Oct 6th, 2021, 08:17 PM

AUP's Problem with Pronouns

By Leigh Lucassen
Image credit: Unsplash/Delia Giandeini
Non-binary and genderqueer students share their opinions on the university's new pronoun policy.

Fall 2021 marks the first semester, and the first time in the 60 years of AUP's existence, in which students are given the opportunity to voluntarily declare their names and pronouns as part of the registration process. This option is intended to help trans and nonbinary students avoid repeated misgendering and to make them feel safer and more comfortable on campus. However, the real-world application of these changes seems to be lacking and some nonbinary students report that there have not been many changes for them on campus and in classrooms at all. 

AUP student Gemini Love, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, shares that they have already been misgendered in the first few weeks of the new semester. "It was one of those moments where I thought that, even though this is in place, I am still going to have to remind people," Love said. Love was also part of the student-led Gender and Sexuality Club, one of the driving forces behind the new policy alongside the student initiative ReSisters. In an event titled "Pronoun Breakdown" hosted in March 2021, the two organizations tackled questions regarding personal pronouns, explaining the importance of respect for other people's personal identity and gender-inclusive language on campus. The event raised awareness amongst AUP leadership and administration that brought attention to the fact that changes needed to be made towards a more inclusive and comfortable environment for people of all identities.

The first change that came about following this event, however, had nothing to do with pronouns at all. Instead, two weeks after the event took place AUP president Celeste Schenck sent out an email with the subject line "Language Counts", announcing that, going forward, incoming students would no longer be referred to as Freshmen but First Years. The issue of pronouns was only mentioned in passing.

Image credit: Unsplash/Norbu Gyachung
 

Many students felt this change to be performative, especially in the context of the event that had inspired it. Some were angered that such a change seemed to be heralded as being bigger than it was, and some students expressed their disappointment that queer and trans students seemed to be just an afterthought to the administration. "I don't care if it's Freshman or First Year. I care that we have resources for queer and trans students, I care that people are saying their pronouns and making a comfortable environment for queer and trans students. That's what I care about," says Izzy Beach, who identifies as nonbinary and uses she/her and they/them pronouns. 

Pronouns were for the first time directly addressed in an email sent to the student body in June. As it states in the email, "Effective immediately, the Office of the Registrar will coordinate with all departments and offices to ensure that all current and incoming students can present themselves through the various AUP platforms in the way that feels the safest and most comfortable to them." Finally, trans and nonbinary students were the topic of conversation and their hurt and discomfort at being misgendered and misidentified became the object of concern. Finally, they were allowed to define themselves on their own terms, without having to repeatedly identify themselves in classes.

AUP is far from being the first university to take such a step towards gender inclusivity. Across the US, over 260 campuses allow students to register a name other than their passport name, and over 40 universities give students the opportunity to declare their pronouns. The first university to make such options available was the University of Vermont, a little over a decade ago. Similar policies have been adopted by campuses in the UK. 

There is no information about how well these universities enforce their respective policies, but so far the only major change at AUP seems to have taken place in the student body, not in the administrative sphere or amongst professors. "The only thing that has changed is that I noticed that other students have been more actively inserting their pronouns into the introductions," says AUP senior Stella Guan, who has declared their pronouns as they/them. Other students report similar experiences. When asked if they believe the new pronoun policies to be another act of performative activism, Guan said, "Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that AUP has a GenSex club and everything, but I think that they are student-led efforts. So I do think that AUP is full of performative activism."

Nonbinary students were hoping for more initiative from the teachers. Prior to this semester, Anastassia De Bailliencourt had not declared their pronouns openly in introductions, as it had not appeared to be common in the classroom. "It didn't feel like something I could do," they said. Other students have expressed that they wish professors would set a welcoming tone early in the semester by inserting their own pronouns into the introduction. 

Overall, the call appears to be for more initiative by administration and staff to create a safe environment for AUP's trans and queer community, without having the students carry out the emotional labor. "I think despite the fact that they are doing this new pronoun thing the university needs to do much better at inclusion and support for queer students," says Beach. "For a school that claims to be diverse and heralds diversity as their selling point, they don't have very good facilities to support students with marginalized identities." Nonbinary students cite lack of support for trans and queer mental health, lack of a group similar to Gay-Straight Alliance, and no place to express their concerns other than GenSex or ReSisters, both of which do not center around marginalized sexualities and gender identities and both of which are purely student-led clubs. 

Some students still have their suspicions about how genuine AUP's steps towards gender inclusivity on campus are, but it is clear that the university, professors, and administration need to work a lot harder to help trans and nonbinary students feel safe and accepted on campus.