Introductory Pedagogy Behind They/Them Singular

Entering theological education as a non-binary person is… awkward. In my context at a progressive seminary, it’s not that people are necessarily mean. It’s that many of them have very limited experience with someone like me.

New Student Orientation Needs

In my opinion a general purpose introduction to they/them pronouns in progressive/liberal education needs to do three basic things.

  • Acknowledge that they/them singular is (1) normal, (2) not new, and (3) not hard (but it may take some work).
  • Acknowledge connections between the binary gender system, white supremacy, and colonization.
  • Then point to resources on campus where someone who needs more information can learn and/or practice.

Here’s my blog introduction to the topic, which might help you to build your own resource. It’s important that the primary messaging come from the faculty and administration, so that the tone being set for classroom conduct is clear.

Obviously, this is not all that is needed to make a campus safe for non-binary people–especially non-binary people of color!

However, this is the kind of introduction that I think is needed in 2020 to normalize non-binary identities in a diverse cultural context. And, it’s not just about “protecting” non-binary people. Lots of people enter into diverse, progressive communities with limited experience with transgender and non-binary people. Folk coming from more conservative backgrounds, in particular, may have no experience with non-binary people at all.

When institutional leaders do not provide this basic level of introduction, it’s a setup for divisive and harmful conflict along predictable lines of difference.

Ideally, there also will be opportunities for further education beyond such a basic orientation. Ideally, there are also “safe spaces” on campus where folk can go to get support and to practice using they/they pronouns. Ideally, there is also a culture that meets people where they are, a culture that supports people in gaining new skills and understandings, and a culture that skillfully interrupts harm when it is being done.

Most people (even most U.S. Christians) in 2020 do not have well-reasoned objections to transgender people. Many mainstream conversations about transgender experience remain focused on visceral, knee jerk, emotional reactions. People are often just confused and feel unprepared to cope with an identity that is so far beyond what they imagined they would be encountering.

The simple assertions that I propose intentionally counter several standard “myths” about they/them singular identities. Collectively, these assertions embody BOTH

  • Reasonable expectations for inexperienced, new students to gain knowledge and praxis in community, and
  • A commitment from the larger community to support non-binary students.

With that kind of a basic introduction in place, then faculty can (and should) still provide follow-up opportunities in specific classes (e.g. theology, sociology, ethics, etc) to explore related topics in depth. But they won’t bear the burden of being “first contact” with the topic overall.

Compiled by Mx Chris Paige on October 10, 2020. Please be in touch with questions and concerns.

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