How the gender identity revolution impacts society
Heath Fogg Davis, Temple professor and former director of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, speaks about how using preferred pronouns and names can help create a more inclusive culture in the workplace, at school and beyond.
In Heath Fogg Davis’ most recent book, Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?, he provides guidance for organizations to become more inclusive by teaching them to question and remove gender and identity barriers. A professor of political science, Davis uses he/him or they/them pronouns, and has expertise in antidiscrimination law, transgender civil rights, political theory, and race, gender, and sexuality studies. For the past three years, Davis served as the director of the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department, and is now moving into the role of director of the Intellectual Heritage Program.
We asked Davis to answer some questions about names, pronouns and identities and how the misuse of any of these impacts the lives of individuals.
TN: Currently we’re witnessing an increase in pronoun acknowledgement in all areas of society. What sparked this change and what does it mean?
HFD: One major factor is a generational difference that boils down to self-definition and the freedom of having your identity be acknowledged and respected. Among Gen Z, 59% believe that forms should offer more options than “man” and “woman,” 35% report personally knowing someone who uses gender neutral pronouns, and one in six identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. This generation is growing up with “intersectionality” and “queerness” in their vocabularies.
We’re observing a really bimodal kind of situation with respect to these issues, and it has a lot to do with the political bifurcation within this country. There are a lot of extremes in both directions, even just looking at the mixed rulings coming from the Supreme Court. However, there is more cultural awareness and there is no going back to the ignorance from before—I think Gen Z will push forward.
TN: What is a “dead name” and why is it such a negative experience for the individual?
HFD: A dead name is a previous name, usually assigned at birth, that a person no longer identifies with. Oftentimes, it can be a gender-specific name that no longer accords with the person’s self-identity.
This concept goes into this fundamental sense of who we are and how we want to move around in the world and be treated by others. For some people, being dead named can interfere with basic social interactions. A student who got dead named at graduation is a case in point: this important moment of celebration should be the focus, yet to be referred to by the wrong name disrupts that.
Transgender individuals are not the only ones with dead names and people choose different names at different points in their lives for so many different reasons such as marriage, divorce, adoption and career personas. I believe oftentimes the things we consider to be transgender discrimination are so much broader than just gender identity or name, and oftentimes impact people who aren’t even trans. This gives us an opportunity to discuss how incorrect labels impact us all in negative ways.
There are different opinions about dead names, where some people just see it as a previous name, while for others it is more harmful. It’s important to respect that individual and their own self-definition.
TN: What is misgendering and how does it impact the individual?
HFD: Misgendering is when someone refers to another person with specific gender pronouns that conflict with the pronouns that person uses to identify themselves, often causing embarrassment or discomfort for that person. The reasons why people change their pronouns and names are often incredibly important to those individuals in terms of their mental health, feelings of self-worth and visibility. So to misgender someone can really take that person out of the situation and prevent their full participation in a class, job or any social interaction.
I think for a long time people didn’t take pronoun usage seriously because they thought it impacted only a small group of people, which we now know is not correct. It’s important for all of us, especially instructors, to get on board and understand that this isn’t a trivial issue. This goes to the question “are transgender people the only ones impacted by misgendering and pronouns?” They are not.
I’d like to see fewer gender markers used in a public sphere because there is such great potential for getting it wrong. When we get it wrong, it can inflict a lot of harm, and I think more often than not the pain caused is unintentional.
TN: How do you foster an environment of open identity within the classroom?
HFD: My methods have changed over time as I’ve tried different things, and I haven’t come up with a perfect solution. I don’t think anybody has. The place I’ve come to now is that I think of they/them as gender neutral pronouns that can be used generally, so I’ve begun using them that way. It’s not easy because we fall back on habits and visual cues.
The reason I take this approach is because I think about how relevant gender is in a given scenario. If I can’t come up with a good reason to invoke it, then I think we should get rid of it in that situation. When it comes to teaching, the only times where gender is relevant is if a student is making a specific point about their own gendered experience, or a conversation about sex discrimination. To remedy sex discrimination, we of course have to talk about gender.
Here at Temple University, we are in the business of learning and educating. There is a responsibility for us to be on the cutting edge of researching identities and how we think about them. Our job is to help young people figure out who they are, help them launch their careers and send them off with ethical things for them to consider. I talk with my graduating seniors about how everything we discussed in the classroom is worth bringing up in meetings—that they should be the person in the room who questions things. Empowering people is our job.
TN: What’s something organizations can do to be more inclusive?
HFD: When I work with organizations or when I do consulting, there’s this concept I highlighted in my book called the “Gender Audit,” and I have it set up as a template. It helps you assess when and where your organization invokes gender including in formal policies, dress codes, bathrooms, benefits and bureaucratic documents. Then the next step is to decide if gender is a necessity to refer to in these formats.
To examine how we define gender, we discover too often that we don’t define gender—we just assume it. I encourage colleges to start thinking about all of their official forms that they ask students and faculty to complete, and where those documents invoke gender.
If their gender is crucial for that form, then it is important to define why on the document. If it’s to combat sex discrimination, that’s fine. But otherwise, if it’s just because of custom or tradition, we should not be willing to keep doing that.
TN: Why is there resistance to this movement?
HFD: I think fundamentally, it’s about social custom and a fear of making mistakes. When you press people about why we use gender so often in society, the only answer boils down to social custom. We’ve always done it this way. Human beings don’t like change and these are deeply ingrained social habits.
Most people don’t want to be corrected because they get embarrassed when they get something wrong. When we make mistakes, we want to put the blame on the other person because we aren’t at peace with admitting our faults. The educational approach is to say, yes, we are going to get things wrong with gender and names and we need to learn how to respond to that, learn from it and move on.
Rather than having the mentality of “I know all the right terminology to use all the time,” we need to be willing to constantly shift and learn. So many of the terms in existence have changed in acceptability and will continue to change within our lifetimes.
TN: What are some ways to show support for the gender and pronoun movement?
HFD: When cisgender people ask me how to be a good ally, I tell them to talk openly about names, pronouns and gender on our behalf with other cis people, instead of putting the onus on the trans community to always bring up these topics. The more often that identity is brought up in casual conversation, the less taboo it becomes.
When cisgender people provide their pronouns, it can be a gesture of solidarity, but it also goes to this point about being in a mode of learning. Part of that means changing not just how you’re seeing other people, but also how you see yourself. We all have gender identities and names that we have emotions connected to. It’s a way of seeing common ground and empathizing.
There can be a sense with older generations of thinking this is a young people’s issue, but it’s not. It’s important to be cognizant that we have people in all parts of our lives who may be impacted by misgendering and dead naming. Even if these labels don’t impact you on a personal basis, they definitely impact the people you work with, go to school with and probably some folks in your family.