Many cisgender individuals don’t typically think about names or gender pronouns too much. Most of the time, the conversations around the topic center around shortened or nicknames. It isn’t considered societally unusual for somebody named Thomas to go by “Tom” or “Tommy”, or for Madison to go by Maddy, or even a playful, “Mads”. Other names can seemingly come out of left field such as getting “Dick” out of Richard or “Peggy” out of Margaret. This extends into somebody who uses a pseudonym, stage name, or nomme de plum. We don’t bat an eye at artists like Stefani Germanotta (AKA Lady Gaga) and Symere Woods (AKA Lil Uzi), or actors like Maurice Micklewhite (AKA Michael Caine).
This courtesy is not always offered to transgender people from cisgender people. It is extremely common for trans people to go by a name that they feel better matches their identity. The term dead name actually refers to a trans person’s birth name, a name they no longer go by, or is dead, to them. Deadnaming is the action of referring to a trans person by their birth name, despite them not going by said name anymore. (Clements, 2017, para. 3) Not all trans people have the capability or the desire to legally change their name; legalization of a name is not required for a name to be valid. Deadnaming can be a trigger for gender dysphoria in trans individuals, or at the very least seen as an indicator that the person using the incorrect name is not a supporter.
As for pronouns, it is relatively rare to hear somebody use the incorrect gender pronouns amongst cisgender folk. Typically, using the wrong gender pronouns is done in either an insultory or playful manner.
In the gay community, it’s not uncommon to hear “she” subbed for “he”. “For many gay men, using these words is a way of embracing femininity and showing vulnerability or affection to others who share their identities.” (Anspach, 2018, para 1)
Pronouns are simultaneously small and big to a transgender individual. While most people don’t think much of them, for some trans individuals, they can be considered subtle markers of whether or not they are “passing”, a term decreasing in popularity that refers to whether or not somebody is passing as the gender they are presenting to the world. Refusing to use the correct pronouns can trigger gender dysphoria for trans people, or just cause mental anguish.
“While the antitrans attitudes and transphobic comments were troubling, the smaller mistakes associated with daily misgendering by her peers and colleagues also insidiously eroded Mel’s confidence. She explained: ‘Being referred to has he or him, it was always kind of a moment of recognition: ‘Oh yeah, I’m trans and I have this problem because people are seeing me like this still, even though I am trying for them not to.’ There wasn’t ever a space where somebody was always using the correct pronouns for me all the time.’” (Bartolome, 37)
When speaking about pronouns, there are typically 3 categories used:
Masculine: He, Him, His, Mr.
Feminine: She, Her, Hers, Ms./Mrs.
Non-Binary or Gender Neutral: They, Them, Theirs, Mx., and the less commonly known Ze (pronounced “zee”), Zir (“zeer”) , Zem (“zehm”)
Note: There are a plethora of gender neutral or non-binary pronouns out there, but these are just some of the most common.
Check out a more robust list of neo-pronouns (other less commonly known pronouns here: https://www.mypronouns.org/neopronouns)
If a student outs themselves as transgender to you, it is important to know what name and pronouns they would like for you to use. Don’t be afraid to ask in a respectful and private manner. This is not a discussion to have in front of the class. Simply ask something along the lines of, “Did you want me to use a particular name for you?” or "What pronouns would you like for me to use?"
If the student does have another name or differing pronouns they would like for you to use, make sure to follow up and ask if it’s okay to use these names or pronouns in front of parents, other students, teachers, or administrators. Some students will be a little more selective because they may not be out to some of those people yet. Do your best to support them and follow their wishes.
It’s also a good idea to give your student a heads up that you may not be perfect every time and you might slip up, because everybody is human. As long as you assure them that you are trying, more than likely they will just be happy you are making the effort.
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