Being Inclusive of Gender Non-Conforming Students in College Settings

Cultural competency as defined by Cross, Bazron, Dennis, and Isaacs (1989) is an agency or system’s ability “to value diversity, have a capacity for cultural self assessment, be conscious of the dynamics inherent when cultures interact, have institutionalized culture knowledge, and have developed adaptations to service delivery reflecting an understanding of diversity.” To be a culturally competent educator according to the definition above one must be able to adapt curriculum to reflect their student’s culture. Gender is just one of many facets comprising someone’s personal culture. In a recent survey of college students 31% of respondents identified as gender non-conforming (Rankin et. al, 2010). Gender non-conforming means an individual does not feel they fit with the societal two-gender or gender binary system and neither identifies as male nor female.

Before entering a teaching situation it is important for educators to first reflect on any bias or stereotypes they have personally maintained (Case et al, 2009; Gross-Davis, 1999). For example, “a person with a beard is man” or “a person wearing a dress is likely a woman”. While these may be true assumptions in some cases, a gender non-conforming student may still present as male or female but identify as neither. Do not assume to know a person’s gender identity based on their outward gender expressions. Use those assumptions as a framework for changing and expanding one’s personal concepts of gender to be less based in the gender binary. In cases such as these it is appropriate to use neutral gender pronouns instead of using one’s assumptions to refer to them as he/him or she/her.

While reflecting on personal biases, one can also reflect on their language patterns (Gross-Davis, 1999). Think: When giving an example am I more likely to favor using he/him or she/her? Work on using gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them when gender is not otherwise specified. This change may not seem overly significant but in the long-term it can be way of changing larger scale language patterns to be more inclusive of “they” as a singular pronoun (Shlasko, 2015). Shlasko continues that the singular “they” is taught in formal educational settings to not be used but this rule does not really fit into modern language patterns. Continued use of “they” as a singular pronoun helps legitimize and support those with gender non-conforming identities. Linda Wayne (2005) adds, “Replacing gendered with neutral pronouns is the next responsible step in the struggle to create a nondiscriminatory common language insofar as it expands the definition of sexism to include the bias inherent in a rigid two-sex system as well as gender bias”.

In addition to paying more attention to personal word choices, educators should also look at what pronouns are frequently used in the texts for the course. Avoid texts that have preferences for masculine pronouns when gender-neutral ones are available. Texts that are inclusive to all genders will make students feel more comfortable and have an easier time relating to the material (Case et al, 2009; Gross-Davis, 1999).   In addition to paying more attention to personal words choices, educators can find benefit in staying up to date on terminology used by the population being instructed.

Do establish affirming pronouns. Identifying affirming pronouns is a way to open the classroom to discussions of more difficult topics in sexuality by increasing comfort levels of students. Affirming pronouns can be addressed in a variety of ways.   Students can be asked to fill out tags that include their name and affirming pronoun. Affirming pronouns can be stated by volunteer basis; seeing classmates share can encourage others to feel comfortable doing so as well. Adding preferred pronouns to introduction or icebreaker activities could be a great way to turn the classroom into a safe space.

Take time with students to develop a set of classroom rules (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996, p.126-128). It is important that all opinions are heard on this matter so breaking up students into small groups will ensure that everyone can have their voice heard. Allowing for students to make their own classroom guidelines can increase comfort levels when it comes to sharing and divulging personal information. Give the students a chance to introduce their rules, but feel free to make suggestions and edits. Make sure that respecting affirming pronouns makes the list.

 A useful, visual tool for educators when opening up discussions of gender is “The Genderbread person” (Killermann, 2014). The Genderbread person illustrates how gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation are not just binary systems but rather fall along a range of possibilities. It also helps explain the differences between gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex. Some students may not come into the class with any prior knowledge of this information so it is important to show them a good visual representation via The Genderbread person.   Educators should be prepared to answer questions and give unbiased responses.

Teach about microaggressions and their impact on those who experience them. Microaggressions are small injustices committed against minority groups that can either be on purpose or unintentional (Durham-Fowler, 2013). Students who fit the gender binary may be unaware of the daily tribulations of those who are gender non-conforming. A great way to open discussion on microaggressions is to show the video “Microaggressions in Everyday Life” (2010). After viewing the video students can answer several questions in small groups such as “What are some examples of gender-based microaggressions you have witnessed or personally experienced?” “Can you think of a time you made a microaggression against gender non-conforming?” “What are some ways in which you can become more aware of everyday microaggressions?”

Introducing new teaching practices to be inclusive of gender non-conforming students helps provide a safer learning environment. Altering personal language use to include using “they” as a singular pronoun is not only respectful to students but helps dismantle larger based biases in the culture of language. It is important to establish classroom rules that respect affirming pronouns of students and set up an environment that reduces hurtful comments. Many of these practices are beneficial for teaching many varying groups. In the end, effective, culturally competent educators seek to be inclusive of all populations not just gender non-conforming students.


Case, K., Stewart, B. & Tittsworth, J. (2009). Transgender across the curriculum: A

psychology for inclusion. Teaching of Psychology, 36 (2), 117–121.

Cross, T., Bazron, B., Dennis, K., & Isaacs, M., (1989). Towards A Culturally Competent

System of Care, Volume I. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Child

Development Center, CASSP Technical Assistance Center.

Durham-Fowler, J. (2013). School based microaggressions: Implications for socially

just school psychology practice. School Psychologist. From:

Hedgepeth, E. & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about Sexuality and HIV. New York,

NY: New York University Press

Killermann, Sam. (2014). Genderbread Person v. 3.3. Retrieved from:

Rankin, S., Weber, G., Blumenfeld, W., & Frazer, S. (2010) State of Higher Education

for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People. Charlotte: Campus Pride.

Shlasko, D. (2015). How using they as a singular pronoun can change the world.


Sue, D.W. (2010) Microaggressions in everyday life. From:

Wayne, L. D. (N/A). Neutral pronouns: A modest proposal whose time has come.

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9 responses to “Being Inclusive of Gender Non-Conforming Students in College Settings

  1. Wow! I am surprised at the high number of gender non-conforming students! 31% is a much higher number than I would have thought. Is this number reflective of the larger population or is there something specific about the college setting that impacts this percentage?
    I appreciate that you address this issue thoroughly, from the language a facilitator uses down to specific lessons. I wonder what your thoughts on students voluntarily stating their affirming pronouns. How exactly should an instructor create the space to allow for or encourage students to volunteer this information? I do not think this would happen organically. Thoughts?

  2. I have found the genderbread person a great tool for teaching in a classroom, it helps students “get it” more with the help of the visual aid.
    I also had no idea that 31% of college students considered themselves non-gender conforming. Let’s all teach at that college! 🙂 The microaggression video is a great resource thanks!

  3. I currently work for a single-sex training facility and much of what is suggested here could work in that situation as well. It is easy, especially in a program defined by helping women enter the workforce it can be easy to fall into language traps, or the assumption that everyone in the room relates to gender in the same way- but we know better, don’t we? Your inclusion of how microaggressions can shape a students experience in the classroom was really on point. Thanks!

  4. You said it perfectly, teachers need to recognize their own assumptions/biases before stepping foot inside the class room. I’ve been to workshops where our seats were pre-determined by our assumed genders. This left some people feeling uncomfortable and helpless. Many people will not step forward if incorrectly categorized. Should we always expect them to? If teachers can work to deconstruct their assumptions and develop more inclusive-language, they can create a more comfortable space for everyone before they even walk in the door. We should stress methods of preventing situations where students feel uncomfortable rather then stress methods of reacting to discomfort. Great post!

  5. Wow, 31%! This program has made me so much more aware of gender non-conformity. Before this program, none of my previous professors asked to know my preferred pronouns. I think it is important for professors to address before a class begins. They should send out an e-mail asking to know a little bit about each person, including their preferred pronouns. I would like to teach at the college-level and want to create a gender-inclusive environment in my classroom, so thank you for this post and the resources. Great job!

  6. I want to echo a lot of what other people have been saying. Regardless of how many people identify as gender non-conforming, I think it is important to help create and foster a world where we make as many people as comfortable as possible. Something that I talk to a lot of people about (both inside and outside this program) are the small changes we can make to our vocabulary to make a class setting (and, you know, the world) more inclusive. Saying things like “attracted to different genders” or “another gender” rather than “opposite genders”, and (as you highlight) using gender neutral pronouns whenever the gender of the individual is not explicitly known.
    I definitely like the idea of going over pronouns outside of the class setting so if a gender non-conforming individual does not wish to be “out” to the class, strategies of navigation can be discussed with the instructor one on one to avoid discomfort.
    I think you’ve done a really good job at both amassing resources and providing a good rational for putting them into practice. I think it’s easy for people to say “this might be important in some situations, but not the one that I find myself in”, and I think you provide some strong arguments to the contrary.
    Let’s all strive for a world where this is a lesson that all educators are receiving and, in turn, passing on to their students!

    • I found that in my time of exploring especially gender expression and gender identity I tend to default “they/them” pronouns until someone has identified with how they prefer to be addressed.
      I also think that these open environments can be fostered really early, and should be addressed since birth. By being an active parent in helping your child discover their identity is really important, and being an open teacher in this environment as well can really help a student. I find that when kids are younger they tend not to really “care” about gender identity, and just express themselves freely. As students grow older and move into discovering their identity they form themselves into the molds society has created for them, and as they form into the gender binary. By creating an environment from birth to identify and love whomever is so important, and if you’re an educator it can be done from the time you get the kids until they leave.
      It’s so tough, to do but SO important.

    • I had never heard of phrases like “attracted to another gender” instead of “opposite gender” or the even worse “opposite sex”. I have been using they/them/theirs for a number of years and tell my grammar strict friends that it is grammatically correct and has been so for centuries. I also want to ditto others that I love the Gingerbread person! It is a great tool to explain the lack of a binary in greater detail.

  7. Thanks for writing about this topic! I have found that when I teach young people (13-17) they often do not know what a pronoun is, let alone gender. I often have to begin icebreakers explaining gender and then pronouns, to even get a response beyond “female pronouns, please” (which I think defeats the purpose of asking for pronouns). I have also had this come up when working with adults, so I do think it is beneficial to have ready or include a little breakdown about gender and/or pronouns so students/participants know how to answer the question. I also provide examples of gender neutral pronouns beyond they/them.

    I think it is really awesome the time we are living in when just the other day, my new feed was filled with conversations about B Jenner and using correct pronouns for them! So awesome!

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