UAlbany, pronouns, and gender identity
By Madeline St. Amour
After Yoonhee Kim, a University at Albany senior, “chopped her hair off,” people sometimes called her “sir” when she worked at Stewart’s. Once customers heard her talk, they’d correct themselves. Kim said she felt “out of place.”
“It’s actually really sad. It’s like, ‘Um, I don’t know who you’re talking to,’” she said.
For some students, their gender identity isn’t something that crosses their mind.
“That’s what privilege is,” Courtney D’Allaird, coordinator for the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at UAlbany, said. “When you have something, and you never have to think about it.”
But for others, gender identity matters a great deal. Being free to choose what they are called is important for some students, and a college’s policies can either help or hinder this.
As originally reported by The Harvard Crimson, Harvard University’s student newspaper, Harvard now allows students to pick their preferred pronouns when they register. They can choose from traditionally male or female pronouns, as well as write in others, using given examples like the gender-neutral “they, them theirs” or “ze, hir, hirs.”
Calling someone who identifies as female “he” not only insults and diminishes her, but also, according to D’Allaird, distracts her from class, causes stress, and can have adverse academic effects.
The university has policies that let students indicate a preferred name, according to Karl Luntta, UAlbany spokesman, and photos of students now accompany their names on rosters, D’Allaird said. However, UAlbany’s data management system, Peoplesoft, which collects students’ information, doesn’t include information about preferred pronouns.
“At this time we aren’t contemplating a change in gender pronouns in the registration process,” Luntta said.
Kim, the president of Pride Alliance and a staff member at the GSRC said that UAlbany should be doing something to change that. “It’s a must for our registration,” she said.
A must, but registration forms are only the first step, Kim said. “I think it should just be a daily thing, like ‘Hey what’s your name? What’re your preferred pronouns?’” she said.
Vik Strutinskaya, vice president of Pride Alliance and a staff member at the GSRC, agreed. While for some people pronouns might not matter, for “someone who is constantly misgendered, having that little box in the registration form to say ‘These are my pronouns,’ that could mean the world to them,” she said.
If there was a place for students to mark their preferred pronouns, “then you wouldn’t have to ask or wonder. You would just be able to see… I’ve never thought that more choice is a problem,” D’Allaird said.
Research shows that the professor often sets the tone for inclusion in a classroom, followed by the other students, and it’s the same for exclusion, D’Allaird said. “If a teacher openly refuses to correctly gender someone… that sets a tone for the rest of the students as to whether or not they will respect the student.”
D’Allaird said that recent Title IX changes cover transgender people under anti-discrimination policies, including that a transgender student doesn’t have to suffer a hostile class environment. A professor addressing a student with the wrong pronoun is creating a hostile environment.
Strutinskaya said that she hears from students who encounter two types of professors. One makes an effort to use the correct pronouns and truly tries to learn. The other doesn’t much care.
“It’s been a thing where the professor doesn’t acknowledge it and is like, ‘I know that these aren’t the pronouns you like to use, but I’m using these anyways because that’s what I want to use and that’s how I think you should identify,’” she said.
Luntta said that there is no clear or set answer for what happens if students are faced with a professor who refuses to use their preferred pronouns. This is dealt with on a case by case basis.
“If the student has a problem with anything a professor says, there are a series of steps they can take. Essentially that is, go to the professor first, then your advisor, the chair of the department, the dean of the school… It’s a succession of faculty or administration officers who would be able to help resolve the situation for the student,” he said.
Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college, began accepting any student who “identifies as a woman” in 2014, including people born as men who identify as women. Dean of Students Marcella Runell Hall, who has worked in higher education for 15 years, said, “As the national conversation on the issues of gender identity continues, people of all ages likely will feel more comfortable identifying outside of the gender binary, and personal pronouns will be a small but important part of that conversation. Colleges and universities and the nation as a whole must continue the discussion about how to share information about personal pronouns in order to offer more inclusive environments.”
On Campus Pride Index, a tool that ranks campuses on LGBTQ-inclusiveness and helps schools find ways to improve, UAlbany has a 3.5 out of 5 star-rating. Its highest score was LGBTQ student life with 4.5 stars and its lowest was LGBTQ academic life with 2.5 stars. Not every school is in CPI – for example, Saint Rose College and Siena College are missing.
UAlbany is also one of 150 schools in the country that D’Allaird knows of to have a GSRC.
CPI has a list called “LGBTQ policy inclusion,” which tells what the school does in its policies to be inclusive. Two areas where UAlbany is lacking are: the ability to self-identify sexual orientation on application or post-enrollment forms, and the ability to do the same with gender identity.
However, the SUNY system is working on fixing this. In September the SUNY Board of Trustees approved a more inclusive policy, as well as a new data collection tool. With this new tool, all SUNY students could choose to self-identify their gender identity, sexual orientation, and additional statuses (such as veteran status). According to Casey Vattimo, director of public relations for SUNY, the next step is for each SUNY school to create a plan to put the new policy and data collection into effect.
“I think creating more space for people to identify does two things,” said D’Allaird. “One: If you do identify as such, you have a space to claim… Two: It exposes people who have no idea that pronouns even exist, even though they are using pronouns… but never have to think about it.”
Kim, who holds events often as president of Pride Alliance, introduces herself with her name and her pronouns. Adding an option to identify pronouns would make more people aware of the issue and stop the confusion she’s often faced with, Kim said.