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Beyond the Binary: Acknowledging Overlooked Gender Identities in the Classroom

By Lindsay Maizland | 4/29/17 12:14pm | Updated 5/7/17 10:47am
Jaclyn Merica / American Word Magazine

It seemed innocent enough. The professor asked all students to stand in a circle to play a game at the end of class. When he asked a simple yes-or-no question, students were supposed to step forward if their response was “yes.” But when the professor said, “Step into the circle if you are a woman,” Kira Feldmesser didn’t know what to do.

“No matter what motion I did, unless I literally ran away from the circle, he was going to think that I stepped into the circle,” said Feldmesser. “I literally stepped backwards.”

This wasn’t a new situation for Feldmesser, a senior studying film. While Feldmesser may look stereotypically feminine with long hair dyed red and blue, a round face, a curvy figure and dark eyes highlighted with makeup, Feldmesser uses he/him/his pronouns when identifying himself. And the professor had no idea.

American University prides itself for its diverse student body and encourages inclusion on campus, but many LGBTQ students still feel uncomfortable and even unsafe in their classrooms. According to several students, including Feldmesser, this discomfort stems from their professors’ often-unintentional failure to acknowledge difference. “It was just something that [my professor] would never have thought about,” said Feldmesser.

Despite nationwide conversations about inclusivity and pronoun-usage, why are some professors still failing to make their classrooms safe for all students? It has to do with the fact that there are no campus-wide, mandatory trainings for professors and faculty on understanding the complexities of students’ genders and identities. Some professors simply aren’t aware that there are more gender identities than just “man” or “woman.” “I wish that diversity and inclusion trainings were required,” said Kameron Winters, the coordinator of LGBTQ and diversity programs in AU’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion, or CDI. “That is just not mandated by the university.”

A huge knowledge gap exists between professors and students surrounding LGBTQ issues, and it’s impeding some students’ ability to be successful in class. Why does this gap exist, and what can be done to change it?

The Heart of the Problem

AU requires all faculty and staff to undergo mandatory, yearly online Title IX training. It also has an official non-discrimination policy prohibiting any discrimination or harassment based on an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity and expression or other personal characteristics, but the policy does not establish specific actions that faculty should take to prevent discrimination. This university-wide lack of training and discussion has created the gap between professors and students.

As freshmen, most students gain a better understanding of the many different dimensions of gender and identity during orientation, before even setting foot in a classroom. Starting this fall, first-year students will be required to take the AU Experience, a full-year course that delves into exploring identity, discrimination bias, allyship and many other identity-related topics.

But there is no such program for faculty, so many haven’t been introduced to what it means to be transgender or nonbinary – identities that don’t fall into the categories of female/male or woman/man. They may not understand the importance of asking for someone’s pronouns, or words that replace someone’s name in a sentence and are often related to the individual’s gender, such as “they,” “him,” “her” or “zi.”

“The idea of fluid gender identity is new for faculty,” said Elizabeth Cohn, an SIS professor who has led several workshops for faculty surrounding these issues. “People are just not educated.” Cohn, who came out as lesbian during college, admitted it’s a process. “I’m still learning this too.”

Caroline Salant, a senior music composition major who identifies as genderqueer and nonbinary, uses they/them/their pronouns and usually informs professors after class or by email. Sometimes professors accidentally use the wrong pronouns throughout the semester, and Salant continually reminds them. “In my experience, it’s never come out of a place of malice,” said Salant. “It’s out of ignorance, or out of even just a lack of knowledge that just goes beyond willful ignorance.”

When professors don’t even bother to ask about pronouns, Salant expressed that they often feel invisible, especially when they first came out during their sophomore year. “Sometimes when I’m not able to be honest or open about my pronouns or identity use, I don’t feel like my true self is being represented authentically,” said Salant.

But it goes beyond just feeling inauthentic for other students. If professors don’t know or use the right pronouns, some students, especially trans individuals, may feel disrespected, lost and completely unseen, explained Feldmesser describing some of his friends’ experiences. “It’s a suicide issue. It’s a health issue. If you don’t deal with it, there are lives at stake, even if they’re only a few out of the lot,” said Feldmesser.

According to Winters from CDI, there are many trans and nonbinary people on campus, and all departments should be committed to supporting them. But this is not possible when some professors lack basic understanding of different identities.

The Center for Diversity and Inclusion offers six different workshops that are open to everyone. Students, staff, professors, faculty and even community members are welcome to sign up individually or request a workshop with a larger group. Workshops, like “Safe Space: Understanding LGBTQ Identities” and “Trans 101,” encourage participants to learn about LGBTQ communities and trans and nonbinary identities and change their behaviors to be more inclusive.

While a few academic departments occasionally sign up for workshops – Kogod School of Business offered four last semester and administrators in the School of International Service and School of Communications said they have organized several – Winters said that the center usually sees more participation from students and staff who aren’t professors or faculty. “That’s sort of the trend,” said Winters.

What’s the Solution?

In the past few years, there has been some progress. During the 2015-2016 academic year, the university hosted required implicit bias training, according to Mary Clark, the Dean of Academic Affairs. An estimated 710 faculty members gathered to participate in the training focused on challenging unconscious stereotypes or attitudes that affect people’s understanding, actions and decisions. Clark hopes to continue similar mandatory trainings periodically, though probably not every year. AU’s five different schools have also promoted their own initiatives related to inclusivity. Feldmesser agreed that mandatory sensitivity or implicit bias training might be an effective way to promote inclusivity and acceptance by helping professors understand that “there are exceptions to every rule.”

But while organizing trainings through the university and CDI for faculty members is important, it’s not enough. “If you do a certain workshop, you’re only going to get the people that are already interested,” said Professor Cohn. If the university hopes to break down the barrier between students and professors, it must start approaching the issue differently.

There are many simple things professors can do and are already doing. Everyone interviewed for this article – students, professors and school administrators – all offered their own strategies and suggestions. 

Even before the first class, professors could send out an online survey and include a question on pronouns. It’s better to use a private questionnaire rather than asking students to state their pronouns in class because doing that could put some students on the spot. “A lot of people who are in the process of discovering themselves and how they want to express themselves through the vehicle of gender might not feel comfortable outing themselves to an entire crowd of strangers,” said Alice Packard, a senior graphic design student. On the first day of class, instead of calling students’ names off the roster, professors could let students introduce themselves and take note of any differences.

Another strategy is promoting dialogue between students and professors. The Rainbow Speakers Bureau is a CDI program that encourages conversations around issues of sexual orientation and gender identity through panel discussions with LGBTQ students. Four LGBTQ peer mentors, like Salant, share their experiences in front of classes and let students and professors ask questions about LGBTQ terminology. Cohn suggested that Rainbow Speakers Bureau panelists could attend regular faculty and staff department meetings and perhaps LGBTQ students and professors could team up to lead discussions. She also mentioned creating a podcast that would help faculty understand LGBTQ students’ experiences, as told by the students themselves.

Even just normalizing and acknowledging pronouns can make a difference. If professors state their own pronouns in class or include them in their email signatures, it could help students feel more comfortable with sharing their own, according to Salant. LGBTQ students wouldn’t have to take the primary role in going out of their way to inform their professors. When Salant first came out, they worried about burdening professors with accommodating their pronouns. “I realized… asking someone to respect my core humanity is not an accommodation, and I very much deserve to be treated the way I am,” said Salant.

But the key to promoting understanding is simple: listen. “The most important thing is hearing other stories – just listening, being there, understanding and accepting,” said Dylan Patzi, a freshman and the coordinator for queer progressive men for AU Queers and Allies. “Once we understand and listen to each other is when real change happens."

If students have felt discriminated against by professors, faculty, staff or other students, they should email Dean of Academic Affairs Mary Clark at mlclark@american.edu to schedule an informal conversation or file a formal complaint.


Each School's Approach to Diversity and Inclusion

SIS

  • Workshops, trainings and dialogues provided by the school's diversity and inclusion council that includes students, faculty, staff and alumni.
  • Orientation with new faculty highlights importance of diversity and inclusion.
  • On-going discussions at faculty and staff meetings about best practices for making classrooms inclusive.

Kogod

  • Diversity and inclusion task force includes about 10 faculty and staff members and works to make the school inclusive for all people, including creating a mentorship program between faculty and students.
  • Provides workshops for faculty that are highly encouraged but not required, including four last semester with CDI.
  • Launched its "Business of Diversity" event series this semester with events on women in executive positions and being LGBTQ in the workplace.

SPA

  • Encourages faculty to take part in workshops available on campus, including safe space training and unconscious bias workshops.
  • Attempts to diversify faculty and students through recruitment. 
  • Plans to start talking more with students about how to solve problems around communication in the class. 

SOC

  • Faculty strongly encouraged to attend workshops, trainings and dialogues provided by the school's diversity committee that includes faculty, staff and a student representative (added last year). 
  • Outside facilitators talk about specific strategies at full-time faculty and staff retreats in August for the past two years.
  • Currently working on a strategic inclusion plan that's expected to be unveiled this fall to understand how to be better and monitor growth.

CAS

  • Departments within CAS occasionally hold trainings, but they are not well-advertised or broadly visible.
  • Frequently sponsor events with individuals from diverse backgrounds who are also experts in their fields.