All college students should feel respected, safe, and comfortable in their classes. For transgender students, a big part of that is having their gender identity respected by their professors. This month I am sharing information and advice on how to approach conversations with professors about chosen names and pronouns, and what a student or people supporting a student can do if a professor is not using a trans student’s chosen name and pronouns.
A ‘deadname’ is the name a trans person was given at birth but no longer uses and ‘deadnaming’ is a term for when they are called by that name. ‘Misgendering’ is when someone is referred to with pronouns or gendered words that do not match the gender they identify with. For many trans people, deadnaming and misgendering can bring up painful memories, and it can hurt to experience even if that is not the intent of the person saying it. Talking to professors about a chosen name and pronouns can be intimidating and difficult for trans students, but it can also be a great step in learning to self-advocate as they enter adulthood.
Talking to a new professor about a chosen name and pronouns-
If they are able to, it is good for trans students to be proactive and either email their professors or talk to them in person about their name and pronouns before the first class. Addressing the topic right away can also mean the professor never has a reason to say the student’s deadname in the classroom, which means new classmates won’t even know what the student’s deadname is. Even if their chosen name is respected by the people in their life many young trans people have not had many (if any) friends or classmates who did not know their deadname, and that can be a freeing and euphoric new experience.
More schools are providing training and guidance to their employees about trans students, but some professors may still have little familiarity and knowledge about trans identities. It is important to make it clear when talking about a chosen name and pronouns that using them is a matter of basic respect rather than a favor being asked of them. A good way to approach the topic is by saying “Hi, I am one of your new students. You may see me on your roster as *Deadname*, but I actually go by *Chosen Name*, and the pronouns I use are X. Not being misgendered or deadnamed in class will help me feel safe and comfortable so I can focus on learning.”
Most professors and schools want to be as respectful of their students as they can, and if they know a student’s chosen name and pronouns they are happy to use them. Having those conversations can feel scary or overwhelming, but they are often viewed by professors as a sign of trust and maturity.
What to do if a professor is not using a student’s chosen name and pronouns-
Transgender students may face situations where professors are not using their chosen name or pronouns, so it is best to be prepared and know what you can do if that happens. If a professor is deadnaming or misgendering a student it is helpful to start by evaluating if it seems like a ‘good faith’ mistake or purposeful transphobia.
Some professors may truly not understand the impact deadnaming and/or misgendering students can have on their mental health and safety on campus. That being said, a ‘good faith mistake’ on a problem like this is still important to address. In these instances, the student reminding the teacher of their chosen name and pronouns or setting up a meeting to talk with them about why it matters so much that their chosen name and pronouns are respected is usually all that is needed. If the issue continues or seems to be the result of purposeful transphobia further steps may need to be taken.
While it is good for a student to initially take the lead on bringing up their name and pronouns if there is a serious problem with a professor it is best for people supporting the student to get involved. This can ease the stress on the student and remind them they are not fighting this battle alone. If parents or other family members are aware of the situation and able to be involved it may also result in a better response from the school, since colleges often view situations where family members are directly involved more seriously.
If a professor is continuing to deadname and misgender a student after it has been brought to their attention or has been more overtly transphobic the next step is to get the administration of the school involved. Colleges have diversity staff that deal with issues of discrimination, so by setting up a meeting with the head of the professor’s department and someone from the school’s diversity team you can bring the problem to their attention and ask about the school’s policies for dealing with bigotry from professors. Even if the professor is tenured and does not feel their own employment or professional reputation is at risk, college administrators know that these issues can put the school at risk of being sued or losing funding and will act accordingly. Even in states where transphobia is not included in anti-discrimination laws and there are no legal actions that can be taken, the bad press that can result from a student bringing a story like this to the media can impact the school’s reputation, so these issues are usually taken very seriously.
If a college administration is not taking proper action to stop transphobia from a professor the next step is to look into how LGBTQIA+ organizations can help you. Larger organizations often have online resources and helplines you can call to learn about your rights or get guidance on what steps you can take, and depending on the specifics of your situation they may even be able to assist you in reaching out to local or national media or exploring your legal options. If you want more direct guidance you can reach out to local LGBTQIA+ organizations if there are any, or you can look into national organizations like Campus Pride (an organization that specifically works to create safer college environments for LGBTQIA+ students) and The Human Rights Campaign (an organization that works more broadly to fight for LGBTQIA+ rights). Remember that there are organizations and people who can and want to help make sure situations like this are addressed and will not continue to happen.
College should be an exciting time when all students can learn, grow, and have fun, and by being prepared for potential hurdles you can make sure that is the case.
Each month I am sharing information and advice for a different aspect of college life for LGBTQIA+ students, and next month I will be focusing on mental health for LGBTQIA+ college students!