Last month, an intern from Harvard’s new Office of BGLTQ Student Life went to an Undergraduate Council meeting to take a picture of the group with a rainbow flag, part of a project demonstrating student groups’ support for National Coming Out Day. As she introduced herself with her name and preferred gender pronouns, she heard laughter from some members of the UC.
Unfortunately, the UC is not the only place on campus where someone introducing themselves with a preferred pronoun might be confronted with laughter. Yet for some people—especially trans people and people who do not identify themselves within a gender binary—asking one’s preferred pronouns and making an effort to refer to someone with those pronouns can be vitally important. In order for Harvard to be truly welcoming to trans people, we must respect people’s preferred pronouns. This will require, most off all, awareness and respect from the student body.
Despite generally best intentions, Harvard is still not as trans-friendly a school as we could be. An article on Advocate.com placed colleges like Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania on a list of “The Top 10 Trans-Friendly Colleges and Universities” in the country, based on the Campus Pride Index. We would love to see Harvard on this list the next time it’s published.
Of course, there are important ways in which Harvard as an institution can make trans people feel more welcome on our campus. One of these is ensuring that every building with public bathrooms has at least some gender non-specific bathrooms. For example, all House Renewal projects should be sure to construct gender nonspecific bathrooms in House common spaces. Adding gender-neutral bathrooms to every Harvard building is an ongoing process that may take years—but it is essential so that people who don’t feel comfortable walking into a bathroom labeled “men” or “women” feel welcome and represented in all Harvard spaces, including classroom buildings, administrative buildings, dorms, and Houses.
Beyond bathrooms, universities like Harvard can respect their trans students by allowing students to register for programs without requiring them to choose one of two genders, and letting them easily change the name that appears on their diploma and other university documents through. Hopefully, the new director and staff of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life can advise the administration on how to make these and other important changes so that trans, genderqueer, and other students feel respected by the administration.
But, perhaps more important to the everyday experiences of trans students, school culture is one of the most important ways to make people feel either comfortable or marginalized. Much of the issue is people learning to respect those who don’t fit within the gender binary—and this will take a culture change for students, faculty, and administrators. While we expect that most students have good intentions, many of us have grown used to assuming the preferred pronouns and genders of those we meet. It will take deliberate thought and action by Harvard students and administrators to add “preferred gender pronoun” to the standard Harvard introduction—but that change will help make our campus a truly welcoming place to students of all gender identities.
Challenging our assumptions about gender can seem difficult, frustrating, and tedious. Yet this is a small price to pay for a campus culture that can truly be welcoming to students who may not feel comfortable identifying as “male” or “female.” Institutional change can only go so far to make Harvard a trans-friendly school. The most important changes must come from us.