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As college students across the country return to class—either remotely or in person—many will be thrust back into unwelcoming, unsupportive environments with faculty and students who do not respect and affirm their gender identities.

To be clear, America’s failure to embrace people of all gender identities is not only a dire problem on college campuses. Young people face discrimination, hatred, and violence in all corners of life, from home to work to public streets. Here, I suggest changes I made in my classrooms, but I know that these suggestions can be meaningful in a workplace or at home.

As a professor in the Bay Area whose research focuses on LGBTQ+ college students’ experiences in the classroom, I have conducted interviews with more than 50 LGBTQ+ adolescents, and students consistently tell me how important it is for their instructors to create inclusive environments. As one nonbinary college junior remarked in a recent interview, “You can’t learn in a hostile environment.”
A recent Gallup Poll indicates that 15.6% of Generation Z — those born 1997-2002 — identify as LGBTQ+, so in a class of 30 students, at least 4 or 5 of students are likely to be LGBTQ+. If you’re thinking, “Not my class! I would know if I had LGBTQ+ students, and I don’t,” I would encourage you to reflect on what you’re doing in class that limits your students — some of whom are certainly LGBTQ+, regardless of where or what you teach — from sharing their identities with you.
In my interviews, LGBTQ+ students indicated that they would prefer to have adults who care about who they are as people, and several students mentioned that they worked harder and learned more in classes with authentic connections in which they could be themselves. As professors, we must create spaces in which our young people can be their best selves.

Unfortunately, many professors haven’t spent the necessary time reflecting on our own gender to understand how – or why it’s important – to create environments in which our students can learn without fear of judgment, harassment, disrespect, and violence.

As educators, we must meaningfully engage with our own gender to do our jobs well. Such self-reflection enables faculty members to better empathize and connect with their students. To that end, I offer questions that have been fruitful for my exploration of my own gender:

1. What early messages did I receive about what it meant to be a man and to be a woman? In what ways did those messages fit and not fit my experience?

2. What benefits have I gotten from adhering to gender expectations of others? What consequences have I faced for failing to meet those expectations?

3. What values do I associate with different genders?

4. How do I understand my own gender, and what pronouns fit me best?

As a professional educator for 12 years, I recognize how important it is for instructors to explore their own gender and make simple changes to create a space of inclusion and support in the classroom.

Here are a few tips to get you started:
Add your pronouns to your email signature. As one student said, “I do look out for if there’s pronouns within their email communications…[when pronouns are included] I generally feel safer and more able to concentrate on the curriculum itself.” My email signature includes my name (Robert Marx), pronouns (they/he), and position at the university (Assistant Professor). My colleagues who speak multiple languages also include their pronouns in other languages (like ella or il).

Introduce yourself with your pronouns as you meet new people. As one student explained: “Just as simple as a professor starting off the first day saying, ‘My name is so-and-so, I go by so-and-so pronouns,’ lets me know that you understand our situation and you’re an ally potentially.”

Find easy ways to obtain people’s correct names and pronouns. I send out a pre-class survey that asks for students’ names, pronouns, interests, and goals. I do this to learn more about my students and ensure that I don’t inadvertently call a student by the wrong name. Then, I update my roster and include students’ pronouns.

To be sure, these small changes cannot address all the multifaceted discrimination our LGBTQ+ young people face on campus and in the world. Nonetheless, as educators, we must engage in self-reflection so that we can ensure that LGBTQ+ students feel recognized, respected and included in the spaces we control.

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