Crowded around a desk one day recently in the Women’s and LGBTQ+ Center, a group of friends worked on homework and talked about the growing use of non-binary pronouns. One of the students, an SMU senior engineering major, prefers to go by the pronoun “they”.
This student did not want their name used because they are not out about their gender identification to all of their friends and colleagues. But they shared some of their experiences on their gender identity journey.
As a pre-teen, the student was an avid watcher of medical shows. They recall a particular episode, when doctors find that a female possesses the male chromosomes XY.
“If I was taken to a doctor and that actually happened to me, I would love that,” the student said. “And I just realized that’s not the normal experience.”
This student is not alone. People around the world, including celebrities like singer Sam Smith and Netflix star Jonathan Van Ness, are identifying with a non-binary gender. Deviating from the black and white terms of he or she, these individuals prefer the pronoun “they”.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary recently added “they” as a singular pronoun, and schools and workplaces are incorporating new practices that foster inclusivity for people across the gender spectrum.
Professor Anne Lincoln of the SMU Sociology Department teaches a class called the Sociology of Gender. She said that most people are taught, starting at birth, to identify as a male or female based on their biological sex. Yet there are some people who don’t feel confined to the gender roles of their sex and want to have to choose between one or the other.
“Gender is how we present ourselves as masculine and feminine, not only in appearance, but also in terms of behaviors and how people respond to us, as masculine or feminine,” she said.
Wren Lee, an SMU sophomore pre-majoring in creative computation, film/media arts, and human rights, also uses the pronoun “they”. Lee identifies as agender, meaning neither male or female. They are still trying to find a balance between their gender expression and gender identity.
Lee accepts both masculine and feminine clothing, and likes to be both “dapper” and “cute”. They said that non-binary is used as an umbrella term, under which many sub-identities fall.
“Non-binary is anything outside of the traditional male-female binary, so within that you can get a lot of different things,” Lee said. “You can have people who are two-spirit, which is a very Native American cultural thing. You can also have people who identify as gender queer, and gender nonconforming. In general, with gender queer, one day they might feel more masculine, more feminine, or maybe in the middle. They move through the spectrum. Then there are people like me who are agender.”
Professor Richard Bozorth, a member of the SMU English Department who specializes in Lesbian/Gay Studies, said that in the past, he would tell students in his writing classes that using they/them in reference to a singular noun is an error in pronoun reference. But with the increasing visibility of non-binary and transgender people across society, Bozorth said he has changed his views.
“The fact is that for centuries, going back 700 years at least, forms of they and them have been used in gender neutral, singular ways. Their sense of grammar was not governed by an obsession with the correct correlation between singular or plural nouns,” he said. “Adhering to such rules at the expense of the desires and wishes of how people want to be represented is inhumane and wrong.”
In Colorado, the Boulder Valley School District created a policy that requires schools to develop practices that are sensitive to students with non-binary and transgender identities. Jen Dauzvardis is the Communications Director Peak to Peak, a K-12 school. Dauzvardis said in a phone interview that Peak to Peak began building gender neutral restrooms around three years ago, and pronoun introductions soon followed.
“We allowed the students to identify their own pronouns as part of their introduction in the first week of school,” she said. “That’s a pretty high pressure situation, and not all students were prepared for that. It became clear pretty quickly that wasn’t the safest way to do it, and we have changed our practices since then. It’s no longer the expectation in the classroom, but there is always a space for a student to do so, if they choose.”
At SMU, some gender inclusive practices are carried out in certain spaces and by faculty members. For example, an annual event called Drag Bingo was recently hosted in Hughes-Trigg. It featured performances by drag queens, who have played a historical role in bending gender identity. The event also gave students pins stating their preferred pronouns when they arrived.
Sidney Gardner, the director of the Women’s and LGBTQ+ Center, offers ally training that empowers teachers and students to become better advocates and friends of the LGBTQ+ community. The center also provides ally stickers for the doors of offices and dorms, which let students know that they are in a safe space.
Lee, the agender student, said they had two experiences with SMU faculty that made them feel accepted and comfortable. Kevin Heffernan, a film professor, saw Lee’s preferred pronouns in their email signature. Heffernan reached out and asked Lee if he could refer to them by their preferred pronouns during class. Lee’s second, and favorite experience was with Joy Saunders, a Spanish professor.
“I was in the Spanish I’m in right now. My professor picked up on it, because it was in my e-mail signature again. She asked me, ‘How do you want me to refer to you in Spanish?’ Because in Spanish, gender is male or female, there’s not really an in-between,” they said. “It was funny when she asked me that because I don’t actually know! I flip flop back a forth, so I told her to just refer to me as whatever you want in the moment.”
Lee said they wished they had more experiences like this on campus, because they are frequently misgendered. They said small actions, like wearing a pronoun pin or putting your pronoun in your email signature, can help someone feel more comfortable to be out about their own gender identity. Lee hopes students will join their campaign of queer advocacy and education.
“Just explore. Maybe these aren’t my identities, but these are people’s identities,” they said. “When you use the correct pronouns, it means the world to people like me. You feel acknowledged and you feel recognized.”