Parker: Misgendering is harming my education


Illustration by Lily Ogburn

“NBWays” is a column that discusses the trials and tribulations of transgender and nonbinary student life on NU’s campus.

Riley Parker, Columnist


As my first year at Northwestern comes to an end, I’m reflecting on my time in the classroom. For the most part, I thrive on spirited discussions in classes with fewer than 20 students. I treasure the knowledge I’ve accumulated through such classes, but I regret the discomfort such intimate settings have caused me as a transgender nonbinary student.

It’s not fun to walk into a class and be the “only one in the room” of any marginalized group. I’ve been the only trans, nonbinary person in several classes by now. The most immediate harmful impact of this isolation is that despite my best efforts, I’m perpetually misgendered. 

During first-day introductions, it seems like a coin toss whether anyone else will introduce themselves with their pronouns. If they don’t, I have no choice but to draw uncomfortable attention to myself by saying I use they/them. It’s rare for people to care enough to internalize that information. A couple of my professors have used my correct pronouns in class, but they’re in the minority. Due to fear of offending people, correcting the majority that misgender me is almost always out of the question for me.

Getting my classmates to use my pronouns is an endless battle. I wear clothing with my pronouns on it as often as possible, and on days when I muster up the confidence to correct people, I do my best to remind them politely. They apologize, sometimes profusely, and then misgender me again. It’s an exhausting cycle.

Getting out of bed to attend a class where raising my hand means running the risk of being misgendered gets more difficult by the day. I constantly consider feigning physical sickness in order to avoid the mental anxiety that accompanies existing in the classroom as a transgender person, particularly one who defies binary definitions of gender.

Misgendering isn’t the only trial I face in the classroom. Occasionally, instead of being completely erased, I become hypervisible: the ultimate avatar of all queer perspectives. I love supporting my community, and I often volunteer to spotlight our struggles. But, calling out a few instances of transphobia does not make me the authority on, for instance, whether or not “The Danish Girl” is a transphobic film. Sure, I have opinions about the film, but I’d much rather have a thoughtful discussion with views from both parties than be coerced into lecturing about the nature of transphobia. 

I love school. I came to NU to get a world-class education, and by and large I’ve succeeded — largely because of the fascinating intellectual debates I have had in small class settings. Nevertheless, the stress of never feeling seen as myself means I’m never really sure if the next quarter will be the one when I can’t take it anymore, the one when the misery causes me to drop classes whose material I love in favor of drier but safer lectures. Some courses I know I’ll never take, such as spoken language classes with grammatical gender, because I know I might be pushed past the limits of my own ability to cope. 

My existence in the classroom space is not a neutral one, however much I wish it were. The energy it takes to defend myself is energy I need for learning. I’ve been able to steel myself enough so far to take advantage of NU’s incredible academics, but the question remains: How long can I last?

Riley Parker is a Communication freshman. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.