Preferred pronouns in public schools

Kelsey Pegg is among the thousands of people who conclude their emails with four simple words. They/them/their pronouns. 

“Including your pronouns, whether or not someone asks, allows for two things. First, it makes it clear what your pronouns are right away. It doesn’t leave it up for discussion, and it doesn’t allow them to assume someone’s gender identity based off their appearance,” Pegg, a provisionally licensed professional counselor at the Counseling Hub, said. “Second, it allows for a space where people are comfortable to share their gender identity.”

International Pronouns Day was recognized on Oct. 21 and takes place on the third Wednesday of October each year. According to their website, they strive to make “respecting, sharing, and educating about personal pronouns commonplace.” Pegg noted, however, that even though there are advocates that promote inclusion for non-binary people, discrimination is still prominent.

“People are forced to pick between female or male bathrooms, some school systems refuse to change students names if they decide to change names, and people don’t always respect pronoun choice,” Pegg said. “It has a huge toll on mental health.”

41.8 percent of non-binary people have attempted suicide at some point in their life, and the numbers are expected to rise, according to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Jessica Tappanna, a licensed clinical social worker in mental health at Aspire Counseling, said she can understand why this might be the case.

“When you don’t address someone by their preferred pronoun, you’re not acknowledging who they are and they won’t feel seen or heard,” Tappanna said. “When we affirm a person’s gender identity, the percentage of attempted suicides will come back to baseline because the person feels heard and seen in who they are, and they can go about dealing with all of the normal plethora of stressors that come with being an adolescent.”

Tappanna also added that they are more likely to focus in school because they aren’t worried about what people will think of them, or whether they will be heard and respected.

Columbia Public Schools (CPS), is among the many school districts taking action to prevent discrimination in classrooms. Michelle Baumstark, CPS spokeswoman, said the school district revised the district policy several years ago to include gender identity and expression.

“Columbia Public Schools believes in providing a safe and supportive learning environment for all students so that they may be successful,” Buamstark said in an email.

The district policy states, “In accordance with law, the district strictly prohibits discrimination and harassment against employees, students, or others on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, disability, age, genetic information or any other characteristic protected by law.”

CPS also offers clubs such as Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), which provides a safe and supportive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students.

Pegg believes these support groups are a good first step; however, they said there is still a lot of work to do.

“When I was in high school, I feel like we had a GSA club, but I think the fact that I don’t remember it, is a testament itself that it wasn’t that big of a deal and that we didn’t really have those support groups,” Pegg said. “But I feel like we don’t talk about the importance of why we use pronouns and how to use pronouns in school. I think sometimes that can be as simple as teaching students like you would teach students in a normal classroom so that we can spread awareness about the topic.”

Jordan Richards, a support counselor at the Center Project, an organization that focuses on the needs of LGBTQ individuals, believes another step people can take to make non-binary members feel included is to stop viewing preferred pronouns, as “preferred.”

“It’s not a “preferred pronoun,” it’s just a pronoun. This is because it’s not optional, it’s my identity and it’s how I should be addressed,” Richards said.

If you need someone to talk to regarding gender identity, you can call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860.

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