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Former newspaper reporter Staci Elder Hensley is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she is a former news coordinator for both the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She served as a regular columnist for The Daily Oklahoman and Distinctly Oklahoma magazine, and her credits also include articles produced for multiple state and national publications, including The Journal Record, The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, and others.

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“Pronouns in the Classroom” was the subject of a recent virtual roundtable discussion among University of Central Oklahoma faculty and staff.

The focus of the session was on how faculty members can utilize non-gender-specific pronouns in order to make transgender and other LGBTQ+ students more comfortable in the classroom and on campus in general. The class was offered through UCO’s Continuous Cultural Competence program, and nearly 40 faculty and staff members participated.

As currently defined by UCO’s Women's Research Center and BGLTQ+ Student Center, the acronym LGBTQ+ stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (or sometimes questioning). The plus sign represents other sexual identities, including pansexual and “two-spirit,” which is defined as a Native American or indigenous individual who identifies as both themselves and a spirit animal simultaneously.

Extensive discussion during the roundtable focused on encouraging faculty members to talk with individual students and learn whether they preferred to be addressed as he/him or she/her.

“It is important that we listen to them, our students, not to just ourselves,” said Leeda Copley, UCO assistant professor of sociology and one of the roundtable instructors. “Gender being a verb, we are creating and re-creating our gender roles in our daily lives. Some of us are living beyond gender, which leans into how flexible and plastic gender identity can be.”

UCO personnel in the class were asked to be available to provide support and to help “undo” any past abuse the student may have experienced. At the same time, they were asked to not make direct inquiries of any student they believe is in the process of “transitioning,” and instead wait for those students to broach the subject first.

“Some of us are living beyond gender, which leans into how flexible and plastic gender identity can be.”
—Leeda Copley, UCO assistant professor of sociology

“Keep in mind that people choose to undergo these procedures, like hormone treatments,” Copley said. “I want to make it very, very clear here that being gender fluid is not a mental illness. Students feel that stress, so do not, please, refer to trans people (as having) a mental illness. Gender dysphoria is caused by the stress of societal pressure.”

Copley added that the high rate of suicides among the transgender community reinforces that the change in pronouns is a needed step to build trust, increase comfort, and “save people’s lives.”

Citing the difficulty in learning each individual student’s wishes, however, some faculty members expressed a preference for switching to the use of “non-binary” pronouns like “they/them” to refer to all students, regardless of their sexual identity.

One professor on the call said that “I teach my students to use ‘they’ as both a singular and plural pronoun. Sure, some people might say it's ‘incorrect,’ but language is living, and so grammar evolves and changes with time. I tell my students this shift to ‘they’ might seem ‘wrong’ to some people, but that's only because we are living in this moment of transition. It's cool to talk to them about how our language echoes this development.”

Yet another faculty member questioned whether deliberate pronoun changes could, ironically, end up offending students who prefer traditional gender-specific forms of address.

An additional concern raised was that under current guidelines, students cannot change their name on university records unless they undergo a legal name change. Some students who are transitioning and have changed to a new name have expressed their displeasure with this fact, said one participant. Potential changes to the university’s existing policy, to alleviate this issue, were discussed.

Also discussed was a possible requirement to include a “pronoun statement” in each class syllabus, and officially adding “2” to the LBGTQ+ designation, to include indigenous people who identify as two-spirited.

Shun Kiang, an assistant professor of English and one of the event moderators, responded that the university has students and staff who are trained to talk about the “2” issue.

“Gender and sexuality should be studied in context-specific ways, and in Oklahoma we should definitely heed indigenous ways of being, both gender-wise and sexually,” he said.

It is unknown what exact percentage of UCO’s nearly 16,000 students identify as transgender. No statistical information was provided by the hosts or requested by participants. Information provided during the roundtable included basic definitions of LGBTQ+ identifications, quotes from transgender students, and suggested readings.

Along with Copley and Kiang, organizers for the event included Annie Holt, professor of humanities, and Lindsey Churchill, associate professor of history.

[For more stories about higher education in Oklahoma, visit AimHigherOK.com.]

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