Note: In the spirit of collaboration and learning, this post is the first in a series (we hope!) of conversations we will have with cool colleagues and friends about various classroom and campus topics. All conversations are edited for readable clarity and relative concision.
This is the first part of a conversation we had with Tegra Straight, the Assistant Director of the Gender and Sexuality Center at Carleton College.
AE: We’re drinking! [glasses clink]
Tegra: Let’s get that on tape.
AC: We’re really excited to talk to you. I was thinking about this topic in part because the faculty retreat this year had ‘diversity training…’ as a theme and one of the things we talked about was gender pronouns.
AE: Yeah, and it’s clearly not comfortable yet for everyone. I remember a small group meeting last year when the facilitator joked, “introduce yourself and include whatever you need to include,” but didn’t use pronouns. And, going around the room, no one else did until a faculty member affiliated with Women and Gender Studies used pronouns. A few folks later, another WGST prof did.Then me. Out of the 16 or so people, only we three people did it.
T: You see the same thing in Student Life. The GSC staff, maybe a couple of the other identity-based offices, if they remember, but hardly ever other offices.
AC: That’s why we want to talk about it. The first time I remember being asked to say my pronouns was about four years ago at a training at Carleton. My answer then was “she/her but I don’t really care.” I wasn’t being facetious, and I think that’s actually true for me. I’ve been called “sir” before. My story from Japan is that some woman [Note: Anita is totally assuming this person’s gender!!!!] came up to me and said, “Are you a boy or a girl?” in Japanese. I have stories like that but for me, they haven’t been traumatizing events. It’s strange but it doesn’t bother me when people misgender me. It’s not that I don’t think my gender isn’t important… I don’t know. That’s just been my experience. Having read this piece on asking for gender pronouns in the classroom, does asking for gender mean assuming that gender is important for people in a particular kind of way? Also for students for whom gender might be more fluid, are we asking them to choose something? Those are some of the questions we’ve been thinking about.
AE: The larger issue is this kind of discomfort that some faculty seem to feel around the naming of pronouns…it feels…what’s that word?
AC: Like it’s violating people’s privacy.
AE: Yes, that’s it.
AC: But before we get into this, we’d like to steal a question that our favorite podcasters ask…
AE: If this were a podcast, it would be organized much better. People would be like, “Could you two stop talking? You have a guest!”
AC: Shut up!
T: It’s all good. It’s not a podcast. [Note from editors: T finally gets a word in edgewise. Sorry, Tegra!]
AC: So what do you do and why?
T: What do I do? I’m the assistant director of the Gender & Sexuality Center. That’s my professional life. Non-professionally, I do a lot of random things. I like to garden. Recently, I’ve gotten into petsitting, a way to make some money and have dogs in my life. Some community stuff but not a ton. Because my job is ridiculously intense and we have a lot of evening and weekend hours. In that job, primarily, Laura [Haave, the director] and I take a co-[director] approach to a lot of things. A lot of the events coming from our office, I or Laura are responsible for all of the logistical details. Brainstorming with students, publicity, advertising, speaker contracts, mostly I do all that. I supervise the student workers. I oversee the two [residential] houses affiliated with our office. I’m also an advisor, have five sophomore that I advise. I’m the co-chair of the Restorative Justice committee and one of sexual misconduct support advisors. That’s kind of my day to day.
AC: And why do you do what you do?
T: I feel like I just fell into the “gay for pay” space [laughter]. I’ve also always related well to college-aged students, young adults. At Carleton, it’s a specific age range of college students, but anywhere else, that could be from 18 to whatever. I’m just a very relatable person. When I was in undergrad and was pre-med, like half the people in higher ed who are first gen students [term used for students who are the first in their families to attend college], I recognized that bio and pre-med wasn’t where I wanted to go. I realized that I really enjoyed helping out students figure out the process of higher ed. I worked a lot in both housing and admissions during undergrad. That just flowed into grad school.
AE: What’s the degree title?
T: Depending on where you go, the titles are different. Mine is higher education administration with a specialization in student affairs…Our program had more of a research focus…but we didn’t do any counseling. I think we all should [have some training in counseling] because it’s a part of the work that we all do. Particularly if you’re doing transformative advising on the faculty side, all of that is about their non-academic selves, which you can’t split from their academic selves. But all of the conversations I have with my advisees are all about their lives. Maybe that’s because that’s the approach I take. I do what I do because I like people, I like to talk to people, and I love to learn new things and I constantly do that at the GSC.
AE: What I love about what you just said is that I feel like I would say the same thing. And yet there’s two very different places where we ended up…there’s a million different places where you can end up where it’s basically, “I love people. I love learning different things.” Which is very cool.
AC: I don’t really love people.
AE: No, you do not. [laughter]
AC: But I do like the learning and I like that people learn. Tegra, how have you changed because of your work at the GSC?
T: Since coming to Carleton, probably learning more about oppression and social justice, and in particular, joining the queer community because that’s been in recent history, has taught me the importance of personal experiences and the personal connection to what identity labels mean. All that has shifted my hard T to somewhere in the middle. Personal experience matters so much in the work that I do, it’s become a constant.
AE: Thinking about identity and labels, and how we work to help students figure out how to name themselves, these things are related to the issue of pronouns and the work that y’all [GSC staff] have chosen to do. Clearly you’re all movers and shakers on this issue on campus. And those buttons you put out two years ago [Tegra: and last year], those are amazing. The students all get it. The first and second year students all have theirs. So why? Why did you decide as the GSC to do this?
T: A lot of the work that we do reflects what our students want to see. We try to hire a really diverse staff, in terms of race, gender, across identities. We try to hire students who represent a lot of aspects of Carleton’s LGBT community. Also we connect with our student groups. We hear from them what they are interested in, what do they need to feel safer or more comfortable at Carleton. Pronouns and, just, more intentional work on the classroom space becoming more inclusive and welcoming for trans and gender non-binary students became the biggest call. Carleton, in particular, has a high number of gender non-binary students. Those experiences can be confusing because the narrative across media is about trans people, particularly White trans women. So non-binary people aren’t really represented in media and you don’t read about them.
AE: Can we clarify? What do we mean when we say “non-binary” students? What are the steps they’re taking that helps them see that identity as possible and what do you all offer them?
T: I don’t know that there’s anything that we offer them other than a safe space to question their gender and talk about the labels they want to use or if they want to use labels. A lot of students are coming into Carleton with that already. I think social media has become a space to find communities around a lot of different identities. We have a lot of students coming to Carleton as non-binary. It’s about processing through what they’re feeling, their internal selves, what they’re feeling about their bodies, what feel comfortable for them as they get dressed in the morning. Does that include certain things, does it not include certain things? I think non-binary looks different for a lot of people. Some students dress in masculine ways but identify as non-binary. Some people are more fluid about the masculinity and femininity that they express. Some people are more androgynous and will mix it up at the same time. It means different things to different people which is where that individual experience and definition becomes really important.
AC: Maybe this is a basic question. How’s that different from trans identities and experiences?
T: For me, and this is not necessarily the perspective of the GSC, for me personally, trans usually has some type of more solidified end point. You were assigned woman at birth and you are a man. So you might identify as a transman or trans as an umbrella term. Whatever identity you were assigned to doesn’t fit your current narrative. You self-identify in ways that are different from what you were first assigned. Gender non-binary is called different things in different places—gender non-conforming is another way that’s more commonly referred to in academic or higher ed spaces. We use “non-binary” here because that’s how our students identify. Regardless of what you were assigned at birth, you don’t feel like you fit with any gender. Or you feel like you can go back and forth among genders. Agender is similar. You are a person with gender that can be expressed in many ways.
AE: I think my question is going to show my age…one of the things we talked about in the late 80s around lesbianisms, we wouldn’t have called it queerness exactly, then… One of those ideas back then was that you chose to be queer as a political claim against heteronormativity. For students who identify as gender non-binary, how much of it is a choice or how much of it is about seeing identities that are not them? Or how do we separate out those things?
T: Personally, I could identify as lesbian or queer, but I chose queer because of the ideology that it’s associated with in a way that lesbian isn’t. I don’t think that a non-binary identity is political in that sense. I do think that, because society has a strict definition of what it means to be masculine or feminine that’s usually associated with women and men, this other way of being has been created for people who feel like their way of being doesn’t fit society’s expectations of how you should express your gender or your sex. I think in some ways a lot of the language in the queer community is a response to the rigidity of society and how we have created constructs around gender. Kind of what you [Anita] were saying before about being misgendered as a woman because of masculine presentation, it surprises me when it happens to me because, in my eyes, I can be a woman and be super masculine. That’s not a contradiction. I want to be pregnant, I want to be a mother, and I want to be masculine, and that’s what comfortable for me. But for society, that’s constantly a double take that you have to do. I always wonder, if the gender roles didn’t exist in society, would we still have the identity labels that we do? Would you have gender non-binary folks if they could express their gender in any way they want and society didn’t care? I don’t know.
AE: And if maternity or paternity weren’t associated with any particular kind of gender expression.
T: I do think that trans might always exist–discomfort with a particular body that you have. That could exist regardless. Identities that are based on gender identity and expression where you don’t have discomfort with your physical body that you have…
AC: I guess the pushback would be that how is that different from saying that we should be colorblind? Is the argument about being genderblind the same?
T: I think it’s different if being colorblind or genderblind is ignoring the differences that exist that are organized around a person’s gender or race, versus validating each person’s expression of gender or race. When Laura and I had a conversation, we discussed your question of what’s the difference between being gender neutral and gender inclusive? Gender neutral to me is almost being colorblind. The author in this article suggests that everyone just use “they/them” pronouns. Sure, that gets around the discomfort of cis-students having to hear pronouns that they weren’t expecting but that doesn’t get at the root of the transphobia that makes those students uncomfortable at the moment. I think it’s better to be gender inclusive where you’re talking with your students about why they’re having the reactions they’re having and wanting to honor the pronouns that people want to use in that space, rather than just having a blanket statement about using “they/them” pronouns for everyone and maybe misgendering everyone at that point…especially if they all agree as a group, maybe. But just to prescribe it seems to be like a colorblind approach.
AE: I love how you put this. Part of being gender inclusive is getting at why this might be uncomfortable, and getting at the root of this discomfort. I’m imagining doing that in my class, I’m not having trouble imagining having that discussion but what about for faculty who teach in fields where all they have time and space for is having students say their gender pronouns during the introductions. Is it still worthwhile doing even if there isn’t a chance to have a follow-up conversation to help students understand why you’re doing what you’re doing?
T: I would say from feedback we’ve gotten from students it’s always better to do it. All of the students I’ve talked to on campus, the GDG [gender discussion group on campus] wanted faculty to introduce the pronouns, recognize and use the pronouns that the students want to use. If as a faculty member you’re uncomfortable doing that, that’s what our space [GSC] is for. Come in and have a conversation with me or Laura about how do i make this more comfortable? Or if someone says I use “real boy” pronouns–
AC: [interrupting] What is that?
T: Real boy. Like when you said, “I use she/her but I don’t really care.” For some people, that means you can use whatever and I don’t really care. For others, it’s like you’re being kind of an ass saying that. Some people might say “I use men pronouns.” And then I would ask, “what does that mean for you?” Sometimes it’s good to ask a question, sometimes you just let it go.
AC: Also, I assume as a student, most of the time you let it go if a professor says that in class.
T: For me, it even depends on what group of students I’m with…an example, the RAs do a resource rotation to get to know the various office. An RA came to GSC we do introductions, and the RA said I use male pronouns. I asked, “What do you mean by that? Men can use any pronouns and that why we do the introduction with pronouns. What you look like doesn’t necessarily relate to pronouns.” So if the point of that circle wasn’t for me to get them to understand what we do and the language around pronouns, I maybe wouldn’t have pushed, depending on what the group and how comfortable I am. If someone says something that’s blatantly problematic, I would say something…
AE: No matter what.
AC: What I got from the LTC presentation was that you ask students to share pronouns among other things during introductions but if a student doesn’t share, I should just let it go. I feel like as an instructor, I always have to reveal my gender pronouns, I have to role model, I feel like I don’t have that choice that our students do. Or at least I hope that how students see it because I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable doing it. Maybe that’s some of my resistance or maybe that’s just my cis-privilege. And I need to get over it.
T: As a faculty member if you’re uncomfortable disclosing your gender pronouns, you can just use your name. “You can just refer to me as ‘Anita’ in this class.”
AE: It is really funny to me, though, about the way people talk about the discomfort, that it’s about this recognition that they’re tracking something, that they are cisgender. Oh, you can call me “she,” and it’s not a surprise.
AC: But that’s the problem, I could look feminine and not use she/her pronouns.
T: I feel like the discomfort comes because we naturally assign identity labels to pronouns when we hear them. If I hear someone who I perceive as using “she/her” pronouns say they use “she/her” pronouns, okay, I’m going to assign a cis-identity to them, if someone looks masculine and uses “he/him” pronouns, I’m going to assign a cis-identity to them, if they use “they/them” I might assign them as gender non-binary or agender o trans. The problem is that we need to get faculty and people in general to stop associating a gender identity with the pronouns that people use. Particularly for people who are fluid. Pronouns can mean any number of things. They woke up today and that’s the pronoun they wanted to use.
Next blog post: we continue the conversation with Tegra, talking about gender fluidity, best gender-inclusive classroom practices, and learning from students.
Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality,” 1986.
Julia Serano, Whipping girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2007
Resources at Carleton
GSC: Resources for Transgender and Gender Non-binary Students
GSC: Inclusive Classroom