By: Isabella Chamberland (Senn Senior)
Senn High School, one of the most diverse high schools in the Chicago Public Schools District, has begun to incorporate a new practice to promote the inclusivity of transgender students.
At the beginning of this school year, teachers started to implement an opening question about students’ personal pronouns while introducing themselves in class and in extracurricular activities. Students would state their name, personal pronouns, and any additional icebreaker questions or information.
Meagan Zeman (Math) and Mary Hutchinson (Social Studies) were part of the team of teachers who led the initiative to normalize the use of pronouns in an introductory context. Although many teachers are just starting to adapt to the new component of inclusivity, Hutchinson has been involved in the conversation much before the 2020-2021 school year. She spearheaded the conversation by creating a handout for teachers defining important terms related to transgender students, procedures to promote an inclusive environment, the importance of personal pronouns, and how the effort to increase inclusivity creates a safer environment for all students.
In addition to creating a handout to introduce the topic to faculty, the team also encouraged teachers to indicate that their classrooms were a safe space for LGBT+ students by posting a safe space poster in their in-person classrooms.
According to Hutchinson and Zeman, the response from the Senn teachers were “overwhelmingly positive.” Many teachers decided to take extra measures within the conversation with actions such as putting their personal pronouns in their email signatures, including it beginning of the year surveys, and explaining the importance in their own classes.
As the Senn community continues to adapt to this new measure to promote inclusivity, it is important to remember why personal pronouns are an important aspect of introduction and identity.
Zeman said, “The Senn community has always strived to embody total acceptance and create a welcoming and supportive environment for all young people to grow and develop over their four years here. We are stronger and together we can make sustainable change so everyone is free to live and exist as their most authentic selves.”
Pronoun inclusivity measures are also an important key to supporting positive mental health at Senn. According to the 2017 GLSEN National School Climate Survey, LGBTQ students who face gender expression harassment at school on average have lower GPAs, more discipline issues, more absences, and higher levels of depression. By starting the conversation around gender expression and inclusivity with new introductory pronoun procedures, Senn is helping trans students avoid the harsh results of being invalidated in the place they come to learn and express themselves.
Zeman said, “The most important aspect about pronouns is to understand that using someone’s correct pronoun is suicide prevention and helps the person feel valid.” In addition to mental health support, including introductory measures to include personal pronouns helps recognizing the existence of gender as a social construct, allowing people to observe their identities from a perspective outside of heteronormative standards and gender binaries. Students should not feel limited by social constructs in an institution that dedicates itself to harboring intellectual growth and discovery.
Although most of the reactions has been positive, many people wonder why it is important for cisgender people to incorporate pronouns into their introductions. By normalizing the use of pronouns, we are allowing trans people to be able to set up their proper introduction to feel supported and validated without feeling outed or in the spotlight. Additionally, it sends a message to all Senn students that Senn is a place that supports all students no matter their gender. This helps students feel comfortable and safe exploring the pronouns and gender identity without harassment or judgement, which can be a crucial step to finding an identity that they’re comfortable with.
From a personal perspective, Senn’s new step to promote inclusiveness has made me as a Senn student feel more supported and accepted by the place I call home. I personally use both She/Her and They/Them pronouns (She/They for short) and the normalization of simple actions like introducing ourselves with pronouns in class has allowed me to explore my gender identity under a more fluid lens. I’m now able to feel like my more authentic self and create work that’s truly representative of my identity.
Not only has the usage of pronouns as an introduction made me feel more comfortable introducing myself properly, but it encourages a newfound quest to explore deconstructing negative gender binaries. It can initially be a confusing concept, but I’ve experienced many Senn community members reaching out to me to genuinely learn more about my own personal pronouns and gender binaries in order to clarify. These small steps let me and the entire student body know that my teachers and fellow students care to understand and respect an important component of my identity which makes me feel significantly more comfortable in school.
Similarly to the teacher’s response to these new procedures, there’s been a lot of positive feedback from other Senn Students.
Avery Luciano, a Senn Junior, said, “being included in a community is best supported by your identity being included and the pronouns you go by is a key part of your identity.”
Angela Mendoza, a Senn Senior, said, “It makes us feel more confident about our identities and it lets others know how we want to be referred to, which is important.”
As these new procedures are becoming normalized within the Senn Community, we are taking a step forward to creating an inclusive environment for students of all identities, and starting the conversation on how to remove the harmful effects of the social constructs pertaining to the gender binary within our inclusive community.
We are all learning and as Zeman said, “many people become nervous when trying something new and are afraid that making a mistake will take away from them trying to learn and do better. It does not! We have to be supportive and reassuring that asking for pronouns is great! And welcomed!” Learning and making mistakes is part of bettering our community and the world.
As introducing ourselves with pronouns becomes normalized in classroom, workplace, and social contexts nationwide, I encourage everyone within the Senn Community to adopt new steps to promote gender inclusivity and a better environment, more equitable environment for all.