Gender and language clash with higher education


Carly Davis

Graphic above by Jordan Lee.
This article uses irregular pronouns as they are the correct way of attributing quotes to sources, whose identities provide valuable perspectives and deserve respect. If you find difficulty in reading neopronouns, proper pronouns and other gender neutral language, take your time to understand their presence in the following article. For resources on practicing with irregular pronouns, visit and
Augustana has made strides towards gender inclusivity in recent years, but the problems transgender and nonbinary students face aren’t with Augustana as an institution, but rather with the language and attitudes of our society.
Before the start of the 2020-21 school year, Augustana instituted a new preferred name change policy through the Office of the Registrar. Using a self-service portal, students can request that their preferred name appear different from their legal first name in most areas of the college, excluding financial and academic documentation.
The policy isn’t specifically targeted towards trans and gender nonconforming students, but it does give them the ability to affirm their identity in campus spaces. In addition to name changing, students may also submit a flag in Starfish to ask for gender-affirming support.
Gender-affirming support requests are only able to be viewed by Dr. Kiki Kosnick, Augustana’s LGBTQ+ liaison, who can provide individualized support and resources while keeping the student’s information private.
But while the school may accommodate students on an procedural level, affirmative campus attitudes often seem performative when it comes to transgender and nonbinary issues. Pronoun circles, the practice of giving your pronouns with your name when you first meet a group of people, often fall into this trap.
“Some people, I’m learning, don’t want to have to share that information,” Dr. Michelle Wolff, assistant professor of religion, said. For many people, gender identity is a private matter and discussing it with unfamiliar peers can feel uncomfortable.
Pronoun circles are intended to create a welcome space for students to disclose their pronouns in order to prevent future problems. However, most students in those circles often identify as cisgender and introduce themselves with binary pronouns, putting pressure on gender-nonconforming students.
“I feel like the times where there’s been pronoun circles, it definitely feels like I am an outcast and I really dislike it,” Devin Oliva-Farrell, junior, said. Oliva-Farrell uses the neopronoun set ze/zir, and often is the only student in a group using irregular pronouns.
Neopronouns function in the exact same way as binary pronouns, but they allow an individual to use language without necessarily invoking gender. While the concept is simple, ze/zir and other irregular pronoun users find tension in cisgender spaces where those pronouns are rarely used.
Despite zir discomfort, Oliva-Farrell recognizes the position of cisgender students in pronoun circles. “I’m always trying to be very supportive of other people. I get they’re trying and it’s a new experience, but it’s also just frustrating,” ze said.
Pronoun circles are not without their benefits. Cisgender students, if not  close with their peers who use irregular pronouns, will rarely have experiences using pronouns that differ from what they’ve grown up using. Meeting students who use different pronouns allows those students to exist outside of a diversity training seminar and makes their existence more relevant to cisgender students.
Additionally, understanding that irregular pronouns are an option opens up doors for students who had not been aware of them before. Knowing gender-nonconforming students in real life makes exploring one’s identity seem less daunting.
“Being in an environment where I could talk about [gender identity] without feeling like I’m alienating other people or feeling alienated myself was really important to me,” Cassandra Karn, senior, said. While they had been considering their own gender identity before taking a WGSS class taught by Dr. Kiki Kosnick, they benefited from K’s teaching environment.
Kosnick, who instructs classes in both WGSS and French language, establishes the importance of correct pronoun use without necessitating that students share that information. “In my classrooms, I don’t ask people to share pronouns out loud or anything like that. I ask people to write to me individually if they want me to know things about them,” K said.
Creating spaces where students can learn about gender identity openly, and without necessarily outing other students, is vital to protecting transgender and gender nonconforming students. Placing one’s pronouns in an optional context, such as social media profiles, helps to create that welcoming environment.
When pronouns are compulsorily shared in an introductory context, gender nonconforming students are put in a position where they have to educate their peers. They’re obligated to expend mental energy to help cisgender students accomodate them more readily, which is an unnecessary effort in what is meant to be a safe space.
Safe spaces, though, need to address the needs of every person rather than a few. “I don’t believe in the idea of a safe space,” Kosnick said, “because you never can control what’s actually going to be safe for a person.”
Pronoun circles inadvertently place gender-nonconforming students in the spotlight when the entire point of those circles is to normalize the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Additionally, pronoun circles falsely correlate a student’s gender identity with the pronouns they use.
Kosnick refrains from making students share their pronouns in class for that reason, among others. “Recognizing the difference between misgendering and mispronouning can also be important,” K said. “Because many people’s pronouns do align with their gender identity, people forget that pronoun usage and gender identity are still separate things.”
It’s a common misconception. While irregular pronouns are incredibly beneficial to gender nonconforming as well as questioning students, they are limited to those groups. Cisgender people can use irregular pronouns just as readily as anyone else.
Just in the way that sex and gender are different, gender and pronouns are as well. Gender identity involves the experience of an individual, but that individual’s pronouns are simply the language they use to navigate the world.
“It’s hard for me to talk about gender without talking about language,” Kosnick said. After a lot of use, the language we are equipped with to talk about topics becomes inseparable from the topics themselves.
A nonbinary student may not necessarily use gender-neutral pronouns. Odds are, you’ve met plenty of nonbinary students at Augustana who haven’t disclosed their identity to you. Oftentimes, questioning and nonbinary students use binary pronouns for social convenience.
They/them pronouns, which are the most commonly used gender-neutral pronouns, operate in a very similar way. People who use they/them, despite identifying themselves with the same language, can have vastly different experiences and gender identities. A person who feels kinship with both masculinity and femininity may use they/them pronouns just as validly as a person who doesn’t care to identify with any gender at all.
As a term, “nonbinary” doesn’t indicate a singular gender identity. It can, for some people. But it’s a blanket term, and assuming that “nonbinary” acts as a third option for people is harmful.
Nonbinary identities are expansive, and the growing need for language equipped to navigate them brought about neopronouns.
“Neopronouns are ways to refer to people without necessarily invoking gender,” Karn said. “I think neopronouns are really important because gender identity isn’t a fixed thing.”
Karn uses multiple pronouns, a common practice for gender-nonconforming people. Incorporating neopronouns into zir pronoun sets helps to more accurately convey zir identity. “Even “they” has connotations to it already,” Karn said.
As they/them pronouns have become more common, they’ve begun to operate as a third option, secondary to she/her and he/him. The pronoun set is too often treated like a separate identity in itself rather than as a tool for people with various identities
As nonbinary identities are increasingly recognized, they/them pronouns have also developed associations with the individuals who utilize them — which is the precise problem for people who don’t want to be associated with someone else’s gender presentation.
“Unfortunately, part of our culture is that people think they can know you by looking at you,” Wolff said. “People think they can tell what your race is, they think they can tell what your gender identity is, and your sexuality and all these other pieces of information so they don’t have to actually get to know you.”
In order to fully prevent assuming a person’s pronouns or identity, based on appearance, the safest course of action is to simply prioritize gender identity and presentation less.
“Let’s just make it a thing where it’s more based on using people’s names,” Oliva-Farrell said. Using other identifiers helps to lessen the necessity of knowing someone’s gender identity when they’d rather not disclose it and characterize them with other things instead.
“Ultimately, what is your core identity? What is the main thing about you that you want someone to know?” Wolff said. “That can be an attribute. It doesn’t have to be a hobby or a job.”
According to Wolff, identity doesn’t necessarily have to center on gender or similar labels. “What if someone said “Oh, I’m really thankful. I feel a lot of gratitude. So the way I move in the world is as a person of gratitude,”” they said.
Thinking of your peers with deeper identifiers helps to connect you to people in your life and places the emphasis on how a person lives rather than who they live as. Establishing those interpersonal connections in a vital part of the college experience.
Augustana’s liberal arts education allows students to connect issues across fields, and the problems of identity and expression affect students regardless of their focus in their time at the college.
“If it’s a more open environment, I feel a lot more comfortable asserting my pronouns, but there are still some environments where it feels like it’s difficult to,” Karn said.
Students who want to help in affirming their peers can make an effort to be active allies. The easiest way to do so is to consciously educate yourself instead of relying on transgender and nonbinary peers to educate you
“The way I can tell someone’s really, genuinely trying to be an ally is just actually practicing those pronouns outside those spaces,” Oliva-Farrell said. To zir, good allies should make an effort to go to meetings, seek out information, and reflect on their own time. Mentally practicing with irregular pronouns can be immensely helpful in incorporating them into casual use.
A student doesn’t have to be close with people who use neopronouns or other gender-neutral options in order to normalize their use. Good allyship requires a conscious attempt at entering the conversation, which means educating yourself and creating safe environments for your gender-nonconforming peers.
“Once I started getting validation from my friends, it was easier to say to professors, “these are my pronouns,” and to publicly start telling people,” Karn said. “Hearing your friends call you by those pronouns is really affirming and it made me feel more comfortable with telling the rest of the world.”