The Great Importance of a Little Pronoun

The Great Importance of a Little Pronoun

Posted on May 23, 2016

2 comments 1470 Views

Being Aware of Students’ Preferred Pronouns

By Kathryn Ayres

Gender symbol - male, female, trans

In the midst of the North Carolina House Bill 2, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, and the most recent Target boycott, the conversation around what it means to be transgender has reached a heightened level of awareness in our country. The issue in both of these examples hinges on the use of public restrooms, but encompasses the broader issue of gender identity.

Imagine you are looking at two blue signs. Not defined by any other features, one sign depicts an individual wearing pants and the other sign an individual wearing a dress or skirt. Which of these would you most closely align with? Aside from clothing, these restroom signs do not dictate whether or not the head above them is biologically male or female. Our society has defined these signs the designation of the pants wearing individual to male and the dress wearing individual to female. This familiar definition does not take into account the gender identity an individual feels.

A very basic question of self-identity

The bathroom they choose to go into is just one issue faced by a transgender individual. The other, very basic question is how they identify their own gender, and the pronoun they prefer.

Abby's House Logo - a line drawing of a house resting in a line drawing of two hands. In the middle of the house is a heart. One of the questions Western Oregon University can ask in regards to this issue, in hopes of creating a more comfortable atmosphere, is why being aware of a students’ preferred gender pronoun is important on campus. To answer this question, I turned to the Director of Abby’s House, Center for Women and Families, Dr. Mary Ellen Dello Stritto.

“Bottom line,” Dello Stritto said, “we need to be an inclusive campus, we need to be and generally are, but there is always room for growth.” It is impossible to always know what pronoun each individual is interested in going by. For Dr. Dello Stritto, “this is all about inclusion.”

Preferred gender pronouns (PGP) 

Consciousness of individual’s preferred gender pronouns (PGP) has become a more prevalent concern on college campuses recently, as seen in a myriad of different articles this past fall from USA Today, National Review, and dozens of college newspapers. As seen in recent news stories, it is also crossing over to be an issue off campus, into public spaces as well.

The steps that faculty, staff, and other individuals around campus can take to be aware of this are simpler than one might think. Just ask.

The practice of calling roll on the first day of class and asking that each student give their preferred pronoun, “creates an equitable environment, and the transgender individual doesn’t stick out, and that becomes the norm,” said Dello Stritto.

Asking for PGP is more common in gender studies classes

Mary Ellen Dello Stritto, Ph.D.Having taught for 16 years, Dr. Dello Stritto knows that asking for the PGP is more common in gender studies classes. “I’m not sure if this is happening in the classroom, where students have the most concerns,” Dello Stritto continued. “It’s a burden for students to make private meetings with professors [to discuss this]. If we open with ‘give me your pronoun’ it reduces the burden and sends a message of inclusion.”

Dello Stritto reflected on the resistance to this change. She addressed the people who might say, “Do we really need to do that?” “Isn’t it a small number?” “What are the odds?” Her answer is, “It’s a good practice and it makes us think about being inclusive, having appropriate practices, and thinking of gender in a different way rather than the traditional sense of checking the boxes of male and female.”

Respecting each person's sense of self

Dr. Dello Stritto’s response to how this can be exemplified on Western’s campus does not have to end at the boundaries of this college. The practices of inclusion and adopting appropriate practices allows for the individuals choosing bathrooms in North Carolina or at Target to feel welcome to use the one that they feel fits their personal definition. It allows all people to feel included when being referred to with their preferred pronoun, and allows for college campuses, and the outside world, to respect each person’s sense of self.

Kathryn Ayres is a Project Assistant at TRI. She graduated from Pacific Lutheran University in May of 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Environmental Studies. Kate started working with TRI in October of 2015, and will be leaving soon to pursue a Master's degree in Environmental Policy.

Transgender graphic by


Kate and Mary Ellen, thank you for this article! Well done and timely.

Pat Ketcham

Posted May 25, 2016 by Pat Ketcham

Insightful connection between what's happening in other state's policies and local supports on WOU's campus. Thank you.

Posted May 26, 2016 by Hilda Rosselli

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