As Nicholas Gumas settles into his third year at George Washington University, he won’t just be asking incoming students for names, majors and home towns. If the situation calls for it, he says, he’ll ask for preferred gender pronouns, or PGPs.
To clarify their gender identity, students can request that others refer to them with traditional pronouns (he, him, his or she, her, hers), pick from a number of hybrid options, such as ze, hir, hirs, or use the plural pronoun “they” to refer to an individual.
As president of Allied in Pride, GW’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning organization, Gumas hosted the LGBTQ group’s first meeting, largely for freshmen, this week.
Freshmen “who come from progressive or urban areas may have been asked” for their PGPs before, he said, but others may not have, and asking “is one of the easiest things you can do to help out the transgender population.”
While varying sexual orientations have recently gained acceptance in mainstream culture, varying gender identities have yet to be widely accepted. This became clear in August, when news outlets reported on former U.S. soldier Bradley Manning’s decision to be referred to as a woman named Chelsea.
“I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun,” Manning wrote, creating a sense of uncertainty in many news organizations that reflected a more general confusion about gender expression.
“It might have been more confusing because Manning was working in a hypermasculine field,”said Elroi Windsor, an assistant professor of sociology at Salem College.
As the Human Rights Campaign’s associate director of youth and campus engagement, Candace Gingrich believes that saying “she,” “her” and “hers” when talking about Manning is less about extending courtesy than of practicing “basic human dignity.”
“You should respect how someone wants to be referred to,” Gingrich said.
Though Gumas’ practice of asking for his classmates’ preferred gender pronouns is not a campus-wide practice yet, Windsor says it’s indicative of how his generation views gender. “For them, gender is not necessarily permanent, and it doesn’t exist in a dichotomous system,” he said. “College students are thinking about gender in much more technicolor kinds of ways.”
In a recent survey of 10,000 LGBTQ youths ages 13 to 17, the Human Rights Campaign asked responders to identify their gender with male, female or transgender, leaving a blank space for alternative responses.
A thousand chose transgender, Gingrich said, and about 600 of them went on to fill in anything from “gender fluid” to “gender neutral” in the blank.
Now, Gingrich says, her organization uses the word “transgender” as a “starting point” or “umbrella term.”
Jess Izen, 21, a former University of Maryland student, for example, opts for the term “gender queer” and chooses to be referred to as “they.” Izen, who was born male, began participating in queer events on campus and researching a gender transition. Even then, Izen was not interested in identifying solely as a woman. Now, after starting hormone treatment, Izen has embraced the term “transfeminine” and is referred to with feminine pronouns by a new girlfriend.
“I identify with ‘they’ more strongly than anything else,” Izen said. “But if people are confused about trans people, ‘she’ sometimes works better.”
For Izen, correcting strangers has been a daily struggle for two years.
“I want to get groceries and not have an uncomfortable encounter with someone where I have to assert something that interrupts the flow of conversation,” Izen said.
For college students and faculty members to use PGPs in an academic setting, Windsor says, is “a great way to show support to an individual who stands against great institutional barriers.”
Wider use of PGPs began in the early 1990s after books such as trans activist Kate Bornstein’s “Gender Outlaws,” Riki Wilchins’ “Read My Lips” and Leslie Feinberg’s “Stone Butch Blues” were published.
“They were the beginning point of the movement,” Windsor said.
The use of PGPs has heralded wider spread acceptance of transgender and gender queer individuals, especially at college campuses. Similar initiatives include installing gender-neutral bathrooms, the ability to change names and gender on official school records, and more inclusive language on school applications.
“On our campus, the reaction has been very positive,” said Luke Jensen, the director of University of Maryland at College Park’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equity Center. In training sessions for faculty, Jensen says, he stresses the importance of providing a positive learning environment for students who don’t fit gender norms.
“I think there’s a natural inclination to be supporting and welcoming,” he said. “But I think people need to learn what that means and how you do that.”