Sometimes I have students in my classroom who appear to be non-gender conforming. My only concern as an educator is to inspire students to explore their studies – I don’t care their gender identity, anatomy, genetics, or preferences. I’m just trying to do right by them in teaching programming and digital media.

Many transgender individuals conceal their status for fear of discrimination or violence, but I happen to know one trans woman who is open and willing to speak her mind on the subject. Here is a transcript of our conversation (minimally edited, for privacy):

Aaron: “Hi – would it be ok if I were to ask a “trans etiquette” question? I’m adjunct faculty at CUNY, and I want to run my classrooms in as inclusive a fashion as possible. You might be the only person I can think of who is ideally qualified to give a little guidance. But if it’s invasive or offensive, feel free to decline..”

Gemma: “Sure, if you think I can help.”

Aaron: Sometimes I’ll have a student with “gender issues” that I can’t identify. Unisex first name, bulky clothes obscuring body shape, etc. Often they seem to shrink away from attention.

I’ve been treading very lightly around these individuals, in the interest of “do no harm”, but I wonder if maybe asking a few questions might make me a better “ally”? Or do you think it’s best to just leave people alone who seem to want to be left alone (even if “coming out of their shell” is an important part of the education they’re potentially missing out on).

QUESTION 1: Early in the semester, before I know students’ well enough to address them by name, I sometimes have to say “him” or “her”. I thought of quietly asking person-I-can’t-identify “are you a boy or a girl”, or the more modern “what are your pronouns”, but somehow this seems to me like it has the potential for the question itself to be super-offensive. Any insights how to handle delicately?

QUESTION 2: An important part of my classes is critique: presenting and defending one’s work. Normally I push students pretty hard to participate (the feedback is never cruel, and ‘breaking the ice’ with this experience is vital to creative careers). Sometimes the “possibly differently-gendered” person is extremely shy… . Here’s the hard part, though: I don’t know if they’re trans. Maybe it’s just a shy young lady sitting in the corner, who happens to wear boyish clothes. Or a young man with a delicate voice and natural coloring that resembles make-up. Is it ever okay (or not okay) to ask someone’s “status”? Now, I know that trans persons may be fearing a very real potential for emotional or physical abuse, so I would be inclined to “give them a break” and let them opt out of classroom activities that would put a spotlight on them. Is that helping or hurting?

Obviously I know you don’t “speak for all trans persons”, but even one person’s perspective would be valuable to me, if you’re able to give it. Either way, thanks for your time.

Gemma: QUESTION 1: The question should really not be taken as offensive by anyone who is actually gender variant. It is possible that some anti-trans people might take offense at it. I believe the best practice is to ask.

Gemma: QUESTION 2: It’s considered rude to ask someone directly about their sex/gender identity. The whole purpose of asking someone which pronouns they use/prefer/identify with is to side-step this question outside the medical need-to-know context.

I do not speak for all trans people. However, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I do not take a position of leadership in the trans community. I work for a diversity, inclusion, and equity-focused social justice NPO/NGO, and as a lesbian trans woman of mixed racial/ethnic heritage, I am well-grounded in what is considered current best practice in the community, because I make it my business to know.

I would not say it is best to leave people alone. Sex/gender-variant people often need encouragement/assurance that their participation is welcome and valuable. I think you should continue to gently include people in whatever conversation or activity you are planning or conducting.

One of the reasons why there is a lot of rancor between certain cis lesbians and trans women is because cis lesbians often adopt a gender-ambiguous or even a clearly masculine appearance in their dress and mannerisms, and so, given that there are more “butch” lesbians than trans women, many times cis women are mistaken for trans women who simply don’t look very feminine, or as the saying goes, “pass” as cis/female/whatever.

I hope that this is helpful. Nothing you are asking about is offensive or invasive to me. I’ve often said to others that sex/gender is so important, such a central pillar of our social identities that in most cases, we are sexed and/or gendered before we are even named, and in a lot of cases, before we are even born. Sex/gender is one of the first descriptors assigned to all of us, so it forms one of the most basic assumptions about social interactions, and anatomically modern humans have existed for about 2 million years, while human civilisation has only existed for about 10,000 years, with written history extending back not much more than about 4000 years.

This stuff is literally baked into us and into our environment. No one expects it to change in a few short years, or even a single generation. The modern understanding of trans people in our society only extends back to about the 1960s, so we are the first generation to address these issues clearly.

Aaron: Thanks very much for your detailed and thoughtful response!

Aaron Sylvan Collar with Safety Pin (photo taken 2016-11-12, preparation for 45th President)

Aaron Sylvan Collar with Safety Pin (photo taken 2016-11-12, preparation for 45th President)