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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Perspective: Break the binary and normalize all pronouns in classrooms

Speaking my identity into existence is daunting, but fearing that people will speak my identity into extinction is even worse.

After I walked into class on the first week of school, I immediately started getting anxious about class introductions. When it was almost my turn, I frantically thought to myself, “How do I – if at all – introduce myself with my pronouns?”

As a nonbinary person, people do not know to use my they/them pronouns unless I explicitly tell them to — some people continue to misgender me even after I do. Because of social constructs that define gender as male or female, no one inherently knows my pronouns. Speaking my identity into existence is daunting, but fearing that people will speak my identity into extinction is even worse.

The conventional gender binary wrongly splits gender into one of two options: male or female. When cisgender men and women express their gender in a way that fits societal expectations of masculinity and femininity, strangers can assume their correct pronouns just by looking at them. It is ingrained in us that someone with a ponytail and a skirt uses she/her pronouns or someone with a beard and deep voice uses he/him pronouns.

But gender is not binary. Instead, gender is a spectrum that includes men and women and spans other, gender non-conforming identities. Because there is no one way to “look” nonbinary, I have to come out every time I want someone to respect my identity no matter what I look like.

Cisgender students may think announcing their pronouns in class is an exhausting repetitive activity, but I have no other choice. It is a privilege to be the man I’ve watched introduce himself as, “just a dude” or the cisgender person who skips over the pronoun part of the introduction a professor outlined for the class because their pronouns are correctly assumed.

While it is incredibly liberating to live outside the strict rules of the gender binary, it is exhausting to exist outside of a social construct that dominates how a majority of people categorize themselves and others. I have to make sure the environment is safe for me to be open about my gender identity.

When professors and peers include their pronouns in their introductions, it is a good indicator that I can safely inform the classroom of my own without fear of retaliation.

This is not always the case. When I studied abroad in Barcelona last semester, a peer reported my class to the program’s dean after I introduced myself. Why? Even though we were in Spain, he said he wanted to exercise his “First Amendment” right of freedom of speech not to use my pronouns.

I am simply trying to exist as myself, but constantly having to decipher where I am safe is draining — I never truly know if people will accept me.

Hearing others share their pronouns in a classroom normalizes the idea that we must listen to how people identify rather than assuming how they do so. Gender expression and presentation as viewed through the lens of the gender binary does not equal pronouns. Categorizing people based on their outward presentation only perpetuates the limited categorization of men and women.

Not all gender-nonconforming people feel comfortable sharing their pronouns, and professors should never obligate someone to do so. Some people aren’t safe to out themselves in certain situations, and one’s gender identity is an ongoing experience that should not be forced in the classroom. But those who are comfortable sharing should do so to help those that can’t.  

Everyone has pronouns, but I found myself being the only person to share mine in two of my six classes this semester. In another class, only another gender-nonconforming person and I shared our pronouns, singling us out. My experience doesn’t stop in classrooms. I also have to make space for myself in work meetings, social scenarios and anywhere else where I want people to know the real me.

Whether it’s in the Associated Press Stylebook, 12th-century literature or medical texts from the 1600s, “they” has been a widely accepted singular pronoun. But my identity is continuously ignored and written out of existence. I know who I am, but I struggle to find ways to verbalize my identity in ways that are palatable or understandable to others both inside and out of the classroom.

Professors hand out syllabi that only use “s/he” and “his or her,” and I’m assigned textbooks like “Invitation to Peace Studies” by Houston Wood that only discuss how men and women understand nonviolence. There is no gender-neutral word for my aunts or uncles to call me, nor is there a word for when I am one day in their position. When people ask me what my children are going to call me besides mom or dad, I truly do not have an answer for them because the language doesn’t exist yet. It is impossible to escape gendered language, so respecting my pronouns is the closest validation I can receive from others.

My pronouns are inherent to understanding me as a human. With little access to other opportunities to exist, I cling to my pronouns as a means of survival. Cisgender people who acknowledge their own identity and pronouns and not just mine contribute to a society where my existence is not debatable — a society in which I hope to one day live.

Riley Goodfellow, a junior majoring in political science, is the contributing opinions editor.

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