Supporting Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Students in the First-Year Writing Class

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295044_Kristin Ravel.jpg Kristin Ravel is pursuing her PhD in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research interests encompass multimodality, digital media studies, ethics in communication, and feminist theory.


 transgender flag

As a cisgender instructor, I was always under an unchecked and unquestioned assumption that my courses were supportive to all LGBTQ+ students. I believed that standards of respect and responsibility I worked to prioritize in the classroom would take care of any situation.


I began to question my assumptions when a friend teaching an LGBTQ+ course asked me to recommend writing instructors in our program who were supportive of transgender and gender non-conforming students. I could name lots of instructors off the top of my head who were friendly, approachable, and understanding…but when I stopped to think about actual classroom practices and strategies tied to gender identity, I came up short for suggestions.


At that time, I was part of our WPA team as the English 101 course coordinator. I designed the standardized curriculum, trained new GTAs, and organized and ran the required instructor meetings. In my two years in that position, I couldn’t remember a single conversation, professional development project, or meeting that posed the question of how to support transgender and gender non-conforming students.


I don’t think I’m the only one in this position, and I’m hoping to make up for this neglect now by sharing some strategies for how I retooled my classroom practices.


  • Go out of your way to get educated about LGBTQ+ issues: Although there are a number of sources out there, I’ve found Sherry Zane’s article “Supporting Transgender Students in the Classroom” from Faculty Focus extremely useful for classroom practices. More generally speaking, it’s good to become familiar about issues surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. This could involve getting informed about gender identity yourself or asking what your college campus is doing to ensure there are gender-inclusive facilities, harassment policies, and proper healthcare and counseling available to students of all sexual orientations.


  • Model pronoun etiquette beginning on day one of class: On the first day of class, I tell students I go by she/her and include my pronouns on the syllabus. Additionally, I take a written poll that students turn in to me at the beginning of our first day (as opposed to reading students’ names off a roster). Here is the poll I used this semester:


  • Last name as it appears in university records:
  • Name you use:
  • Pronouns you use:
  • Major/minor/undecided?:
  • Please describe your access to and familiarity with technology (Smartphone? Laptop? Home computer? IPad? Access to Internet at home? Etc.)
  • Anything else you would like your instructor to know about you?


After the poll, students were asked to take turns sharing the name they use, their major, and something they are excited about this semester.

  • Find ways to support rather than draw attention to: It’s best to avoid the word “preferred” in front of pronoun. It’s just “pronoun” (see this video for more information and perspectives). Also, there is no need to force students to share their pronoun out loud in front of the class (see this article for more info). Some classes make the default pronoun “they” until everyone knows each other’s pronouns. In my class, I make it optional. Whatever you choose, it’s important to let students know you recognize their gender identities, but avoid outing.  In sum, pronouns don’t have to be a big deal, and we can make the situation better by treating them that way.
  • Make conversations about gender a part of your curriculum: One benefit writing courses have in allowing for the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming students is that discussing language and how it transforms given social, political, economic, and cultural contexts is (often) already a part of the curriculum. Bringing in texts that discuss gender and the fluidity of gender may help further open these conversations.


For instance, I have found the short webtext “I Heart the Singular They” useful for talking about gender identity while allowing for productive conversations about multimodal rhetorical analysis. Students in my class have noted how the sweet, almost child-like nature of this text may help persuade those who are resistant to accepting singular “they” pronoun identities. Eventually, the discussion led to questions like: Who may be resistant to the singular they and why? Who oversees what we decide is a language rule? What issues or confusion may the singular “they” cause? How does the webtext work to resolve that?


After this discussion, students were asked to write an essay about “I Heart the Singular They” based on what they had learned about multimodal rhetorical analysis in Writer/Designer.


  • Be ready to make mistakes, but also be ready to keep learning: In no way am I perfect at supporting my transgender and gender non-conforming students. I have made and will continue to make mistakes—there is no doubt about this. But the difference, I have found is admitting those mistakes and finding ways to do better next time. Doing better next time, however, does not mean depending on the educational and emotional labor of the oppressed. There are plenty of books and online resources out there already. Rather than asking questions like “What can I do better?” directly, take the initiative to figure that out yourself (this goes back to point #1). Some of my favorite go-to resources are Black Girl Dangerous and Autostraddle. If you find them helpful too, it’s a good idea to throw some financial support their way so they can keep producing content.

I wanted to end by inviting others into this discussion: What are your favorite resources for supporting LGBTQ+ students? What about resources specifically for supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students? What do you do in your classes now or what do you hope to change?

Thanks to Bridget Kies, Kristin Prins, Ali Sperling, and Rachael Sullivan for all the help and conversations that made this post possible.