I’ve been identifying as non-binary for three years. Until recently, being misgendered in my college classes was something I simply lived with.
Being a non-binary person in class can be a difficult experience. In the beginning, I was much too shy and anxious to announce my identity to anywhere from thirty to three hundred strangers. I had no idea of my classmates’ knowledge of transgender identities, and I didn’t want to be an educator to over a hundred curious people. I just wanted to be referred to correctly.
Talking to the professor beforehand was a possibility, but what if they had no knowledge of transgender identities, let alone non-binary ones? I tried it, only to enter an uncomfortable discussion in which I attempted to treat something integral to myself, my gender identity, as a neutral topic for debate. The inevitable grammar argument came up, and I gritted my teeth and smiled while internally I shouted “I am not a case study to discuss! This is my life, and this is what I need to be comfortable!” Besides, even if a teacher used my correct pronouns, unless they or I announced it to the rest of the class, I was bound to get misgendered during class discussions by other classmates.
What’s a non-binary kid to do? If you’re me, the answer, for a long time, was to keep silent and deal with it.
After taking a year off from school, I headed to a community college to take some part-time classes while establishing residency in California. One of the classes I took was a creative writing class with one of the best teachers I have ever known. I came out to her as transgender before the first class, because I wanted to make sure she referred to me as West and not the name that was on her roster. She was understanding and, after a conversation of only a few microaggressions, I left feeling pretty good. I hadn’t brought up my pronouns, but at the time, I was willing to let those go to be called by the right name.
However, after a few classes — and every wrong pronoun stinging like a pinch — I wrote her an email explaining that, although I hadn’t mentioned it at first, I really did want her to use they/them pronouns for me. Once again, she was incredibly receptive and, although she did bring up the grammar argument, she was willing to do her best. Then came the next class, where she used the wrong pronoun again, and the one after that, and the one after that. I would correct her after class, but I wasn’t brave enough to correct her in front of my classmates, who didn’t know I was transgender. It took a whole year of her class, and a whole year being in communication with her, before she starting using the right pronouns — and before I was brave enough to speak up and correct her when she got it wrong in class. That was a year of being in the same classroom with many of the same people and of building a relationship with the teacher. That rarely happens in college settings.
Then I transferred to the University of California at Santa Cruz, where I was able to submit a name-change form that would change my name on all the class rosters. Now I didn’t have to track down professors ahead of time to make sure they didn’t announce my birth name to the class while taking attendance. I left my pronouns behind, unwilling to take up that fight with a professor and a room of classmates I would only see for ten weeks.
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But something unexpected happened. I ended up in class with another non-binary person who, during introductions at the beginning of our small discussion group, unashamedly announced that their pronouns were they/them. I was amazed at their nonchalance and bravery. When it came to me, I said, “My name is West, and my pronouns are they/them, too.”
They and them too. No longer the only person with the strange pronouns, I could hitch onto my classmate’s courage and announce my pronouns as well, strengthening our claims by one. It felt so good to have an ally, not to mention someone who would lead the charge when it came to openly announcing their pronouns.
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After that experience, it almost seemed natural to tell the girl next to me in my Politics section that I was transgender and used they/them pronouns — and almost anti-climactic of her to go, “Oh okay. Cool.” As though it were no big deal. And since we were doing an icebreaker game where we introduced the person sitting next to us, I dug up some courage and asked her to introduce my pronouns as well as my name to the rest of the class. Which she also did, as though it were no big deal. I’m not sure if the rest of my classmates understood, but they all knew. I felt shaky and nauseous, but also excited. After the class got out, my icebreaker friend stayed behind to talk with me about school and to swap numbers. I felt over the moon. I had announced myself, and it had gone okay. I had even made a new ally and friend.
Coming out can be scary, and classrooms can be a very difficult place to try to be yourself. The pressure of explaining and educating, and of feeling the questions or lack of understanding of your classmates, can be really hard to deal with. But as I’ve discovered, it also feels incredibly good to be unapologetically yourself, even if there are people around you who don’t understand.
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