practice. So we would both like to know, what would be the most sensitive and helpful way to make both genderqueer people and gender normative, stealthed trans people feel safe?

I would prefer advice from people who have some personal experience or at least informed activist background with this stuff, rather than random speculation from cis people. I mean, I can come up with plenty of random speculation on my own. However, I fairly obviously don't want to out people or in any way force you to state your trans credentials to be able to comment. I think the best way round this is to encourage people to comment anonymously if you are willing to help but don't want to put the complexities of your identity in comments to a public post. I certainly welcome PMs if you have some advice that you don't want to put in the comments even anonymously.

And to give people as clueless as I am something to talk about, I also note that my uni LGBTsoc has declared November to be Trans* Awareness Month. They have Transgender Day of Remembrance shoehorned in there somewhere, but mostly it seems like they're showing a lot of films with trans themes, some of which seem to me to be quite, um, problematic, things like Priscilla queen of the desert and TransAmerica and Rocky Horror. They also sent round a survey to students and staff which basically assumed everybody answering the question would be cis, and had a lot of questions about whether people feel informed about trans* issues, the most egregious being Do you feel confident you could politely address a trans* person? which is making me very much side-eye. I can't figure out whether I should attend some of the events to show solidarity, or studiously ignore them because I don't want to pat myself on the back for supporting "diversity" by means of watching a bunch of chasery, cis gaze films. Maybe just go to the TDOR ceremony, but even that I've seen seriously criticized by activists. The vibe of the whole thing really does feel like it's aimed at making cis people feel good about themselves, but at least actively including trans* stuff within LGBT events is a small step in the right direction. And maybe I'm too cynical, maybe it will help actual trans* students as well?

Any ideas?

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 11:33 am (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
*hugs* Oh no, poor Screwy :( I'm always really impressed he's brave enough to raise issues, often successfully. It's really sad that it was awful in this case.

I can't figure out whether I should attend some of the events to show solidarity, or studiously ignore them

You may have already done this, I don't know if it's a stupid idea, but maybe send an email saying "Yay for having trans awareness month, that's really awesome, but maybe [make sure surveys don't sound as if there aren't any trans people in the target audience / have X event / other constructive suggestion]"?

Maybe go along to some less-problematic events, if there are any?

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 12:47 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
I would never have said anything like that, not in front of adults at a big public debate,

*hugs*

Yeah, I always feel "surely they know better than me". But I've tried to take a cue from your brother, that speaking up shouldn't be a special occasion, it should be normal. Not that there have been occasions where it's come up, if any, but I'd rather at least be ready to do it _some_ of the time.
Edited Date: 2013-11-05 12:47 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 06:49 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
Oh, and probably a stupid question, but good practice to avoid assuming no student planning trans awareness week is trans, even if signs may point to otherwise?

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 11:58 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
(non-disclosing trans chap here)

I think it's one of those situations where there just isn't a good solution. Asking also has the drawback that some cis people do have a tendancy to say things like "I'm usually $pronoun_that_matches_their_presentation, but don't mind what you use", which is probably well meaning enough, but can feel a bit "let me flaunt my inability to understand how painful being misgendered can be when it happens all the time."

If there's any kind of data gathering exercise before the class, then that could be an opportunity to ask for pronouns, and if the teacher takes the lead in using the right ones that will hopefully go some way to making the space feel safer for genderqueer people.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 01:31 pm (UTC)
ceb: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ceb
Rocky Horror - oh good grief no, trans and cross-dressing are so not the same thing!

My approach is to start at the other end of the problem. You don't need to know what people's preferred gender identities are to make the things you say non-gender-specific. People have names, and we have the extremely useful words they and their. When you start thinking about your sentences, so few of them need to have he/she/his/her in them. Almost all can be constructed to use a name or they/their without sounding weird or awkward. e.g. "So, class, Sam raises an interesting point. How can we respond to their criticism?" "I was talking to one of my coworkers about this the other day and they said..." "When you look at the patient in this picture what do you notice about their arm?" "How do you think a patient feels when they go to their doctor and are told to lose weight?" "Sorry, what's your name again? Alex, right. Can anyone explain to Alex what's wrong with that argument?"

It's only part of the solution; it doesn't fix what pronouns other people use, and sadly interjecting "they" when someone says "he" is more confusing and less likely to get a useful point across than "or she". :-(

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 02:17 pm (UTC)
atreic: (Default)
From: [personal profile] atreic
I used to try really hard to do that, but had gentle feedback from friends who had transitioned to live as male or female that they found it offensive/upsetting - that they heard the gender neutral pronoun as a rejection of their preferred pronouns, which tied in with transphobia, and 'you're not a real man/woman, so I will not use your preferred pronouns'. I got a bit bristly - 'no! I do this for everyone, not just trans people!' - but thinking about it, the point of preferred pronouns is that they're _preferred_ - getting them right for individuals is like getting individual's names right.

I think gender neutral pronouns are _awesome_ and should be used more widely for more things, but I wonder if in the situation Rachel's brother was in, they'd be another thing that might upset trans students.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 02:40 pm (UTC)
ceb: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ceb
Well yes, if you're in a situation where you know someone's preferred pronoun for whatever reason, then it's polite to use it. But all the rest of the time, why make assumptions?

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 03:51 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
The difficulty with that is that you're a lot more likely to know what someone's preferred pronoun is if they're trans and out to you, because binary cis people tend to care a lot les, so if you use gender-neutral pronouns for everyone who hasn't asked you not to, then it ends up significantly increasing the likelihood of outing binary trans people.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 04:09 pm (UTC)
ceb: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ceb
The beauty of having to talked to them about is they have a chance to say "but I'd prefer people didn't know" and you have a chance to ask "should I call you that in company or would you rather people didn't know?". Preferred pronouns can perfectly well be context-specific.

In situations where someone is right there in the room, using sentences which need he/she/they is often weirdly depersonalising anyway. The rest of the time IME people who don't have a specific reason to be thinking about gender really don't notice if you use they, she, he, or some kind of mumbled ee noise (I am not the clearest speaker :-). The word you use is not often important in the sentence for its gender, but for its "this is the person I was just referring to"ness.
Edited Date: 2013-11-05 04:11 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 04:18 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
This may seem absurdly demanding, but I'd prefer being neither misgendered nor outed.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 05:00 pm (UTC)
ceb: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ceb
I would prefer neither to misgender nor out you. I would prefer not to misgender or out anyone else either, or to make them/you feel like they/you have to talk to me about what gender they/you are, or to make them/you feel uncomfortable that I'm assuming things about them/you. I do not know how to achieve all these things at once (I'm not sure it's possible without being telepathic), so I do the best I can.

I would greatly prefer if society in general made fewer assumptions about people based on, well, all sorts of things really, but biological sex and gender stereotypes are particularly relevant to this conversation. So I act accordingly. I use the names and pronouns that specific people prefer, according to the contexts they prefer, whether those are explicitly requested or the ones that they use of themselves. I meet a lot of people briefly or in contexts where it's not possible to have those conversations or make those judgments, so I don't make assumptions about what gender they are. In the context of a teaching setting then maybe the teacher can ask people privately about preferred pronouns &c., but maybe some of them will think it's none of the teacher's business, and most of life is not that structured. So what else can I do?

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 05:32 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
So first, sorry that my last comment was phrased so snarkily. You are right that there is no way to avoid all the negative consequences in your first paragraph. I bristled because it felt as though the negative consequences which affect me specifically were being casually dismissed.

I appreciate that an approach which minimises assumptions has advantages, especially in terms of increasing safety and comfort levels for genderqueer, mixed-gender and agender people, and I don't necessarily think you ought to change it. But it isn't unproblematic; it does hurt people like me, and that needs to be acknowledged if it's to be presented as a solution.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-07 11:00 am (UTC)
ceb: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ceb
Thanks, and point taken. But I'm not quite sure how you're imagining I speak. There are so many many different ways of getting information across; I'm just picking one perfectly good sentence formulation over another. I might have (and indeed often do) have so many other reasons for making the same choice of sentence. I really don't think it's the case that everything I say comes across as CLANG I AM MAKING A POINT. Not least because often when you're avoiding saying something it's really unhelpful to do it in a way which draws attention to the fact there's something to be avoided!

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 10:27 pm (UTC)
azurelunatic: A glittery black pin badge with a blue holographic star in the middle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] azurelunatic
I wonder if a simple statement at the time of general information-gathering, something like "If you have a preference for the pronoun set that people use for you, feel free to let me know, as publicly or privately as you are comfortable with" might be helpful? Perhaps next to the office hours on the term-beginning information sheet?

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-06 09:20 pm (UTC)
piranha: red origami crane (Default)
From: [personal profile] piranha
this.

it shows awareness, willingness to step outside the standard boxes, and sensitivity to people not wanting to be outed, but also not be misgendered.

one more thing though -- i wouldn't just make it about gender. i'd have a section where i tell students that i want to make the learning environment friendly for them, and that includes taking into account ancillary stuff such as accessibility issues, preferred names, pronouns, and whatever else you can think of. that way gender isn't singled out as "OMG special".

your brother is awesome for being concerned about this and wanting to do something to help, but yeah, his approach would have made me uncomfortable. leave it up to me when and how much i out myself; it's unlikely gonna be in front of a whole class. (ok, these days that would be fine, but when i was in high school and university it wouldn't have been.)

in general i think it's best to avoid pronouns unless absolutely necessary (and in most cases it's just not; names work better anyway), use gender-neutral ones when gender isn't relevant, and specific ones one has inquired about in private for people who prefer that.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-07 12:19 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
The assumption that all non-binary people use pronouns like "they", "ze", "em", etc. is incorrect. I'm non-binary-ID'd and use "he". I can think of a number of other people who have a similar situation. For me personally, pronouns are about my ease of movement through the world, my gut feelings about words (utterly unscientific), and have very little connection to my identity per se.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 09:35 pm (UTC)
ceb: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ceb
RHPS> yes, it's very much "look at the freaks". I don't know the other films very well...

"I could extend that to calling everybody they unless explicitly requested otherwise" - that's not quite what I mean. If you know people to talk to you can quite often pick up on how they prefer to refer to themselves, and how they react to other people making statements about their gender.

The other thing I mean is, a lot of the time someone's gender identity is really not the most relevant thing I might use to refer to someone. For instance some idiot tried to drive into me this morning. (I have no idea of their gender.) My boss is sending me on a course. (I know this person's gender but it's not relevant to the information content of the sentence.) These aren't strange sentences, these are perfectly good, informative ways to tell third parties things, and I don't see any reason why the first, where lack of information forces lack of gender, should be better than the second, which substitutes a more relevant piece of information.

message> yes, this is a good point. I like jenett's 'focus on learning' thing; this also gives people the space to tell you about other relevant things like disabilities or triggers.

breastfeeders> your riot surprises and saddens me. Quite apart from the gender identity stuff, why is it so surprising that male partners of breastfeeders might also want information to help them support their partners...

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 01:58 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
How do people in countries with gendered languages handle this, I wonder.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 01:58 pm (UTC)
jenett: Big and Little Dipper constellations on a blue watercolor background (Default)
From: [personal profile] jenett
Not an academic, but I know a bunch, and have seen a bunch of syllabi.

I think my favourite method is to do a section on the syllabus that says something like "I want people in my class to be able to focus on learning. If there's anything I should know so that I can help make this the best environment for you to learn in, please let me know by [preferred method] or [other method]. That might include [list of things, including accessibility needs, preferred name, preferred pronoun, etc.]"

It does mean someone's got to take the initiative to disclose *something* and there's the 'got to manage to write an email or whatever', but there's sort of no way around that part without telepathy.

To make that easier, I've seen two solutions - one is to require an email from everyone as a first class assignment that has a paragraph or two of other things ("here is my background in this topic" and "here's what I'm particularly interested in learning more about" or whatever) and then the above. Or...

Some professors I had in grad school would have us do an index card with our preferred name, any brief notes, and then usually one or two things we were particularly interested in on the back. Index cards are small enough that in a 20-30 person class you can actually lay them out on a desk by where everyone's sitting, which helps at the beginning. (However, if you get them from people individually, you then have to try and sort out their handwriting.)

(Most of my teaching is in a situation where I don't know people's names - one off instruction sessions - and I just dodge the whole thing generally by saying "Oh, that was a great answer. Anyone got something else to add?" and "Yes, in the back corner, your question?" but now you've got me thinking about how to handle pronouns too.)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 03:37 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] flippac
One thing that might help is to use wording that tells people they're being asked for the pronouns they want to be used for them *right now*, and it's okay if it's not the same as their ideal-world preference. Of course, raising the existence of trans people always raises the odds someone'll take a guess that someone in the room's trans - and confirmed-outing isn't the only relevant risk. But that one's always a catch-22.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 03:39 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] flippac
(Doing what one can to openly provide plausible-or-better deniability is always a plus, of course! That includes about anything that might suggest the lecturer knows or suspects there's a trans student present)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 04:03 pm (UTC)
jjhunter: Drawing of human JJ in ink tinted with blue watercolor; woman wearing glasses with arched eyebrows (JJ inked)
From: [personal profile] jjhunter
I think asking people to go around and give their name, current preferred pronouns, and [1-2 random things x] is a good idea / helps normalize preferred pronouns as something to be asked rather than assumed (though I would make providing pronoun preferences explicitly optional), but the preamble / preface to doing so can make all the difference re: whether it's comfortable for everyone. My advice for professors et al. would be as follows:

- always use the word 'current' before 'preferred pronouns'. If a new person is added to the class at any point, or if the class happens for a second semester, use it as an opportunity for everyone to go around and give their preferred name and current preferred pronouns again. Normalize checking in re: current preferences on a year-by-year or even semester-by-semester basis (especially if there's a break of some kind between semesters.)

- say something along the lines of, 'If I ever mix up or mispronounce your names, or misgender your current pronouns, please do help me out by correcting me on the spot or after class.'
Edited Date: 2013-11-05 04:04 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-05 09:18 pm (UTC)
jjhunter: Drawing of human JJ in ink tinted with blue watercolor; woman wearing glasses with arched eyebrows (JJ inked)
From: [personal profile] jjhunter
Mm-hm. And the bit about correcting pronunciation / name mix-ups - that also gives a bridge analogy to help more people relate to why it's important to avoid accidental misgendering as a matter of basic etiquette without framing it in a way that implies it's an unusual accommodation. It's safe to assume that everyone has experienced someone calling them by the wrong name at least once, and many people have personal or via-friends secondhand experience of what it's like to have one's name mispronounced; if one's students associate the cognitive dissonance of being referred to by a 'wrong name' with the cognitive dissonance of being referred to by a wrongly gendered set of pronouns, then knowing someone's current preferred pronouns will seem more obviously a basic part of treating them with respect even to those with no wisp of a clue re: what it might be like to be trans*.

Thanks, still confused

Date: 2013-11-05 08:08 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Hmmm, it's, me, the blundering brother, these comments are very interesting. I'm still at a loss. I guess I had two aims. 1 to make my class a gender safe space. 2. To make sure I knew everyone's preferred form of address. I failed spectacularly on both fronts. I succeeded in making at least one person feel really uncomfortable because of their gender. I didn't even get everyone's preferred pronoun.

I still want to achieve both aims. I don't think I use gendered pronouns much, but anon has raised a real problem with cutting them out completely. It also doesn't set up a gender safe space (and perhaps the opposite). One problem my bitter experience points to is that in these very straight spaces anything that draws attention to the possibility of non-cis-gender is not likely to make tean-aged students with non-conventional genders feel at home. It seemed to me like the poor student felt they went from passing (their aim) to having a huge arrow over their head with the word freak. (Having said that the class has been very friendly and I don't think that many or any of them read this student as trans. And, of course some of this guesswork on my part, but I think I can tell terror on a student's face by now).

I like the idea of emailing everyone first to introduce myself with current pronouns, and to ask for each them to introduce themselves and to indicate any preferred forms of address. I'm still worried that it could make an issue out of gender in a way that's negative for anyone not cis-gendered. My friend suggests including a blurb that makes clear I do it before every course I teach and explains my reasons. I thinking framing it in terms of me not wanting to respect your identity would be the best way of doing it. Are there other drawbacks? Is it a stupid plan? I guess the bench mark is: does it make a safer space than being hot on transphobia, gendered assumptions, rude pronoun use, etc?

Thanks all

Re: Thanks, still confused

Date: 2013-11-06 09:15 am (UTC)
atreic: (Default)
From: [personal profile] atreic
*hugs*

It seems to me that you probably are in an impossible situation. Which doesn't mean it's not worth thinking about carefully and trying to make the impossible situation as good as possible. But trans people are different, and although there are some general blindingly obvious respectful things like 'don't misgender me' some of the subtleties are going to be personal. I hope that with greater awareness and less transphobia in the world this will change, and there will become standard socially acceptable ways to deal with the situation of finding out preferred pronouns for people you have only just met, but we're not there yet. Given we're not there, everyone will have their own opinions, and it might be that you can do what the consensus is is 'best practise', that can make 90% of trans people think 'yes, that is an informed ally' and _still_ meet trans people who hate what you are doing, find it upsetting, and don't think it's a helpful way to do things.

Is it possible to ask the student who was upset how they would have liked you to behave? It sounds from your write-up that they just wanted to be read as their binary gender, and not have the point that gender is difficult and anyone might not be something obvious raised anywhere near them, particularly in a public way. In which case it might be that there was no way to do what you wanted to do - acknowledge that gender is complicated and tell people you will respect their preferences - without being upsetting to someone who doesn't want people thinking about that near them. Or it might be that it was the 'putting them on the spot and making them give their pronouns' thing. Lots of people hate talking in front of a group, particularly about stuff they find personal or upsetting. So given that giving pronouns is not a standard thing people do every day, even if you make the whole group do it, that's going to feel quite high pressure and possibly upsetting.

I wonder if the way round that is to not ask for any response at all. So email or talk and say 'please let me know if I get your name wrong or use the wrong pronouns for you, I'm keen to do better and respect your identity' without demanding a response of 'my pronouns are such-and-such'. Alternatively, if you have 5 minutes and it's not a class that always works together, you could put people into pairs and give them five minutes to chat, and then get them to introduce each other. That means you're more likely to _hear_ preferred pronouns, as they'll say 'He likes horseriding' rather than 'I like horseriding', and if someone has non-obvious preferred pronouns that they want the class (and you) to know about they can raise them in a smaller conversation between the two of them? Would take more time, and I'm not sure if it'd work though.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-06 10:05 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I'm the anon that's been commenting throughout, and one thing that I haven't said yet is that if I'd been in your class, back before T had worked its magic and I started getting misgendered less often than my pretty long-haired cis boyfriend, I might have been made uncomfortable by being asked for pronouns, I still would have realised that you were trying to make the class a safer space for trans people, and appreciated that. And I still appreciate that you're making that effort for youngsters who aren't in as comfortable a place in their transitions as I am.

I think that there's still a risk that a blurb like that will draw attention to gender in a way that might make stealth people uncomfortable. I really like the suggestion above of just giving your own pronouns. It's subtle enough that people who usually don't think about it much will just go 'buh', and then carry on without thinking about it, but it signals very clearly to trans people, particularly those outside the binary that you're open and receptive to gender identities and perceptions outside the usual cis norms.

Re: Thanks, still confused

Date: 2013-11-06 09:42 pm (UTC)
piranha: red origami crane (Default)
From: [personal profile] piranha
if i had been in your class, way back when i hadn't even figured out all my own feelings around being trans, i would have felt two things:

i would have been mortified that somebody would point at me as a freak. i wouldn't have wanted to come out in front of the whole class. i would have lied during the intro and been very self-conscious thereafter.

but i would also have been amazed and gladdened that somebody in a position of authority acknowledged the existence and validity of trans people, and i might have approached you in private to come out. well, no, probably not; i was deeply in the closet, but it's hard to even imagine a teacher being supportive back then. so who knows. i would have wanted to come out to you. it would have been an awesome experience to feel acknowledged.

your heart is definitely in the right place.

as to what you might do instead? i wrote a reply above on that (and i see jennett has said something similar): give students a chance to optionally tell you about any number of potential concerns (name, pronunciation of said name, accessibility issues, pronoun, etc) and let them do it in private (for example email). that doesn't single out gender, makes it clear that you are supportive, and it doesn't put a trans student on the spot.

Thank you all

Date: 2013-11-09 01:48 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
The blunderer again... I am very grateful for all the supportive comments and helpful advice. I am sort kicking myself for not remembering that the meanings of my actions are not up to me and are hard to work out. It's a corollary of my thesis, so I have no excuse. Any how, I think that in the future I will send out a group email to introduce myself and include my current preferred pronouns in my biography; explain how important I think it is that the class is friendly and inclusive; ask them to be aware of their impact on each other, eg. talking to much, not enough, letting people finish speaking before starting taking etc; ask for a brief bio with reasons for taking the course, and give them opportunity to let me know about anything that would make class better for them.

I think that might improve my classes for everyone, which is the aim.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-13 09:24 pm (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
Would comment on this still be useful? If so please let me know and I will try to scrape together brain. <3

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-14 10:57 pm (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
Hmm. Might be best to grab me in IRC at some point because trying to structure paragraphs is apparently doing my head in at the moment, but I will keep this open to try to words. <3 (I do actively want to! Because making the world a better place. Just... tired and scattered.)

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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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