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Being transgender, especially at this time in our history, is challenging on both a personal and a social level. As someone who is increasingly leaning into sharing my story with students and colleagues in higher education, I realize that there are elements of my own experience that can shape and influence the ways in which others interact with and support students, friends and colleagues who are gender diverse (e.g., gender nonconforming, gender nonbinary, agender, transgender). And, as a midlevel, trans female administrator in higher education, I am profoundly aware of how intentional day-to-day practices can foster a greater sense of inclusion and belonging for the members of our community who are gender diverse.

There are few things more challenging in my life than explaining what it means to be transgender to those of you who are cisgender; however, a near-death experience last year led me to make a connection between the ways in which we ask ourselves questions about our existence and what it means to be transgender. At some point in our lives, all of us face situations where we ask ourselves existential questions. What does it mean to exist? Why am I here? Does my life have value? Life events such as accidents, diseases or the death of a friend or family member often cause us to reflect deeply on some of the questions framing our existence.

For me, the challenge I face with being transgender is that I’m asking myself significant existential questions every day. They frame the way I see myself and the way in which I choose to move through the world. Why do I exist? Should I exist? Is my existence valid? Do I deserve the rights I’m afforded? To what extent do others feel like I should exist? I ask myself these types of questions, consciously and unconsciously, throughout the day, every day. And while being born in a body that is misaligned with my gender identity makes these questions challenging enough, I also live in a country where 32 percent of the population would answer these questions with, “No, you shouldn’t exist.” “Your existence is not valid.” “Your gender identity is a choice.” “You don’t deserve any specific rights.”

I can, and I do, push those voices aside. I know who I am. I’m proud of who I am. But I also question who I am, constantly. The doubts creep in. The struggles compound. And the extent to which I’m “happy” with myself fluctuates in relation to the ways in which I think about these very fundamental existential questions. Most importantly, other people’s actions—most often when they misgender me as male by using the wrong pronoun—can have a dramatic impact on how I think about myself.

When I first came out, and for probably a good 12 to 18 months, being misgendered did not really faze me. I was in the honeymoon period of my coming-out experience. After 40 years in the closet, it felt wonderful that I could simply be who I am.

Now, a little more than two years after I came out publicly, I am mostly seen and treated as I want to be. I work with wonderful and supportive colleagues. I move through my community with relative ease. And most of those who know or infer that I’m trans treat me with kindness and respect.

However, I do still get misgendered on a somewhat regular basis. Maybe once every other day or so, on average. Much of the time, being referred to as the wrong gender just rolls off my back. Often I correct people; many times I don’t. I usually feel like people are better off correcting themselves or that others might say something either in the moment or after. However, just because I don’t say something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect me. And occasionally, the effects can be considerable.

Being misgendered affects me most significantly when it leads me to raise some of those same existential questions about myself and my gender identity. “Is my existence valid?” “Does this person see me as something other than how I identify?” “Are people simply treating me as I want to be treated, rather than seeing me for who I am?” “Why do I exist as I do?” What may be hard for some people to understand is the nature of the self-talk that accompanies these questions. When I am affected by misgendering, these questions and my self-talk can devolve into a downward spiral. Everything feels heavy. Everything feels challenging. Even while I’m in the midst of it, it amazes me that a single comment or instance of misgendering can lead to significant identity contemplation and disappointment. While these experiences are challenging personally, they are also at the heart of why I do what I do in terms of trying to foster a more gender-inclusive campus and society.

Those of us in leadership positions in higher education have both an opportunity and a responsibility to create workplace environments that are gender inclusive. We can be intentional about our own practices and also work to create an office, department or program culture that is thoughtful and intentional about being inclusive. While many people who are cisgender, and especially those who identify as female, may think about their gender on a regular basis, those of us who are transgender think about it all the time. Therefore, inclusive practices and interactions can have a profound impact on how we perceive our colleagues, work environments and communities.

What follows are a series of practices regarding pronouns, spoken language and written communications that can help to foster more gender-inclusive campuses. While several of these are somewhat basic, most colleges and universities lack any real consistency in terms of their use. Adopting and employing these practices is the responsibility of every person on campus, but especially those in positions of leadership. Midlevel administrators (e.g., associate deans, associate provosts, center directors, heads of offices) have a significant amount of influence in terms of office practices and policies.


Sharing of pronouns should become a regular and natural part of campus culture in the same manner we share names. People shouldn’t be required to share their pronouns, but making the option to share pronouns a regular part of introductions and meetings is essential. If such an opportunity is not available, then people who are gender diverse either have to bring their pronouns up on their own or risk being misgendered throughout a meeting or event.

Sharing pronouns should be optional, because a person who is gender diverse and closeted may experience considerable frustration or gender dysphoria when “forced” to share pronouns with which they don’t identify. However, at the same time, if the sharing of pronouns is not part of campus culture, then that same individual might not feel like campus is a place where they can be out.

While closeted, I struggled with this situation for years. I appreciated the practice of sharing pronouns in certain settings but struggled internally with the fact I was sharing pronouns that didn’t align with my gender identity. I can still remember the feeling of creating space for my own students to share their pronouns on the first day of class the semester I came out and realizing that it was the last time I had to share pronouns that didn’t align with who I am.

Additionally, if sharing pronouns is not a normalized occurrence, then people might only ask someone’s pronouns when they aren’t sure about how a person’s gender presentation relates to their identity. For people who are gender diverse, this may lead to awkward interactions that feel uncomfortable at best and are harmful at worst. If those running a meeting or class begin by modeling the sharing of pronouns, it creates a space for others to choose to follow.

The visibility of pronouns on Zoom also has multiple benefits. First, it is an easy way for someone who is gender diverse to share their pronouns. If pronouns are listed after someone’s name, they are easily visible and accessible. At the same time, including pronouns in your Zoom profile can be an important way to signal your desire to be inclusive to students and colleagues. Not everyone sees pronouns on Zoom in this manner, but many of us who are gender diverse feel that a cisgender person including their pronouns communicates a certain level of intentionality and respect.

Finally, including pronouns on name tags for events and conferences means that people who are gender diverse have a way to share their pronouns that is passive, rather than active. When I am wearing a name tag that does not include my pronouns, I experience a certain amount of anxiety as to whether someone is going to interpret my gender expression as I hope they will. I can be wearing a dress, tights, heels and makeup but still be referred to as “he,” most often because my voice is lower in frequency. We use name tags as a means to help people get to know one another; therefore, they should always include the option for pronouns.

Spoken Language

Becoming proficient in using gender-inclusive language takes time and practice. It has to be something you use at all times. If you only use gender-inclusive language when someone who is gender diverse is in the room, you are much more likely to make a mistake and misgender someone.

At the core of developing this practice is the idea that if you don’t know the gender identity of someone, don’t assume. It is a good practice to use “they” as a reference for anyone for whom you do not know their gender identity. This can take practice; one of my colleagues refers to it as “reprogramming our brains.” However, historically, many of us often use they/them as a singular pronoun. “Oh, where did Alex go?” “They went to grab something from their car.”

Written Communications

We also need to be intentional about our written communications. When interacting with or talking about someone over email, it’s essential to either use the correct pronouns or not assume someone’s gender based only on their name. Additionally, we need to eliminate gendered language from forms, surveys, job ads and other official communications.

Because surveys and forms often include questions about demographic data, my institution developed a policy regarding forms and surveys that ask questions about identity, standardizing response options while also standardizing the inclusion of a text box that respondents can use to offer clarification or comments. The intention of this policy—which addresses various categories such as gender identity, sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation, pronouns, disability status, race and ethnicity—is to be more inclusive. We want people to feel seen and respected when interacting with forms and surveys. We also wanted to collect data in a manner that is consistent so that it can be compared and/or combined and disaggregated and shared as appropriate, to help our community see where we’ve made progress or where work is still needed.


As a midlevel administrator in higher education, what I worry about most are the young people in our midst. For many, college may be the first time they feel at liberty to present their authentic self. Many of our gender-diverse students and colleagues are wrestling with the existential questions explored above and doing so while trying to figure out so many other aspects of their personal, social and future professional lives. If anything in this essay resonates with your own realities, I hope that it will underscore the importance of creating, upholding and maintaining a gender-inclusive community for all students, staff and faculty. Every interaction, policy and practice matters.

My hope for our future is that when young people on our campuses ask existential questions such as “Is my existence valid?” “Do I deserve the rights I’m afforded?” “To what extent do others feel like I should exist?” the answers that they hear in their heads and on their campuses are “Your existence is valid,” “Your gender identity is beautiful” and “You deserve the same specific rights, privileges and respect as everyone else.”

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