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On Their Own Terms

He? She? Ze? Students who do not conform to the traditional gender binary say pronoun choice should be a campus question

By Michelle Denise L. Ferreol, Crimson Staff Writer

Edith C. Benavides ’14 stood before the Undergraduate Council’s general meeting last month, clutching a camera and a rainbow flag. Benavides was there to take a photo of the Council for an upcoming celebration of National Coming Out Day.

She gave her standard introduction: Hi, my name is Edith, I’m an intern at the BGLTQ Office. My preferred gender pronouns are she, her, and hers.

To her surprise, Benavides was greeted by a chorus of snickers from the left half of the room.

“I had never gotten that reaction when I mentioned my preferred gender pronouns before,” said Benavides. “It lasted only two seconds, but I paused afterwards because I was so shocked.”

UC President Danny P. Bicknell ’13 said he immediately noticed the laughter. He said he explained gender pronouns to the representatives and told them that “it is never appropriate” to react in that manner.

“My experience personally showed me that it’s not all rainbows and smiles,” Benavides said. “I am in a world that is not entirely knowledgeable about things like this, and I have to be able to learn and teach.”

Lack of awareness is not unusual at the College, where students who fit outside the gender binary often have to explain that they would like to be referred to with a name or pronoun which may not reflect their assigned sex.

For these students, their preferred gender pronoun, or PGP, as it is often abbreviated, is not just a matter of preference; it’s a matter of identity.

Now, as the number of trans-identified students and staff on campus becomes more visible than it has been in recent years, the College is starting to take notice. Students say that the Harvard community has generally been receptive to incorporating preferred pronouns into icebreakers, and that this may pave the road for heightened sensitivity to broader trans issues.

PRONOUN PROGRESS

Jamie, a senior at the college who asked that their last name not be used so that future employers cannot discriminate against them based on their gender identity, decided to try on a gender-neutral name after hearing other students talk about their own identities.

“During coming out narratives, people were sharing stories and were very affirming of how they felt, coming out as trans,” Jamie said. “I realized that gender wasn’t this binary thing that I’d been thinking about.”

Jamie now prefers the non-gendered pronoun “they.”

According to Assistant Dean for Student Life Emelyn A. dela Peña, a PGP is “simply the pronoun that a person would like others to use when talking to or referring to that person.”

The pronoun reflects a person’s gender identity—the inner feeling of being a man or a woman, neither, or somewhere in between.

Someone’s gender identity may be different from the gender assigned at birth—the biological sex of a newborn as perceived by physicians, and, therefore, the gender that child is raised as—or from sex, which is a combination of hormonal, genital, and secondary-sex characteristics.

Furthermore, someone’s gender identity may or may not coincide with expression of gender, which can be anywhere on the spectrum of masculine and feminine. It is also separate from sexuality or sexual orientation, which signifies the gender to which a person is attracted.

In addition to the pronoun sets of “he/him/his” and “she/her/hers,” individuals may also prefer to be referred to with the gender-neutral pronouns “they/them/theirs” or “ze/hir/hirs,” or simply by name.

Individuals who identify outside the binary of man and woman may identify as any number of terms under the transgender umbrella, including genderqueer or gender-fluid. The trans rights movement has coined the term “cisgender” for people whose gender identities and expressions match the gender they were assigned at birth. The word comes from the Latin prefix “cis”—the antonym of “trans”—which means “on the same side as.”

For Jamie, this language was crucial in articulating their identity.

“I don’t want surgery. It’s not a body dysmorphic thing; it’s a gender presentation thing,” Jamie said. “I knew my gender presentation was atypicaI, but I didn’t have the language to express that when I was 10.... It’s only recently that I realized that I’d rather have a positive identity as something in-between than always react against traditional male or female identity.”

For some students, regardless of the pronouns they prefer, fluidity in gender expression is key to their identity.

“There are some days when I really want to pass as male, but there are some days when I really want to pass as female,” said Madeline O. Studt ’16, who is open to all pronouns. “Then, there are certain days when I really don’t care.”

Studt, for instance, chooses to wear a tuxedo when performing with Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, a musical group in which men traditionally wear tuxedos and women wear black dresses.

Students said it can be difficult to share their PGP, particularly in a room full of people who are cisgender.

“Changing your pronouns is a brave thing to do,” said Linda M. Buehler ’14, a lesbian student. “It’s a way of outing yourself to people you don’t even know.”

ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTION

“Pronouns are something that we use just as often as names,” said Alex, a trans-identified junior who prefers the pronoun “they.”

Alex, whose name was changed by The Crimson because their parents do not know that they are trans, said that learning people’s preferred pronouns “should be just as important as learning [what name] somebody would want to be called.”

For students who do not adhere to the male/female gender binary, acknowledging their PGP is a sign of respect.

“The practice of asking someone their PGP destabilizes the idea that gender just is—that it should be something that is in accordance with your biology, your genitalia, or whatever else society thinks it should be in accordance with,” said Jake, a transgender senior whose name was changed by The Crimson because he said he wants to live as a man in the future without people knowing his gender history. “It’s respectful, and it makes gender-variant members of the community more comfortable.”

The idea of expressing a non-binary gender is not new. In some Native American communities, “Two-Spirit” individuals were revered, and in other societies around the world, individuals with non-binary genders are an important part of the social fabric. But in 21st-century America, asking for preferred pronouns in public spaces is unusual.

Though many are unsure whether or how to ask people about their PGP, Jonas Q. Wang ’12 says the best option is to simply ask.

“It’s just like, ‘What’s your name?’ Follow it up with, ‘What’s your PGP?’” said Wang, a former co-chair of Harvard College Queer Students and Allies who is transgender. “There’s no one approach everyone follows, and it won’t be awkward if you don’t make it awkward. As long as you’re respectful and kind, the rest should follow.”

Even when students are introduced to a person’s preferred pronouns, making the switch for someone they have known by a different pronoun can be a difficult adjustment.

Brianna J. Suslovic ’16 said she had to consciously make an effort to use the correct pronouns when a friend recently transitioned to male pronouns.

“It was a lot of slipping up and correcting myself when referring to him in the beginning,” she said.

But Alex said that they value even a friend who refers to them with an outdated pronoun if that friend acknowledges the mistake.

“Whenever someone says ‘I’m really sorry if I slip up, but I’m trying,’ I almost feel like I’m going to cry,” Alex said. “It’s so rare to hear [someone acknowledging their mistakes] here.”

HOUSE, YEAR, PGP

“When I first arrived on campus, trans issues weren’t really on the radar unless you were in the BGLTQ community,” Wang said. “And even in the BGLTQ community, it wasn’t really on the radar unless you were interested in trans issues.”

Wang said that while he and his friends used their preferred pronouns among themselves, there were few others who did that. The Women’s Cabinet, a group of organizational leaders hosted by the Women’s Center, was one of the only groups that actively incorporated PGPs into meetings.

Now, due at least in part to the arrival of a new director of BGLTQ student life who has personally dealt with issues of public pronoun usage, more and more Harvard students are acknowledging PGPs in daily conversations and meetings.

“This year, the QSA decided to reinstitute PGPs into our regular meetings as part of our overall mission to be more open to everyone,” said QSA co-chair Roland Yang ’14. “I personally think that it’s just as important as saying your House and your concentration.”

Alex said that at this year’s pre-orientation First-Year Urban Program, PGPs were a part of introductions and program leaders explained their importance.

Even some student organizations that do not explicitly focus on BGLTQ issues have started asking for PGPs during group introductions.

“I wanted to make Fuerza a really inclusive space,” said Fuerza Latina Vice President Joshua Hernandez ’14, who was instrumental in implementing PGPs at the group’s meetings. “It went well and people were very receptive. They found it cool.”

And the administration is adapting, too. Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 said that the icebreaker on a recent retreat for the Office of Student Life included everyone saying their PGP.

“We’ll take the lead from the students,” Dingman said. “If this is something that matters to them, we will learn from them.”

Just two weeks ago, the Office of Student Life led a discussion on PGPs with BGLTQ Director of Student Life Van Bailey.

“Van is amazing, and it’s great that we have a director who is sensitive not just to LGB issues but also to trans issues,” said Ariel C. Churchill ’15, a co-chair of the Trans Task Force and an intern at the BGLTQ office.

Bailey declined to comment for this article.

Jake recently changed his name and gender with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He said that the registrar’s office was receptive to changing this information in Harvard directories.

“They were open to me changing my gender and my name, no questions asked. I just had to give them a copy of my legal paperwork,” he said.

Harvard also allows students to fill in a preferred name and gender using the online registration tool, and gender-neutral housing became an option several years ago. Incoming freshmen can now indicate their gender identity in time for it to be taken into account for housing purposes.

Additionally, about 100 non-gendered bathrooms are available, spread out across campus. Amid all this progress for transgender students, pronouns, they say, remains an area where the discourse is lagging.

“People didn’t come knocking on my door asking me, ‘Hi, what are your PGPs now?’” Jake said. “I had to actively seek it out.”

TRANS 101

After the incident at the UC meeting, Bicknell emailed Benavides to ask what the Council could do to learn more about gender. Benavides said that she also received emails from several representatives who apologized for their behavior.

“What happened wasn’t out of malice,” Bicknell said. “I do believe it came out of just not knowing.”

Benavides said that it showed just how much work is left to be done.

Together with the Trans Task Force and the Women’s Center, the BGLTQ Office of Student Life is planning to hold more “Gender 101” and “Trans 101” workshops so that students, faculty, and staff members can become better informed about PGPs and the trans community at Harvard.

“We’re really good at having the gay conversation, but the trans conversation is something we stumble over a little bit more,” Jamie said. “Whatever we can do to promote those conversations is really good.”

—Staff writer Michelle Denise L. Ferreol can be reached at mferreol@college.harvard.edu.

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