« Your first big news story | Main | Police body cameras raise a host of legal (Fourth Amendment) issues »

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Learning About Gender Identity

As transgender people have gained more visibility over the past couple of years, many of us have had to consider what it means to be transgender for the first time. Understanding what it means to be transgender is important for unpacking the legal issues confronting transgender individuals, but, as educators, being knowledgeable about gender identity is also necessary to make sure we are serving our students. As a recent study by UCLA’s Williams Institute concludes, roughly 1.4 million adults in America are transgender, suggesting we are likely to have trans or gender nonconforming people in our classrooms.

So, while in future posts I will dive into some of the legal issues, I thought it might be useful at the outset to share some of things I’ve learned about gender identity.

First, a transgender person is someone whose sex assigned at birth (usually based on a quick exam of their external genitalia) does not accurately reflect their gender identity.

Second, we all have a gender identity, which simply refers to one’s personal sense of being a certain gender. People whose gender identity comports with their sex assigned at birth are referred to as “cisgender.”

Third, sex and gender are not as straightforward as the boxes we check, or even our external genitalia, might suggest. There are many aspects to sex. According to medical experts such as Dr. Deanna Adkins, “although we generally label infants as ‘male’ or ‘female’ based on observing their external genitalia at birth, external genitalia do not account for the full spectrum of sex-related characteristics nor do they ‘determine’ one’s sex. Instead, sex related characteristics include external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, gender identity, chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics and genes. These sex-related characteristics do not always align as completely male or completely female in a single individual.”

Fourth, gender identity is increasingly understood as the principal determinant of sex.

Fifth, many people do not fit neatly into categories we love to create (such as male, female, trans or cisgender). Many people are simply gender nonconforming, which, according to one definition, “refers to the extent to which a person’s gender identity, role, or expression differs from the cultural norms prescribed for people of a particular sex.” Indeed, to a certain extent we are all gender nonconforming in particular ways—if we are a female with short hair, a male with skinny jeans, then we are cutting against the grain—we are not conforming with gender norms or stereotypes.

Sixth, one of the most important aspects of transgender health is socially transitioning. Yet socially transitioning is extremely difficult, and to be transgender also means being subject to higher rates of violence, suicide, poverty, discrimination, and incarceration, as detailed in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.  

Finally, given the significance of socially transitioning and our responsibility to our students as educators, to me at least, it is important that we do what we can to make trans students’ lives as smooth as possible, and reduce any feelings of isolation and despair they may be feeling. We should consider ways in which our teaching methods may be silencing or singling out trans students. Gabriel Arkles has put together a great list of suggestions for ways we can make our classrooms more inclusive for trans and gender nonconforming students. One simple thing that I’ve adopted from colleagues is instead of using the school’s attendance list, I circulate a sign-up sheet on the first day of class letting students provide me their name and preferred pronoun, which prevents me from using an inaccurate pronoun based on my perception of their gender or calling them a name they no longer prefer.

Thanks for reading; happy to discuss and learn about these issues with anyone further! I look forward to launching into some of the legal barriers facing trans folk in the coming weeks.

Posted by Scott Skinner-Thompson on July 7, 2016 at 06:36 PM in Culture, Gender, Teaching Law | Permalink


#5 seems to be where many conversations about gender get particularly messy.

For instance, it's worth carefully distinguishing between gender identity and gender role conformity. A biological male who identifies as male but who also likes Jane Austen and Gossip Girl just doesn't completely conform to his gender role, but his gender would still be male. There's quite a world of difference between being transgender and being a non-conformist (though there's also some degree of overlap in the issues you'll face).

Also, it seems that conversations about gender role can end up taking a very narrow, singular, almost regressive view of what those roles are. You note a woman with short hair as going against gender norms, but pixie cuts have been in the mainstream since the 1950s. Gender roles themselves are pretty diverse, so a person can not fit within one gender role while still conforming to another role for that same gender, not to mention the roles that span both genders.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jul 7, 2016 9:53:41 PM

Thanks for this great comment, Derek. I totally agree that it is important to distinguish between people who embrace gender nonconformity as a typology, and people who, to varying degrees, "merely" defy stereotypes/norms. However, I think the two conceptions of "gender nonconformity" can and do blur, and that pointing out that we all push against gender norms in certain ways can be useful to opening our minds to more dynamic (less traditional) conceptions of sex/gender. Lastly, I also very much agree that classifying something as "nonconforming" can, in an inadvertent way, reify the norm (or, as you put it, embrace a regressive view of gender roles). In the long run, nonconforming practices have the potential to destabilize the norms, and I think the examples you point out highlight that very fact. Thanks again.

Posted by: Scott Skinner-Thompson | Jul 7, 2016 10:20:55 PM

Scott, thanks for this great post. I have learned from it. In my classes, before the first session, I have all my students fill out a brief questionnaire. For example, I ask people for their preferred nicknames (if any) and phonetic guidance on how to pronounce their names.

Having read your article, I'm thinking of adding this question: "Is there anything else I should know to address you properly?" How's that for a respectful but a bit oblique way to open the door?

Posted by: Matt Sawchak | Jul 7, 2016 10:56:15 PM

We have a standard statement for our syllabi that says:

Forms of Address. Class rosters list students’ legal names. Please let me know if you prefer a different name or pronoun.

Now that I think about it, the phrasing is rather odd, since our rosters do _not_ list students' sex. So "different ... pronoun" implicitly means "different from what you think I'm likely to assume from your name and photograph."

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Jul 8, 2016 2:22:28 AM

I tend to sidestep the pronoun issue by just referring to all of my students with the same gender neutral pronoun: "You."

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jul 8, 2016 7:44:05 AM

I'm happy enough to make reasonable accommodations, but some of these requests are unduly burdensome. Asking that I use made up words for a basic parts of speech is unreasonable.

Posted by: john | Jul 8, 2016 9:43:48 AM

"made up words"

We "make up" words over the years for a range of things; it's part of the development of the English language. The words here are meant to better express the gender identity of people than the binary words we use now. The common usage of "Ms" alone once was seen much more ridiculous than it is now.

So, I would argue it is quite "reasonable." And, like people against same sex marriage but now (though once upon a time it would seem nonsense to them) are okay with "domestic unions" that look like marriage in many ways, what is "reasonable" now will for many be much more expansive than in the past.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 8, 2016 10:00:20 AM

Thanks for these comments.

Matt, I really like that you ask about pronunciation, which speaks to broader issues of cultural competency and making sure we make all people feel comfortable. I, for one, have embarrassed myself and students by mispronouncing their names. I think the broader/catchall question you propose is a good idea. That said, I think there is also something to be said for specifically highlighting pronouns so as to normalize discussion regarding the topic.

Speaking of normalization, Jennifer, that's great that your school seems to have come up with a widespread approach, which can make the students (and us as educators trying to be sensitive) feel less on our own. The problem you highlight with the "different . . . pronoun" language seems apt.

Derek, agree that being gender neutral where possible is a great idea. However, as Gabriel notes in his article, it requires a lot of vigilance and we all can slip up, so knowing a students preferred gender pronoun in advance can be useful.

John, that's great you are willing to consider these issues, though I agree with Joe that language is dynamic and that there is plenty of space, even in the English language, for gender neutrality.

Thanks again!

Posted by: Scott Skinner-Thompson | Jul 8, 2016 10:35:18 AM

Scott, thanks. I address students in class as "Mr. Tibbs," "Ms. Jolie," and the like, so you can see my need for pronunciation guidance and pronoun guidance.

Posted by: Matt Sawchak | Jul 8, 2016 11:39:22 AM

Joe, I think the question of reasonableness largely comes down to how much a person believes that person are genuinely gender neutral.

If the class roster said "Benjamin" and the student says he prefers to be called "Ben," we'd find that pretty reasonable. But, if Benjamin said he preferred to be called "Jizanthapus" we might find that to go a bit too far. Of course, if the student is in fact named Jizanthapus, no one would have a problem calling him by that name.

So, when Benjamin says he's gender neutral and prefers the pronouns xir/xim/xirs, how reasonable that is will likely come down to whether or not a professor actually believes Benjamin is gender neutral. If the professor does believe that, then the accommodation seems like calling Benjamin "Ben." If the professor doesn't think Benjamin is really gender neutral, then it sounds like he's being asked to call Benjamin "Jizanthapus."

You may also find that some of the pushback comes from what people will perceive as a bit of academic/departmental imperialism. Basically "We, the enlightened ones over in the Gender Studies Department, have decided The One Truth About Gender and are now issuing directives to govern the actions and speech of all. Those who do not comply (or even dare to disagree) shall be branded as bigots henceforth." Maybe it's not seen as quite that extreme, but it's something along those lines. Gender politics is a far from settled issue, so when discussions about it take the form of "you need to change this" or "that language is wrong," you're going to get a lot of resistance.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jul 9, 2016 10:53:00 AM

"Joe, I think the question of reasonableness largely comes down to how much a person believes that person are genuinely gender neutral."

In part, I think it is seen by some as a matter of degree that develops over time. So, various things that would be deemed inappropriate in the past are taken in stride by the average person now. The "domestic partnership is okay" example applied in this context. But, then there is the "next level" thing that just seems too much. Thus, the "made up words," though we have made up new words in a range of ways over the last few decades alone.

It is important to handle things with care and address the concerns you cite. Good faith is important. Also, some think it is "unreasonable" to ask for certain things, even if the person is acting in good faith. But, whatever the limits there is hard cases such as locker rooms, various decisions made in the classroom appears to me fairly workable.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 9, 2016 11:52:32 AM

"So, when Benjamin says he's gender neutral and prefers the pronouns xir/xim/xirs, how reasonable that is will likely come down to whether or not a professor actually believes Benjamin is gender neutral. "

It goes beyond that. Asking not to be referred to by he/him/his is a different and more reasonable ask than insisting on xir/xim/xirs. It's the difference between asking to be known as 'Ben' and asking to be known as "Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith". Even if it's in some sense "true" it's still unreasonable.

If English, which an organic socially constructed language, ever changes to include xir/xim/xirs than we can revisit the issue.

Posted by: John | Jul 9, 2016 12:54:36 PM

"It's the difference between asking to be known as 'Ben' and asking to be known as "Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith".

Calling a woman "Miss Jones" in 1972 and her saying "please call me Ms." wasn't quite the same as her asking to be called "Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith."

The pronouns are already being used. It's a matter of development, yes, but your phrasing is to me not quite fair, is it? I don't know what sense such a person in "some sense" ks actually the Queen of England. OTOH, the person here is such and such gender identity for which current terms like "him" or "her" are inexact. There actually is in various languages and our own too different words to describe shades of gender identity. The pronouns are geared to that.

It isn't the same thing as "Queen Elizabeth" and part of reasonableness is all sides being fair, not using simplistic or misleading approaches.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 9, 2016 3:08:51 PM


Just as we would question whether the student really is (in any way) the Queen of England, others would question whether a student is really "gender neutral," "non-binary," "gender fluid," "agender" or "pangender."

I suspect much of the objection to the "made up words" is that the words are describing a made up thing. (I'm not expressing an opinion on whether they are just invented, but that seems to be to likely be at the heart of the resistance.)

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jul 9, 2016 6:29:13 PM

"There actually is in various languages and our own too different words to describe shades of gender identity."
What shades of gender identity does xe express versus ze versus hu versus singular they?

As I said, asking that he/she/etc. be avoided is a different and more reasonable request than insisting on one specific idiosyncratic set of pronouns from a long list, the bulk of which will never be in widespread use (this will certainly end up winner-take-all).

Posted by: John | Jul 10, 2016 9:41:56 AM

John, we can debate the proper details, but "he" and "she" is a rather limited expression of the complexities of gender. Once a upon a time, "Ms." was not typical and the same "made up" complaints could have arose.

As to the "singular they," your type of complaint easily (and is) made there too -- it's a "made up" usage, where a plural word is applied to a singular person. Idiosyncratic usage might be rejected, but appropriate usage very well might warrant pronouns not now widely used.

It's not the same thing as "Queen of England." So, I find your reply somewhat non-responsive. Derek Tokaz to me is trying a bit too hard to be fair here, in part since John doesn't seem to deny that gender identity is complex and SOME efforts are appropriate. This is so especially given his final reply.

And, I think few really think there is absolutely no such thing as gender identity beyond the usual binary labels. Few simply think that is akin to saying you are the "Queen of England." Push comes to shove, they are simply wrong on the facts.

The motivation of their concerns is helpful, but there are degrees of mistake there too. Some reject trans students, e.g., who say they are not the sex on their birth certificate (and I have people tell me this is akin to saying they are "Napoleon"), but even they often would be willing to admit such and such is a certain "gender." They understand this might influence how they wish to be addressed. It is not akin to the person saying they are a specific royalty.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 10, 2016 11:11:39 AM

The specifics are exactly what I am debating. As I said, I am happy to make reasonable accommodations, but I don't find replacing some of the most commonly used words in the English language with "xe", "xir" and "xim" to be reasonable and unless I am ordered to do so on pain of employment sanctions or the usages become much more common, I won't be doing so. I'm willing to do singular they. If that's not good enough than awkward constructions that avoid pronouns will have to do.

If you really don't like the analogy I used about the Queen, feel free to disregard it.

Posted by: john | Jul 10, 2016 2:23:13 PM

Y'all are using outlandish examples and constructing straw men. All my students complete a form with preferred name and any pronunciation guidance. I address them by first name and try not to mangle words that are less familiar to me, but I fail from time to time, with apologies all around. I use their names when referring to them, so he/she never (or rarely) come up. ("As Bob said..."). The one time this came up, a transgender student came to tell me she was transgender, and I simply asked, what name do you want me to use and what pronoun do you want me to use, and she answered, and that was that. I don't think you will see a lot of the kinds of examples you are wringing your hands over. You are going to have a Bob who tells you to use Cathy going forward. It's not that complicated.

Posted by: F | Jul 10, 2016 4:22:58 PM

"I think few really think there is absolutely no such thing as gender identity beyond the usual binary labels."


This is where stuff gets mucky. Gender *identity* might not be binary, if you mean something like gender expression or gender role. But, that's very different from the question of whether gender itself is binary -- and most people probably believe that gender is binary. And, if our pronouns are looking to gender itself, then asking to be referred to with something other than male or female pronouns will be a bit like asking to be called the Queen of England -- you're asking someone to use language that's based on a premise they don't accept.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jul 11, 2016 8:33:02 AM

Post a comment