In September 2018, Rachel Levin published an op-ed at the online news site Inside HigherEd about the vogue for asking students’ “personal pronouns” as part of first-day activities in college courses.
Such practices have been encouraged in recent years as a way for instructors to signal support for transgender or gender non-binary students who may use pronouns different from what might be assumed based on their appearance. For example, a student might outwardly appear feminine and a woman, but identify as a man and use masculine or gender-neutral personal pronouns.
Despite being promoted as a gesture of support and inclusion, Levin described several examples where the practice of asking a person’s pronouns had a contrary effect. It can force transgender students to choose between lying or publicly disclosing their transgender status to a roomful of strangers on the first day of a class. Also, such requests can imply to a transgender person that they’re not successfully presenting their gender in a way that’s consistent with their gender identity. Others have written how providing gender pronouns in professional settings highlight a person’s gender, often to the detriment of women. These examples show how even well-intended gestures of inclusion can have unintended harmful consequences.
As a university professor who regularly teaches courses on gender and sexuality, including LGBTQ+ Studies courses, I’m committed to creating a classroom environment where transgender and gender non-binary students feel comfortable and supported. And I also feel that “mis-gendering” transgender people by intentionally referring to them using incorrect gender pronouns is a form of verbal violence akin to a hate crime.
Yet I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with requests to provide “my pronouns” in activist, community organization, and professional settings. Recently, I just respond with, “I don’t care. Use whatever pronouns you want.” But Levin’s essay opened space for me to explore the feelings of discomfort and, frankly, fraudulence I experience every time I’m asked to give “my pronouns.” Because how I really want to respond is, “No, you can’t have my pronouns!” Here’s why: