Best Practices for Gendered and Inclusive Language

Use inclusive language when discussing gender and sexuality. Prioritize validating (rather than invalidating) practices around gender both inside and outside the classroom. Using people’s self-identified rather than assumed pronouns in class and in communication with other students and colleagues models a respectful culture in our classes. To do this, practice asking people about what language they use to describe themselves and actively use this language when talking directly with them and about them. Model gentle correction when you and others make mistakes without drawing significant attention to the error.

Because some people may be exploring their gender and sexual identities, it is best practice to ask which pronouns a person uses and seek clarification if there are specific contexts in which those pronouns should or should not be used. It is best not to assume the name and/or pronoun that someone uses unless they have identified these for themselves in a public way or in private communication with you, such as in their email signature or bio. If you are uncertain, you can ask someone what name and pronoun they use in a private conversation rather than in a public setting unless everyone is being asked to share their pronouns. For example: “Could I ask what name and pronoun you use? You can use X name with me, and I use she/her pronouns.”


Gender Inclusive Writing

There are many tips and guides for using Trans and non-binary inclusive language. Below are some best practices (Kapitan, 2017; Trans Care BC [PDF])

  1. Use validating language that affirms all genders:
    e.g. all women or cis and trans womennot women and trans women.
  2. Avoid using gendered words to describe human anatomy:
    e.g. vagina or internal genitalia, ovaries or internal gonadsnot female genitalia.
  3. Use the language people choose to describe their bodies:
    e.g. he shared his experience having a chest exam, not he shared his experience having a breast exam.
  4. Prioritize people’s self-determination and privacy:
    e.g. she has not disclosed details about her history; not she is closeted.
  5. Affirm people’s experiences and identities:
    e.g. they are non-binary; not they call themselves non-binary.
  6. Transform gendered terms into non-gendered and descriptive terms in relevant and appropriate contexts:
    e.g. ombudsperson, not ombudsman; people with prostates should get screened for cancer, not men should get prostate exams; pregnant peoplenot pregnant women.
Check out Transcare BC’s Gender Inclusive Language Handout [PDF] and Alex Kapitan’s Transgender Style Guide for more information on gender-inclusive writing.

Using Non-Binary Pronouns

Many people today, especially in the area of sexuality studies, use non-binary pronouns such as “they/them/theirs,” “ze/hir/hirs,” and other alternative pronouns. In the classroom, learning student pronouns and using these when referring to students is important for respectful communication. If you are unfamiliar with using non-binary pronouns in speech, there are great guides to help you practice. (See section Gender and Pronoun Resources.) Consider practicing with a friend or trusted colleague in private.

Need help practicing different and less common pronouns?


Misgendering

It is common for both people to make mistakes with gender pronouns when first integrating this practice in daily speech. The current best practice for mistakes of misgendering is to make a brief apology and use the correct pronoun, not draw too much attention to the individual who has been misgendered (i.e. don’t apologize profusely or make a big deal about your mistake) and make efforts to practice using appropriate pronouns by practicing outside of the classroom setting.

Continuous and repeated misgendering in the classroom can create a disrespectful and hostile learning environment for students and faculty. Intentionally refusing to use a person’s pronouns or misgendering them is a form of gender-based violence. A survey conducted at Concordia found that students notice when their teachers avoid or are uncomfortable with pronoun use in class (Tshuma and Hadley 2020 [PDF]). This means that not addressing pronoun use in the classroom may signal something negative to students seeking gender-inclusive classrooms.

If you find yourself feeling uncertain about pronoun use or are worried about making a mistake, you can use a few strategies. When in doubt, refer to someone by name (ideally the name a person has expressed they prefer you use) or a gender-neutral term like “our colleague” or “our fellow classmate.” However, use this strategy sparingly, and if using it regularly, use it for all students, not simply the non-binary and trans people in your class. This is important to ensure you are not singling out some students with regard to their pronouns. Selective pronoun use can be interpreted as a negative signal for people whose pronouns are not being used respectfully or whose identity is treated unequally.

If you do not remember or know a person’s pronouns, it is best to ask discretely (e.g. a quick email apologizing for forgetting and asking for a reminder, or asking the person after class.) It is best not to draw attention to the student whose pronoun you’ve forgotten in a public setting (e.g. by asking the student in front of the class.)


Other Strategies

Below are some other strategies you can use to incorporate pronoun use in the classroom (not necessarily recommended):

Not Using Gender Pronouns
Using Only Non-Binary Pronouns
Normalizing Pronoun Identification

Below are some other strategies you can use to incorporate pronoun use in the classroom (not necessarily recommended):

Not Using Gender Pronouns

Another strategy sometimes used is referring to all students by name rather than pronoun. This approach may help foster a classroom culture of using names when referring to one another and may support flexibility in pronoun use; however, selectively avoiding the pronouns of certain students (e.g. trans and non-binary students) can single these students out and contribute to invalidating students’ gender in the classroom.

Using Only Non-Binary Pronouns

Yet another strategy sometimes employed is to use exclusively non-binary pronouns for all people, which aims to normalize gender-neutral speech broadly. However, this may not be a best practice as some people may experience their gender invalidated by non-binary pronouns (e.g. trans people who use gendered pronouns.)

Normalizing Pronoun Identification

This technique involves regularly asking people to identify their pronouns in day-to-day interactions by asking all people to start individual and/or group interactions by sharing pronouns. This is more common during meetings or group settings but is sometimes practiced individually. Importantly, this technique must be used with everyone, regardless of their gender identity (i.e. including trans, non-binary, and cisgender people). In a large lecture classroom setting, this technique is easier to adopt for class discussion and participation; however, in more frequent and smaller settings, continuous requests to share pronouns may create an invalidating environment for people who have clearly shared and expressed their pronouns, which makes this model not ideal for all circumstances.

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Better Practices in the Classroom by Natalie Kouri-Towe and Myloe Martel-Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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