Facilitating Student Gender Diversity

blog picHigher education systems are increasingly examining the systems in place to support students who are living as a gender other than their birth sex or who identify as genderqueer or another identity outside of the gender binary (male vs. female), and Widener is no exception. Policies to avoid outing people who are transitioning (but have not yet changed their legal name) and to support their transition (to facilitate them living as a different sex prior to medically transitioning, which is often a prescribed component of transitioning) are essential to the health and well-being of those who are transitioning and/or who identify outside of the gender binary. Led by Sex and Gender Alliance (SAGA) and the LGBT Task Force, Dr. Betsy Crane and Patton Vo recently presented their preliminary plans at a Widener faculty meeting, where it was met with great support. The Senior Leadership Team will be discussing the topic soon, including the logistics of helping this change go well at Widener. There are some situations in which legal name will be required, but the goal is to use the preferred name in as many settings as possible (see this list for an example of those distinct settings). Ideally, the student, staff, or faculty will have to interact with as few people as possible to establish their preferred name across a huge range of campus systems. Though I know this change is logistically complex and thus may take a bit of time to be implemented, I am so thrilled to be at a university that is supportive of students across the gender spectrum (for more information on Widener’s support of LGBT community members, click here).

Other ways in which we can be more sensitive to changing or non-binary gender identities would be to eliminate the use of gendered salutations, such as Mr. and Ms., in our correspondence. The Graduate Center at the City University of New York (where I completed my PhD) recently suggested that all faculty address students by their first names, becoming the first school to instate such a policy (see also a Wall Street Journal article debating this policy).

Finally, there are ways that faculty can provide support in their individual class settings and student interactions. On the first day of class, you can ask students to introduce themselves and to write down their preferred names and gender pronouns. You may also want to include a statement on your syllabus indicating the importance of gender inclusive language to remind students of the importance of gender inclusivity. After that first day, it’s important to be open to changes in gender pronouns and to recognize that mistakes may happen and should be acknowledged.

What do you think? How do we best support students of diverse gender experiences and presentations? What systems would you like to see in place at Widener University?


Brooke Wells, PhD