Some Very Basic Tips for Making Higher Education More Accessible to Trans Students and Rethinking How We Talk about Gendered Bodies

By Spade, Dean | Radical Teacher, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Some Very Basic Tips for Making Higher Education More Accessible to Trans Students and Rethinking How We Talk about Gendered Bodies


Spade, Dean, Radical Teacher


In recent years, resistance to the cultural, political, and legal barriers facing trans people has gained greater attention. As trans resistance grows, we will increasingly see trans people making demands for access to education.

In this two-part essay, I offer tips for addressing obstacles to trans students' classroom participation and for avoiding unintentional exclusionary practices. In the first part, I suggest guidelines for referring to students by their preferred names and pronouns. In the second, I address people who talk about bodies, within and outside classrooms, suggesting ways to avoid implying that gender is defined by body parts.

I. Some Basic Tips for Making Classrooms Welcoming for Trans and other Gender Nonconforming Students

* Do not call the roll or otherwise read the roster aloud until you have given students a chance to state what they prefer to be called, in case the roster represents a prior name.

* Allow students to self-identify the name they go by and what pronouns they prefer. Do not make assumptions based on the class roster or the student's appearance. A great way to accomplish this is to pass around a seating chart or sign-in sheet and ask them to indicate these items in writing--as well as whether they prefer Mr. or Ms. in contexts using that formality, like law schools--and then use it when you call on them or refer to them in class. In smaller groups, you can do a go-around on the first day where people state what name and pronoun they would like to be called in class.

* If you are aware of a student's former name that they do not use, either because you knew them before they changed it 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 supportively, reveal what might feel like personal information to the student, and unnecessarily draw attention to their trans identity. If they want to share their former name or trans history or identity with others, they can do so, but others should not share those for them.

* Set a tone of respect. At the beginning of each semester when establishing the guidelines for class (do not surf the internet while in class, do the reading, be punctual) include something like: "It is important that this classroom be a respectful environment where everyone can participate comfortably. One part of respectful behavior is that everyone should be referred to by what they go by. This includes pronouncing people's names correctly and referring to them by the pronouns they prefer." Add in whatever guidelines for respect that you see as important, but make sure to include pronoun usage since people are often unaware of the issue. I present at the end of this section a pronoun etiquette sheet that you can use if you want to give students more information on the issue. Keep in mind that some students, even at the graduate level, do not seem to know what a pronoun is and you may need to use an example by saying something like, "For example, I prefer to be referred to as 'he/him.'"

* 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 assumption that has now been planted in the minds of classmates or anyone else who heard the mistake. It is essential, especially as teachers, that we model respectful behavior.

* 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, in order to avoid future mistakes and in order to correct the mistaken assumption that might now have been planted in the minds of any other participants in the conversation who heard the mistake. …

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