Respecting pronouns part of gender awareness

Posted May 20, 2020

For students in college, the first day of class often comes with sharing their names, hometowns and fields of study. In recent years, personal pronouns have been added to those introductions.

Personal pronouns in English include I, you, he, she, it, we, they, him, her, us and them. When students share their pronouns, they are identifying the pronouns they prefer others use when specifically referring to them. The pronouns can be singular or plural and in first, second or third person, according to Nathan Riel-Elness, the UW-River Falls gender and sexuality outreach coordinator.

Gi Morello

Gi Morello is a transgender student at UW-River Falls and a strong supporter of adding personal pronouns to students’ online campus profiles. (Submitted photo)

Gi Morello is a third-year transgender student majoring in computer science at UWRF. In high school, Morello came out as transgender, meaning a gender identity that differs from the sex that was assigned at birth. He began taking testosterone treatments during his sophomore year of college. In January of this year, he legally changed his name.

During a class this spring, one of his professors referred to Morello by an incorrect gender. As a result, Morello worked to make his pronoun choices clear to his classmates in all future interactions after the incident.

“In front of everyone, she misgendered me,” Morello said. “It was a really awkward moment. I had to send her an email and she just said ‘Okay, I’ll correct myself from now on,’ but it was really unfortunate.”

“It’s kind of difficult, when you’re so far into the transition, to hear that from a professor,” Morello continued. “I was completely embarrassed. I kept my head down for the rest of the class period, I couldn’t speak up anymore. I had problems feeling comfortable visiting her.”

Lori Otto is the assistant director of clinical health services at UWRF. She said that part of creating a welcoming environment, in the classroom or elsewhere, is paying attention to people’s pronouns from the first interaction.

“If we’re not referring to or respecting your wishes, then we’re not doing our job and we’re not going to be able to interact fully and completely with trust,” said Otto.

Alice Reilly-Myklebust, director of counseling and health services at UWRF, said that her team reaches out to other departments across campus to find out what can be done to create a more inclusive environment. Additional training is offered to university staff and faculty throughout the academic year.

“We do training and then continue to talk about it so that we stay up to date and do what we can. It’s constantly changing. I think what we can all do is try to stay educated and be aware,” said Reilly-Myklebust.

If one makes a mistake, Reilly-Myklebust said it’s best to correct it and move on. She said it is important not to make assumptions about gender when interacting with someone for the first time. “If you’re not sure how you can address someone, you could use they/them pronouns,” said Reilly-Myklebust.

Nathan Riel-Elness

Nathan Riel-Elness is the gender and sexuality outreach coordinator at UW-River Falls. (Photo courtesy of UW-River Falls)

Riel-Elness suggested the mistake can be treated like bumping into someone and should not be made a big deal. “Where it goes wrong is when people apologize too much. It turns the situation from recognizing what you did wrong to now being comforted,” according to Riel-Elness.

As awareness of the concept of gender identity has increased, universities have sought out new ways to incorporate personal pronouns. Riel-Elness said the university’s learning management platform was updated recently to allow users to include their pronouns on their campus profile.

“It’s important for group projects and especially for faculty because the preferred name policy does show up on the class roster, so professors might have the right name, but they might not know that student’s pronouns. So now it’s available,” said Morello.

Travis Tubré, a psychology professor, said he has seen the change to personal profiles make an impact on students who identify as gender nonbinary, transgender, or simply have a gender identity different from the one that was assigned at birth.

“My interactions with these students have been among the most powerful learning experiences I’ve had in the last few years of my academic career,” Tubré said. “The pronoun options more fully recognize the diversity inherent in our student body and the world around us.”

Tubré said he found the new information useful.

“I have been able to respectfully address students in ways consistent with their identity,” he said. “Sadly, I’ve also found them useful in correcting mistakes I’ve made in misgendering my students, whether in my classes, advising, or other interactions.” Tubré said it has made him more self-aware of his own biased assumptions.

Education on pronoun use is the key to its normalization.

“People want to learn more about it,” Morello said, “but they’re too afraid of speaking up because they are afraid of screwing something up and the consequences of that. But everyone makes mistakes. If someone asks me, I’m not offended, because it’s better than not knowing. It’s better to have everyone on the same page.”