By J Beresheim
Certified Teacher of the Visually Impaired & DeafBlind Consultant
High Desert Education Service District

Pronouns: they/them

Disclaimer: This is my own personal experience as a non-binary individual and I do not speak for, or represent, the LGBTQ community as a whole by any means. These are merely suggestions that I have found worked for me throughout my “coming out” journey.

During my junior year of high school, I came out as gay — only to promptly re-enter the metaphorical closet. When I decided to emerge a second time, and actually begin to embrace who I was, it was nearly six years later during my undergraduate degree. The difference between both experiences was the support systems in place, my trust in those around me, and my own personal education regarding the LGBTQ community. This second identity as non-binary has only truly begun to develop and flourish at the age of 26, where I am now comfortable asking people to use non-gendered pronouns such as they or them.

The question then becomes: how do we, as educators, encourage and embrace the wide spectrum of gender identities in our students so that they can identify, voice, and accept themselves far before the age of 26?
Pronouns are a great start. I’ve attempted to narrow it down to 6 quick tips, and some amazing resources, to get you started.

  1. Lead By Example

Take initiative by introducing yourself using the pronouns you identify with. This can occur when addressing your class, at the signature line of your email beneath your name and title, or when introducing yourself to someone new. This not only opens the door for conversation with those who may not have a thorough understanding regarding the intricacies of gender identity or pronoun usage, but also allows individuals with gender nonconforming pronouns to feel comfortable in stating their own without always having to be the first to do so.

I personally wear a small pin on my lanyard that reads ‘Please use they/them pronouns’ and found it on Etsy under gender pronoun pins.

  1. Don’t Worry If You Get It Wrong

If you slip up when using correct pronouns for an individual, correct yourself and carry on. Merely showing that you are aware and are making the effort can be tremendous, and the more you correct yourself initially, the easier the new pronouns will stick.

  1. Understand that Every Journey Is Different

Identities can be fluid – shifting and transforming as individuals try them on like a new sweater. Some may fit, others may become scratchy and itchy after a while, or shrink over time. Be flexible with students if they decide to experiment with their gender identity in a variety of ways such as trying out a new wardrobe or different names. Be patient with your student’s process, and knowledgeable about where they may be coming from in terms of other identities such as culture and religion that may conflict.

  1. Become A Safe Space and Ally

Let students know that your office or room is a safe space for open discussion or voicing of concerns, and try your best to stay updated on terminology regarding the LGBTQ community. This makes it a lot easier on students when they can talk freely without having to define everything they reference, as they may often be placed in the role of ambassador for queer individuals.

You can find premade “Safe Space Kits” on the GLSEN website to help promote visibility of safe spaces in schools and office settings.

  1. Consider Confidentiality

When a student trusts you with this information, take the time to inquire when and where they would like to see these pronouns used. Some individuals may not be out to anyone else but you, and it could become a sticky and unfortunate situation to have you “out” them to others they are not yet ready to divulge this information to.

  1. Embrace Education

Jargon and vocabulary within the LGBTQ community are half the battle, and educating yourself and others allows students to voice their identities and experiences without having to fill you in on definitions every step of the way. This enriches conversations and smoothes the pace of discussion while also showing that you are invested in the community itself.

The Human Rights Campaign has a great, straightforward page on current terms to use.

Additional Resources:

  1. There is a Youtuber who makes awesome, short lessons for younger audiences to discuss a whole realm of queer concepts in an easy to understand manner. The channel is called Queer Kid Stuff and can be found at the following link.
  2. The Genderbread Person is another teaching tool to help distinguish the differences between sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and how all of these concepts work with one another to create you.
  3. The Trevor Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing suicide prevention efforts to the LGBTQ youth community. Their hotline for immediate help is: 1-866-488-7386.
  4. There are many gender books at Deschutes Public Library, as well as online, that cover these topics for any age range of reader. From the children’s book “It Feels Good to Be Yourself” by Theresa Thorn, to a autobiography for adult readers called: “Sissy” by Jacob Tobia.
  5. On a local level, Out Central Oregon (OCO) is a group that supports community inclusion, visibility, and equality for LGBTQ individuals through a variety of events. PFLAG holds a wide variety of meetings and discussions to educate the LGBTQ community as well as the wider populace, and has meetings on the 4th Thursday of each month in Prineville.