To begin, we want to talk to you about you. Who are you? How do you identify? What are your pronouns? As invasive as these questions may seem, they are questions that queer people are asked on a daily basis by peers and teachers who might be asking with good intentions, and sometimes unfortunately bad ones (Lopez and Ward, 2020).
As a teacher, you may be faced with a class and/or student(s) that you struggle to gender, or that you assume are cisgender. Thanks to contemporary gender norms, it is imaginable that there are times where you might feel confused and unsure of how to refer to people. There are multiple ways that someone might identify, and there is no fixed way to be queer or non-queer, and everyone’s interpretations of these categories are built on our own ingrained and learnt perceptions (GELC, 2015). Perceiving someone initially as someone they are not is plausible, and you will not always get it right. However what you must try not to do is bring these perceptions into the classroom and project them onto students. Instead of assuming, ask (UoB, 2017: 11).
There are ways of keeping up to date with queer language and definitions, which can be found in places such as Stonewall’s ‘List of LGBTQ+ terms’ (2022). It is important to note that these terms are changing constantly, as our understandings of gender and sexuality advance, and therefore your work as a queer-friendly educator will never be done in this respect. Staying up to date on queer-friendly classroom practices and language is the best way to ensure your classrooms maintain the safety and comfort you are trying to achieve today. This is not a ‘one size fits all’ scenario, and trial and error may be part of what you’re trying to achieve. However, as we’ve stated already, this is okay as long as you can reflect and hold yourself accountable. On this note, we will outline some ways that you can approach establishing queer-friendly classrooms.
MAKE IT KNOWN
In order for queer or queer-questioning students to feel safe in your classroom it is important you assert yourself as an ally. We say ally, as we accept that not all queer teachers are comfortable being queer at work, and that should be respected just as much as students choosing not to disclose their queerness (A Queer Endeavor, 2018: 2). Studies have shown that whilst teachers may feel that their ally status is known by students through their teaching, they can ‘take for granted’ that new students may not see this immediately (ibid.). Signifiers such as putting the pride flag in your classroom or office, sharing your pronouns both in introductions to the class and in online interactions such as email signatures or meetings can help cement your status as an ally (ibid.). Similarly, the language you use within the classroom can help students to feel included and safe. This can be simple things such as using genderless language when discussing something. For example, using ‘their’ rather than ‘his or her,’ can make a huge impact on nonbinary, trans* or gender questioning people (UoB, 2017: 11).
To get off on the right foot with a class, establishing names and pronouns is necessary. It is important to so this initially through indirect means, as this may ‘out’ queer people who do not want to be outed, and trigger stereotype threat for students worried about how their identity might effect their interactions in class (Casad and Bryant, 2016: 2). A good way of finding out student’s pronouns and names is by asking them to fill out index cards, telling them to include their pronouns, names and ‘anything else they might want you to know’ (A Queer Endeavor, 2018: 1). This method helps students introduce themselves in a discrete, non confrontational way, as well as allowing you to have a record of how students should be referred to. Remember that it is crucial to maintain students’ privacy, and whilst they may feel comfortable with you knowing their pronouns, they might not be comfortable with the class knowing them. If you are unsure, speak to them about it and follow their lead in classroom interactions (idid.).
As the class continues, there may be presentations and group assignments. If you are fostering a queer-friendly environment, students may be more likely to open up. It may be beneficial to suggest in project guidelines that students should use pronouns in their presentation introductions. By asking everyone within the classroom to use pronouns, it creates a more inclusive environment and allows queer students to let people know their pronouns without as much fear of reaction (Mullaly, 2021). However, if students do not provide their pronouns, do not call them out in front of the class, as this can reverse feelings of safety, and confront queer students who chose not to include their pronouns for various reasons.
A student may change their pronouns whilst studying in your class, and this choice should be respected. Gender is a fluid thing, and culture is never static (Hines, 2018: 14). This can become particularly challenging when teaching in classrooms with international students, whose cultural ideas of gender and sexuality may differ greatly from one another. Students may introduce you to new genders and pronouns that you may not have encountered before. You do not have to have a complete understanding of these things, but rather respect and willingness to learn.
Finally, someone’s pronouns are not their ‘prefered’ pronouns, but their actual pronouns. A student’s pronouns are not something that they ‘like’ to use, rather, they are pronouns that are conducive to their gender. Further, whilst using the term ‘prefered pronouns’ might have good intentions, it ‘gives the impression that pronouns other than the ones specified are acceptable,’ when in fact they are not (Fowlkes, 2020).
It is a good option to allow students to state their names to the class as a point of introduction, rather than reading out the list of student’s names on your system. Sometimes queer people, particualry trans* and nonbinary people, may not use their ‘given name,’ and instead use a different one that is more affirming to their identity (JHU, 2022). ‘Given name’ may also be referred to as ‘dead name,’ which was used prior to either a trans* person transitioning, or ‘coming out’ as queer (Butler, 2018). Deadnaming a student in class can lead to students not attending or participating in class, and therefore it is best to not refer to students as anything other than their chosen names, unless for strict legal reasons (Schmalz, 2015). If you are confused, speak to the student individually and establish the name they wish to be referred to as, and if they want this name used in all communications between you. And again, follow the lead of the student in class.
Issy Stephens (they/ she)