Mentoring Gender Fluid and Trans Students in Writing Classes

Glen Retief | April 2017

Glen Retief

In 2007, shortly after being hired in my first tenure track job teaching creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University, I was drinking and chatting with a senior colleague, a writer then in his early sixties.

“What’s with all these initials?” he asked me, presumably because I was a gay man, although perhaps also because I was a quarter century his junior. “LGBT—Q,A,B,C, D—where will it end?”

The two of us laughed at the apparently endless sprouting of sexual and gender identities, from androsexual to bigender to skoliosexual. “As educators,” my colleague wanted to know, “how are we supposed to keep up with all this? Can you be a ‘safe teacher’ for the kid if you can’t even understand his identity?” It was then I said that the words that, in hindsight, strike me as so utterly clueless.

“See, if we all had infinite time and energy,” I told him, “this education would be totally worthwhile. After all, we’re talking humanity here, and we’re both writers, right? But as a teacher—how many gender-queer or gender-fluid students can there be at our whole university—three out of 2,200?” Perhaps, I had in mind some of the most ridiculously lowball estimates of the trans and nonbinary population, such as the 2003 California study that arrived at 0.1 percent. “At any rate, not a large enough group to merit a special professional development workshop during opening week”—or, I might well have added back in 2007, an AWP Writer’s Chronicle article.

Fast forward nine years. During that time in the undergraduate creative writing program at Susquehanna University, I have taught at least a dozen students who have identified as trans, gender queer, nonbinary, or gender fluid. I’ve critiqued and nurtured almost as many trans or gender-fluid coming out memoirs. And among the remaining cis student body, increasing numbers of memoirs describe friendships or romances with trans and gender-fluid individuals.

More recently, a friend with a daughter in our local conservative, rural local middle school informed me that maybe a fifth of the students in her daughter’s cohort prefer gender-neutral pronouns. These kids represent, I would argue, one of the most potent social transformations of our times. Not only does support for gender freedom run strong among millennials and Generation Z, but also increasing numbers of students wish to exercise that liberty openly, without apology. To paraphrase the old ACT UP slogan, gender-fluid students are here, they’re queer, they’re numerous, and as higher educators, we’d be well advised to plan for them.

Back, then, to my senior colleague’s question: how do we keep up? I am thinking especially of cis-gender faculty like me, who are less likely to have thought through issues of gender identity and presentation. I’ll also focus on creative nonfiction workshops I teach, yet I believe the lessons will apply to any course including autobiographical writing components, from gender studies to first-year-composition to humanistic psychology seminars. What might a trans- and gender-fluid-inclusive writing pedagogy look like?

To state the obvious: first and foremost comes the principle of respect. As professors we need to treat our students well. This is not just a matter of emotional safety. Whiplash-style romanticizing of pedagogical cruelty aside, the psychological research could not be clearer: students learn best when they receive a mixture of kindness, courteous regard, and high academic expectations. Since gender, racial, sexual, and class identity are integral to students’ sense of self, we must comply with students’ requested names and pronouns.

A number of simple institutional reforms can make our learning environments safer for gender-fluid people, while making it easier, too, for us to effectively teach them.

A technique I find useful is simply to ask students, on the first day of class, for both their preferred name and gender pronouns. This signals I am aware of gender diversity and intend to respect it. It also saves students from having to do all the work of breaking down conventional expectations.

Second, respect implies desisting from making fun of students’ gender ambiguities. Of course it’s human nature to laugh at each other’s foibles, and it’s as insulting and unhelpful to tread on eggshells around trans and gender-fluid students as it is to be rude or judgmental. Still, given that gender maturation is a tough, honest, vulnerable business, with many zigzags on the road to fulfillment, professors might well err on the side of sensitive caution rather than humor—and yes, that may mean resisting the urge to comment on X’s spiky hair or Y’s choice of a gender-neutral name reminiscent of a Jedi warrior.

Pronouns can be hard, too, but are well worth our perseverance. Cheat sheets can help, as they did in middle school when we struggled with foreign capitals. Recently, I introduced a favorite gender-fluid student at a public reading. I admitted to the crowd of two hundred or so that, unlike my normal practice, I planned to read the introduction from a script. The reason was that I didn’t want to gaffe and say “she” instead of “they.”

A number of simple institutional reforms can make our learning environments safer for gender-fluid people, while making it easier, too, for us to effectively teach them.

First, if it is legally possible in your state, advocate for your school to adopt a nondiscrimination policy that includes gender identity, including the right to use gender-appropriate bathrooms and housing. It’s hard to rewrite a short story in first person point of view or edit down a poem when you’re wondering where you can safely use the rest room.

Second, ask Information Technology and the registrar’s office to create preferred email monikers for students. Students might be emailed before their arrival, so they can begin their college careers with their true identities. A system that requires students’ emails to come from their legal rather than self-chosen name also outs students who have begun to transition to their new gender identities. At my university, this step required a “double digital identity” for trans and nonbinary students, so the university could continue to make mandatory reports under students’ legal names. But the procedure was not difficult, and in addition to affirming students, it also made it easier for faculty to remember the students’ real names and genders.

Thus far, my advice has pertained to higher education in general. But what about writing classes, where students expose their naked souls and imaginations to group critique?

Admittedly, my own experience is just that. But in my undergraduate classes, the general attitude, as I’ve noted, has been one of enormous empathy for trans marginalization, and passionate support for free gender expression. If students have commented critically on trans memoirs that, say, the storyline reminds them of other books and movies; if as a class we’ve tried to help the author come at the gender-fluid experience from a fresh angle, to emphasize, say, Dungeons and Dragons, or mathematics obsession, or coming from a quirky Latino family where gender reassignment surgery seems almost bourgeois and conventional—well, this is what we do for all writing under discussion. We try to bring out what’s most distinctive and individual in an author’s voice.

A few further, specific technical issues arise in relation to gender-neutral pronouns. Most of these come down to the familiar tensions between grammatical and genre rules, on the one hand, and artistic freedom and innovation on the other.

Take the following sentence about a protagonist who prefers the gender-neutral pronouns they/them/their:

They is overcome with joy at the simplicity of the gesture.

Most guidelines would say the correct formulation here is “they are”—see, for example, those published by UW Milwaukee’s LGBT Resource Center—even though a single person is being talked about. Also, most readers would find “they are” much less distracting.

Yet, young writers remain interested in experimentation. “They is” is clearer and also ameliorates problems such as the one encountered by a student memoirist in one of my classes who described flogging a gender-fluid partner in front of a watching crowd. In that memoir, it was frequently impossible to distinguish between the gender-fluid character’s reactions and those of the spectators. It is at least possible that twenty years from now, “they is” will seem as ordinary as saying “Ms.” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.”

In narrative works, a different challenge can occur with retrospective versus in-the-moment narration, especially when a character has gender-transitioned in the interim. I had a student in a workshop called Dallas, who today uses gender-neutral pronouns (they/them/their). Dallas’s memoir, on the other hand, was about being a young daughter called Jade.  Astute readers might suspect genderfluidity from Jade’s potent, physical alienation. But in fairness, the style of the memoir is visceral and immediate, a filtered child’s view, and all the characters in the memoir talk about Jade as a girl.

In workshop, we discussed this memoir. “She seems so vulnerable in this scene,” someone said, about Jade, then self-corrected. “I mean, they seem so sensitive.” This happened again several times. At last I asked Dallas, “Which pronouns should we use for the narrator of this memoir, as opposed to the author?”

Dallas had to think for a moment, then: “The narrator is she, and the author is they.” And so we stumbled along as best we could.

Should we have advised Dallas to develop a more explicit, retrospective point of view—to bring a gender-fluid adult narrator into their story? If we had done so, it would have been only because we happen to know Dallas is genderfluid—everyone agreed nothing in the story itself needed clarifying. Retrospective reflection often deepens a memoir, yet here, would it have deepened the portrait of this child? Or given the raw power of the child’s voice, would the loss of ambiguity have diminished the work? I judged the latter, and proposed Dallas consider leaving the work artfully ambiguous.

Given current social trends, gender-nonconforming writers across a range of academic disciplines will almost certainly be some of the most important shapers of our literary and intellectual future.

As is generally true in writing classes, diagnosis goes down better than prescription. As a South African writer, what I’ve found most helpful when I make a cultural or a linguistic reference isn’t, “You can’t use that word, because readers won’t understand it.” It’s: “The Afrikaans and Zulu were just too frustrating for me and I would have quit reading if I weren’t giving you a critique.” I strive to give my gender-fluid students, and those who write about nonbinary characters, similar factual, noncontrolling feedback, including professional assessments of how different magazines and presses might respond to their artistic choices—mainstream publishers, as well as independent LGBT ones like Transgress. Then authors make their choices.

It’s a truism of linguistic studies that language and culture themselves are nothing if not shape-shifting. Words like “hoverboarding,” “mansplaining,” and “emoticon”; Junot Diaz’s Spanglish; Shakespeare inventing the words “beached” and “friended” all the way back in the 17th century—none of this would have been part of our literature without risk-taking pioneers. Given current social trends, gender-nonconforming writers across a range of academic disciplines will almost certainly be some of the most important shapers of our literary and intellectual future. Writing teachers skilled at mentoring them will likely be in high demand in the academy of the future.


Glen Retief’s memoir about growing up in a South African national park under apartheid, The Jack Bank, won a Lambda Literary Award and was selected as an Africa Book Club Book of 2011. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University.

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