Creating a Classroom that Affirms All Gender Identities

Many students spend the first day of class braced for various types of disrespect, sometimes unintended—for example, professors who mispronounce their names, call them by the wrong name entirely, or mistake them for another student. Trans and gender expansive students spend a lot of energy worrying about professors misgendering them or outing them by using a given name from the class roster which is not the name they use with classmates. Setting a gender-affirming tone early in the semester can alleviate worries students may have, allowing them to focus on course work. Here you will find a few reliable techniques, including a statement to add to you syllabus, to help establish a gender-affirming classroom.

Setting the tone for your class

The tone for the semester is set even before students set foot into your classroom--through the language you include in your syllabus. As you begin to create your syllabi, we recommend that you include the sample statement below, to communicate your commitment to creating a gender-affirming classroom.

Sample Statement

Chosen Names and Personal Pronouns:

Everyone has the right to be addressed by the name and pronouns that correspond to their gender identity, including non-binary pronouns, for example: they/them/theirs, ze/zir/zirs, etc. Rosters do not list gender or pronouns so you may be asked to indicate the pronouns you use so that I don't make assumptions based on your name and/or appearance/self-presentation (you are not obligated to do so). If you use a chosen name, please let me know. Chosen names and pronouns are to be respected at all times in the classroom. Mistakes in addressing one another may happen, so I encourage an environment of openness to correction and learning. I will not however, tolerate repeated comments which disrespect or antagonize students who have indicated pronouns or a chosen name. Chosen name and personal pronouns may evolve over time, so if at any point during the semester you would like to be addressed differently, please let me know.

Why focus on pronouns?

You may have noticed that people sometimes share their pronouns when they introduce themselves. This is happening to make spaces more inclusive of transgender and gender expansive people. Including pronouns is a first step toward respecting people's gender identity and creating more welcoming spaces for people of all genders.

How is this more inclusive?

People's pronouns relate to their gender identity. For example, someone who identifies as a woman may use the pronouns "she/her/hers." Someone who does not identify with the gender binary ("she/her/hers" or "he/him/his") may use the pronouns "they/them/theirs" (singular) or other gender-neutral pronouns. We do not want to assume people's gender identity based on gender expression (typically shown through clothing, hairstyle, etc.). By providing an opportunity for people to share their pronouns, you're showing that you're not assuming what their gender identity is based on their appearance.

Modeling the behavior you want to see

On the first day of class, share your own name and pronouns. Read through the syllabus statement with your students and ask them if they have any questions. Use the statement as a starting point for a discussion of what respectful communication looks like in your classroom. You can refer students back to these agreements later in the semester if necessary.

Take the time to learn students' names and pronouns. Instead of reading names from a roster for attendance, use alternative methods, such as:

  • Ask people to identify themselves. Then settle any discrepancies with printed or electronic materials in private.
  • Pass around an attendance sheet, asking individuals to write their names, their roster names (if different), and their pronouns.
  • Bring supplies for individuals to make name tents for their desks. Make it clear that you're asking that they write their name (which you know is not necessarily their roster name). Invite them to include their pronouns. Collect the name tents at the end of class and hand them back at the beginning of all subsequent meetings. Be sure to make one for yourself.

Remain conscious of language that you use when instructing. Use gender neutral language whenever possible, but certainly in your syllabus, in instruction, and other general written communication. (Use your pronouns in your email signature, and when you introduce yourself in other settings.) Avoid referring to students as "ladies and gentlemen," "guys and girls," or referring to "the two genders." In large classes, faculty members are unlikely to be able to learn every student's name and pronouns. In such classes, faculty may elect to simply avoid referring to students by gender. For example, if a faculty member wants to acknowledge something that a student has said, the instructor may refer to the person using "they" ("as they said . . .") or by gesturing to the student and using "you" ("as you said . . ."). A faculty member may also elect to avoid calling on students by gender. For example, instead of calling on "the woman in the back of the room," an instructor can call on "the person in the purple sweater." The Sum of Us "A Progressive's Style Guide" has some excellent recommendations for non-biased language that covers gender identity along with many other categories of identity.

Apologize if you misgender someone and support students in correcting each other.
If you make a mistake, briefly correct yourself and then move on. Not acknowledging the mistake is less respectful than making the correction. When you take active responsibility for your mistake, you remove the burden of correction from the student who was misgendered. You also avoid reinforcing the misgendering in the minds of others and model an attitude that is actively respectful to people and the way they wish to be identified.

If someone else makes a mistake, correct them. It is polite to provide a correction, whether or not the person whose pronoun was misused is present. This means saying something like "Alex uses the pronoun she," and then moving on.

If a student is misgendered in your classroom, it may be appropriate to approach them and say something like "I noticed that you were getting referred to with the wrong pronoun earlier, and I know that that can be really hurtful. Would you be okay with me taking them aside and reminding them about your pronouns?" Follow up if necessary, but take your cues from the comfort level of your student. Your actions will be greatly appreciated.

This guide was compiled using a variety of sources including the Emerson College Best Practices for Affirming Gender Identity, Mount Holyoke College's Supporting Trans and Non-Binary Students, and the GLSEN Pronoun Resource.

Additional Resources

A Progressive's Style Guide from Sum Of Us

LGBTQ+ Definitions from Trans Student Educational Resources

Guide to Pronouns from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee LGBT Resource Center