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Pronoun lessons: Help explaining gender complexity

Who knew pronouns could be so complicated? Students at Arlington High School know – and are trying to help.

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Some connected with the school's gender-equity group are trying to educate via two videos and in their own words. “He” and “she” seem simple, but each has its own issues. More complex is “they.”

In a presentation at a Rainbow Commission meeting Sept. 17, two members of the GSA, now known as the Gender Sexuality Alliance, presented two videos that provides lessons for AHS students and teachers about the importance of small words in defining larger issues about gender.

YourArlington asked both to explain – and to outline the emotional experiences behind the grammar lessons. Here are extended comments from each.

Beatrice Croteau, 16, a junior

The main aim of the AHS GSA is to create a space which is welcoming and inclusive for the queer (an umbrella term for LGBTQ+ individuals) students at AHS.

All of the outreach and education we do is an effort to extend some of the comfort, understanding and dignity that the GSA provides to its members, and to the other experiences queer students will have at school.

The group generally works on projects to educate staff or update curriculum. That way, staff can lead by example or educate our fellow students directly. It completed its pronoun-protocol project for the staff meetings leading up to school starting.

This project began in the Everyday Culture Committee, a subcommittee of the AHS Anti-racism Working Group. The committee approached the GSA to help with the project and handed it over to us after meeting to discuss it.

Before school was shut down in March, the students were working with AHS health teachers to have the ninth-grade health curriculum include queer students. They also met with multiple department heads to discuss the efforts to have a comprehensive and inclusive curriculum for queer students, and to give them suggestions.

Em, 15, a sophomore (using the preferred pronoun, they prefer to be identified without their last name)

In the Arlington Public Schools, there is a lack of universal pronoun protocol as well as education for LGTBQ+ youth and their peers. The GSA is working on “pronoun protocol” around teachers and students. We're working on normalizing sharing and asking pronouns with the staff and students in Arlington. Were always trying to get a more inclusive History and Sex Ed class that involves LGTBQ+ knowledge.

After the video that Em narrates was shown at the Rainbow Commission meeting, Keith March Mistler told those gathered on Zoom: “I want to cry.” He said he is 25, and he has seen nothing like this.

Em's story, in their own words

I came out in seventh grade [at Ottoson]. I am very proud that I've come out, and I'm very proud of my family's effort to make me feel comfortable.

It took awhile for me to feel comfortable in my identity, and that was mostly due to what was going on in the world at the time. I felt lost and confused because people who knew I was nonbinary never said the right pronouns, at some point I started to think that teachers were trying to protect the other students from my identity and just avoided saying my pronouns.

I did have a good network of friends, and we grew very close in seventh grade. We started struggling with our identities and a few of us -- including myself -- fell into depressive streaks that impacted us, both mentally and physically. There was just so much hate in and out of school that I was struggling. I had the F-slur screamed in my ear, and no one really said anything in the moment.

In eighth grade, things improved a lot. I was growing more confident, my family was using the right pronouns 70 percent of the time, and I was watching them grow. I was watching teachers switch their language to include everyone in their classrooms. I had a lot less self-doubt, and my pride was growing. In eighth grade, I had a whole cast of a musical correct my pronouns for another student, and, oh my god, does that feel good! It told me,“Yes, yes, we see you. Yes, you are welcomed here. Yes, you can stay.”It's so incredibly important to validate people's feelings and identities. Suicide in teens has risen by 50 percent in the past 10 years, and a large percentage of teens committing suicide are LQTBQ+ youths. Using someone's correct pronouns can drop the chance of them taking their own life.

People will always slip up or forget, but if people keep trying to remember they can change their habit and literally change a person's life. I found a quote the other day that bears repeating: “Thank you for being here, and thank you for staying.” I'm trying to make sure that I know and others know that it's OK to stay.

Bea's story, in their own words

I have a lot of friends whose pronouns are they/them/theirs. When they get misgendered, or someone uses the wrong pronouns for them, it just feels really wrong.

Oftentimes, my friends feel uncomfortable correcting those who have used the wrong pronouns, especially if they are an adult. The projects the GSA works on give me hope that situations like those become fewer and farther between, and that my friends will be treated with the dignity they deserve without having to come out or correct or just be disrespected over and over.

No one expects people to be perfect when it comes to pronouns, especially if they're just learning about them now. But having people make that effort means a lot to me, and my community.

If a teacher makes an effort to learn pronouns and ask about pronouns and share pronouns, they are not only demonstrating to trans students, but all of their students, that their room is a safe space; they will be welcoming and inclusive. When a teacher shares and asks about pronouns, it signals to me that I, as a member of a different group in the queer community, will be safe, respected and accepted in this classroom.

If they don't, then I have to spend my first few weeks in class, and often further into the year, quietly observing my teacher and the type of class that they conduct to see if it is truly safe for me to be who I am. That's a situation which is even harder for my trans friends to navigate, and it's hard for me to watch them struggle. 

Changing language: How does an editor handle 'they'?

As editor of this story, I and guided by rules of grammar, but I have to consider the changing nature of language. The Associated Press Style Guide, which I follow, has long regarded “they” as a plural pronoun. In 2017, that changed

Asked about this change, each student responded.

Em: I am glad that they are acknowledging it as a singular pronoun, but I disagree with the guidance. “They” has been used as a singular pronoun for centuries. We have famous authors like Dickens, Shakespeare and Austen using “they” as a singular pronoun in many of their works.

This is not a new thing at all and it should be treated like any other singular pronoun, not having special rules that allows someone to basically ignore a person's identity. This frustrates me greatly and makes me very uncomfortable.

Bea: I believe steps like the one that the Associated Press have taken are important to solidifying the place of singular "they" in official capacities.

However, I also believe that the directive to avoid any usage of singular "they" whenever possible feels, as Ben Zimmer put it, like "a bit of a cop-out."

Change has to come from somewhere, and if not now, when? If not you, then who? Our understanding of gender is constantly evolving, and it is important that we adapt our current language and develop new language to describe people of all genders.

The importance of feeling seen, heard and respected cannot be understated when it comes to trans youth. I'm cis, but seeing my trans friends misgendered or referred to by the wrong pronouns is really hard. No one wants to see their friend hurt like that; to have such a fundamental part of who they are disrespected, especially by someone in authority, or someone who is supposed to be helping them, like a teacher. 

Note: Editors still must use their own judgment about pronouns. Differences in literary uses of “they” through the years is not necessarily applicable to gender use, depending on the story one is editing. For this story, the editor accommodated the students.

Proceedings of the Linguistics Society of America V. 4, 2019: Singular they and novel pronouns
June 11, 2018: First Pride Picnic draws estimated 150 people

This news feature, which includes opinion, was published Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.


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Guest - Elaine Shea on Saturday, 26 September 2020 17:37
Proud grandmother

I am very proud of my grandchild, Emma, for honoring who they are. It takes courage to stand up for what you believe in. Emma has been true to the fine person that they are.

I am very proud of my grandchild, Emma, for honoring who they are. It takes courage to stand up for what you believe in. Emma has been true to the fine person that they are.
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