Monday, September 25, 2023

Sharing, honoring pronoun usage means a lot


Recently personally identifying information about students in our schools was changed from a binary gender designation of male or female to a larger group of choices, including nonbinary gender identity, and school records and accountability data reporting will catch up sooner or later.

What has not caught up yet—and this is much more harmful to nonbinary students—is the acceptance or even acknowledgment of pronoun usage that reflects the true identity of the students, writes Jo Stewart in The Blueprint, the student newspaper at Downers Grove South High School in Chicago’s western suburbs.

“Often, when I do make the terrifying decisions to share my true self in class to my peers and teachers, I am completely disregarded,” they write. “Even with the growing acceptance of diversity at DGS, my simple pronoun requests are ignored.”

Although Jo doesn’t mention this in the article, many transgender or nonbinary teens prefer to use names they choose, rather than the names they were given at birth.

A study published three and a half years ago in the Journal of Adolescent Health showed that “the more contexts or settings where they were able to use their preferred name, the stronger their mental health was,” the study’s author, Stephen T Russell, professor of human development and family science at the University of Texas, said prior to the study’s release.

Students in the study who could use their chosen name showed:

  • 71 percent fewer symptoms of severe depression
  • a 34 percent decrease in reported thoughts of suicide
  • a 65 percent decrease in suicidal attempts

More recent statistical data supports the 2018 findings. As of 2020, around 24 percent of US transgender and nonbinary youth who reported that no one respected their pronouns attempted suicide in the past year, compared to 13 percent of youth who reported that all or most people around them respected their pronouns (source: Trevor Wood Associates, survey of more than 34,000 teenagers, October 12, 2020, and December 1, 2020).

The New Jersey Department of Education notes that a student-centered approach can guarantee a transgender student’s preferences on matters of name and pronoun usage are known and respected:

School districts shall ensure that a transgender student is addressed at school by the name and pronoun chosen by the student, regardless of whether a legal name change or change in official school records has occurred.

But this hasn’t happened in all schools.

Teachers everywhere recognize the challenge: that a person who outwardly looks like a girl may not identify as a girl and may thus be subject to mistakes and misgender references.

And not all parents support the use of “they and them” to refer to individual students, despite the student’s personal preferences.

“I found myself in conversation with one parent who was concerned about the ‘confusing’ message sent by these changes,” one health and sex education teacher writes in The Washington Post. “Another referred to this as ‘just the latest trend.’ A third worried about grammar. And, at a dinner party, more than one guest seemed to agree that using nontraditional pronouns was just too difficult for our generation to understand and use.”

All these “objections” and excuses for not honoring a student’s pronoun or name preference are seriously flawed. Ellen Friedrichs concludes:

“But just as we know conversion therapy can’t change sexual orientation, it is also clear that exposure to gender-nonconforming folks won’t make a child trans. What it will do is support those kids who are trans, and remind all children of the vast diversity around us.”


When writing this summary, we made decisions to avoid the use of courtesy titles, such as Mr and Ms. As far as I know—and after checking the style books of major newspapers—pronoun and name usage does not address any preference regarding the use of courtesy titles. Our solution here was to avoid them by using first names (in the case of students) or complete names where courtesy titles would ordinarily have been used. The use of courtesy titles on this site is intended to be respectful of those we write about, but the practice may be an old-fashioned approach that is meeting a fast-changing language head-on.

  • New York Times talks about the use of “Mx.” as a courtesy title for nonbinary people.
Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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