Good practice in communication

Language is constantly evolving, and well-meaning people may unwittingly use phrases that others consider objectionable. Rather than being censorious, we should give one another the benefit of the doubt as we navigate significant social change with mutual understanding and respect.

Since there is no reason why a transgender person should be identifiable, all members of the University should be sensitive when discussing transgender topics: this may be a personal issue for some people involved in the conversation.

Everyone should be treated with courtesy in daily interactions, including how they are directly addressed and how they are spoken of. Any expressed preference on language or pronouns should be respected. However sometimes things are more difficult when we are meeting people for the first time. We tend to make assumptions about gender, based on our perception of gender norms and we may sometimes get it wrong. If so, simply apologise and try to get it right next time.

In English, much language is gendered. For some people who are in the process of transitioning, or who have transitioned, being addressed in their affirmed gender is an important milestone on their journey. However people with a non-binary gender identity may feel uncomfortable when gendered language is used about them.

Trans students and staff have some suggestions for colleagues on how to be inclusive of trans people:

  • Try not to draw attention to any apparent discrepancy between, for example, a ‘male’ name and a ‘female’ appearance.
  • Some phrasing can avoid highlighting gender e.g. ‘Your visitor [name] is waiting in Reception. Will you come and meet them?’ not ‘Will you come and meet him?’
  • Those moderating public events might consider welcoming ‘Colleagues and guests’ or similar.
  • When taking questions at a Q&A you can try to point someone out without identifying their gender, e.g. ‘There’s someone at the back in red; just keep your hand up until the microphone gets to you.’ If you know the questioner’s name, use that instead. This helps to include people whose appearance does not match gender norms, or who have a non-binary gender.

Trans people may have particular difficulties in using the phone, since their voice pitch may differ from gender norms.

  • Try not to make assumptions about gender based on voice pitch.
  • Use the caller’s name rather than gendered terms such as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’.
  • In most situations the caller’s gender is unlikely to be relevant. 

When writing about a particular individual, their preferred pronouns should be used, whether that entails using a gendered pronoun for someone who has transitioned to a binary gender, or a non-gendered pronoun for someone who is non-binary.

When writing about people in general, non-gendered language such as ‘the student’, ‘they’ and ‘their’ can be used instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ and this style is increasingly being adopted in the University’s written documents as they are revised.

Once a trans person has made known their chosen name, this should be used in all situations except those where their legal name is required (such as on a degree certificate). People with fluid gender identities may have more than one name, so discuss with them how they would like their names to be used. It is never appropriate to put quotation marks around a trans person’s chosen name.

Be alert to sensitivities around language to avoid unintentionally excluding trans people.

Preferences on language vary widely, even among trans people.  For many people the concept of self-identification is very important, so they would be happy with the use of ‘identifies as’, whereas in the quotation below a student expresses a different view.

For transgender people who are transitioning to a new binary gender, use of the correct personal pronoun (i.e. he or she), is very important. We are all human and mistakes are likely to be made on occasion, sometimes even by the transgender person themselves, and it is important that everyone is patient and tolerant, particularly in the early days. However, deliberately or persistently using the wrong personal pronoun may be interpreted as a form of harassment and should be treated as such.

An individual may ask people to use a particular pronoun: this might be ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’ (used to refer to a single person) or a constructed pronoun such as ‘zie’ or ‘ey’. 

For example, Jo is non-binary: they have asked their tutors to use ‘they’ and ‘them’.  At first it is difficult, but people make an effort to used Jo’s preferred pronouns when they explain how hurtful they find it to be misgendered.

It is noted that some foreign languages may not have neutral pronouns, or a sufficient variety of pronouns that could be substituted for gendered pronouns. This may be an issue for students of those languages and their tutors. Tutors should address it with students, and reach an agreement on how to proceed, rather than simply leaving it unaddressed.

  • Some people include their pronouns in their email signature file. People who feel shy about making this request face-to-face may prefer to do this.
  • Speakers at Oxford SU (formerly OUSU) meetings are asked to state their personal pronouns for use in the meeting and to ensure accurate minutes.
  • The webpage listing members of the LGBT+ Advisory Group includes members’ pronouns.
  • Oxford University Dramatic Society took a motion to its AGM to propose revising its constitution to change binary gendered pronouns to gender neutral terms: ‘This is to ensure that the Constitution is updated to be inclusive of individuals who might otherwise feel excluded from the Constitution because of their gender identity, and to eliminate potential procedural issues or disputes about who the Constitution applies to.’
  • The Standard Constitution for student societies has used ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’ since 2017.
In OUSU Council, anyone who speaks is asked to state the pronouns they use, both for minuting reasons and to ensure that debate can be carried out respectfully. (Student)
While understanding gender identification is very important, the phrase “identifies as” is sometimes used as a buzzword which actually means very little, and can sometimes actually have the effect of delegitimising trans people. For instance, if you talk about “women and people who identify as women”, you are in fact just talking about women! Here, the phrase ‘people who identify as women’ is clearly meant to indicate trans women, but in doing so suggests they aren’t ‘real’ women. If you need to explicitly state that you’re including trans women when you talk about women – for instance, if you’re running a women-only event and want to reassure trans women that they are welcome – you can always say ‘women, whether trans or cis’. (Student)
I am not out to my tutors. One engaged me in what she thought was an intellectual and abstract debate on trans people and ‘authenticity’; as a trans person, it was incredibly uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to explain something which feels very personal. (Student) 
If the staff could get briefed on the importance of using the correct pronouns and about how "they" is a legitimate pronoun, I'm sure that would help a lot of trans folk. […] When people get it right I'm actually surprised that it's not ANOTHER cis person misgendering me! (Student)
To begin with, you might need to think carefully or proof-read a bit more than usual – I’ve had kind, well-meaning people say “of course I’ll use the right pronouns for you in this important email” and then immediately call me up to apologise because the wrong pronoun had just slipped out and they’d hit “send” without noticing. But you’ll get there, I promise – and it’s only this difficult the first time. Get it right with me and you’ll find it much easier to be an ally to the next trans person you meet.