Expression of Self: Navigating pronouns in schools

Hello, colleagues. My name is Rebecca Langham. My pronouns are she/her/they.

By changing one word in a sentence or by introducing yourself in a way that asserts your preferred pronouns, you might well help change a little piece of the world for the better.

What is gender?

Gender and sex are not the same thing. Gender is a social construct, and our understanding of that construct continues to evolve. According to GLAAD (a US organisation monitoring discrimination against people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer), gender expression refers to “external manifestations of gender, expressed through a person’s name, pronouns, clothing, haircut, behaviour, voice, and/or body characteristics.”

Gender is not a simplistic binary of “man” and “woman”. Some people do not identify with any gender, while others identify with multiple genders, perhaps changing that identification at different stages of their life or in varied contexts. Only an individual can determine what their gender identity is and how they wish to express it.

Gender and pronouns

In a club meeting for my school’s rainbow collective, students excitedly recounted their meeting with a casual teacher new to the school. The cisgender teacher gave the class her name, then provided her pronouns, and immediately moved on to delivering the lesson. This group of young rainbow students were thrilled, not by the ceremony of this moment, but by its mundanity.

The relief teacher listed her pronouns as though it were the most normal practice there is, and in doing so, she made students feel immediately safer. By modelling this simple behaviour, she helped them feel seen, delivering a clear message that whatever their identity may be, or how it may change, she would be accepting.

In another incident during my career, I had a rather difficult and unpleasant conversation with a staff member considerably higher up than me in the hierarchy of a school setting. A student requested that gender-neutral pronouns be used in their academic report and in daily school life. The answer from above? “No. ‘They’ is a plural. It can’t be used for a single person in a formal text like a report.” I argued that the English language always has, and always will, evolve. Singular gender-neutral pronouns are not only grammatically correct, but they have been used for centuries. Gender-neutral pronouns are also a polite and convenient way to refer to someone until you know what pronouns they use. So why can’t they be used when a student, often a vulnerable student, requests as such?

Thankfully, the latter of these two incidents happened several years ago, and the former occurred in recent months. Things are shifting.

Navigating pronouns may challenge some, and there is nothing wrong with that. Habits are difficult to break and any new behaviour takes time to be adopted by all. It is, however, worth understanding why pronoun inclusive comments can mean so much.

Pronouns are one of the ways we explore and assert our identities. When a student (or staff member) asks you to use a specific set of pronouns, they are asking you to respect that identity. When someone refers to another person using the wrong pronouns on purpose, that can lead to dysphoria, exclusion and alienation.

When a person is intentionally misgendered, especially when it happens often, that can have a strong and negative effect because their identity is being invalidated. Now imagine if the people purposely invalidating and disrespecting your identity are your own teachers, or your colleagues.

In essence, when school staff normalise pronoun diversity by sharing their own pronouns and/or avoiding assumptions about the pronouns of others, staff foster a more inclusive and safer environment. One 2016 study found that affirming a person’s pronouns — and, by extension, their gender — lowers depression and raises self-esteem.

Consider a benign workplace exchange:

Teacher A: What are you up to on the weekend?
Teacher B: I’m off to a farm stay with my kids and my partner.
Teacher A: Sounds lovely. What’s your partner’s name? Do they teach as well?

By avoiding the assumption that your colleague (or student) is referring to a person of a specific gender, at worst you have been slightly vague in your language, but at best, you have just sent a message to someone you work with that their family life won’t be judged or negatively received. I could not possibly count the number of times I have had to correct people when they automatically used ‘him’ or ‘he’ to describe my significant other.

But what if we make a mistake? What is most important is that you don’t make a big deal about it and over-emphasise the issue. Apologise briefly, correct yourself, and move on without over doing the attempt at correction. Most people I have met, regardless of their pronoun preferences, appreciate that we are all human. In cases like these, intent is often what matters. And be kind to yourself. You’re trying to foster a safer, inclusive school community.

Rebecca Langham is a member of the LGBTIQ Special Interest Group