Guidelines for gender inclusive address: student and staff reactions

Guidelines for gender inclusive address: student and staff reactions

In January, the Leiden University Diversity and Inclusion Expertise Office published guidelines for gender inclusive address. These guidelines will help University employees to communicate in a more inclusive manner.

The new communication strategy advises on the use of pronouns and evading gendered forms of address such as ‘dear sir/madam’. Leiden University employees are advised to write ‘dear colleague/student’ instead. The guidelines also advise on how to ask for someone’s preferred honorific and how to ask for someone’s gender identity when filling out a form. (Tip: only ask for someone’s gender identity when it is absolutely necessary to register this!)

Employees and students at Leiden University do not always identify with a binary gender. They do not necessarily feel included when addressed as ‘dear sir’ or ‘dear madam’, or when they see references to students as he/she in the e-prospectus or in syllabi. For them, slight changes in how we address each other might make a world of difference. For IDAHOBIT, the LGBT+ network of Leiden University has collected some testimonials from students and staff who will be most affected by more inclusive ways of writing emails. They are happy with these new guidelines, but do caution that this is only the beginning. For the university to be a truly inclusive work and learning environment, we need to do more than mind the language with which we address one another.

Angel Mortara (they/them), 2nd year Film- and Literary Studies student

I am constantly being marked. In mails, letters, conversations, and people’s thoughts I am always a 'she', without any consideration of other possibilities. I know that I will be subjected to this violent marking for as long as I live, especially since I refuse to submit to the normative rules for non-femininity. Sometimes I can forget the workings of the binary logic of gender for an instant, for example when the words that keep this logic so tightly locked into place are not directly used. Until I open a message and I see that I am still 'miss deadname', feeling as if I failed in my trans* existence.

A mere policy that avoids gendered words does not solve an ancient system that thrives on disgust for everything that does not fit within normative standards based on so-called biological facts. It is but a step in an arduous process of unlearning—one that is needed to realize a future world in which no one is bound to limits bestowed upon you at birth because you have certain bodily characteristics.

As a trans* student the only thing I want to bestow upon ALL other students is: no one has the right to mark you but yourself.

Nic Boendermaker (they/them), 3rd year Psychology student

The first weekend in August I will be at my best friend’s bachelorette getaway. I will be the only queer, let alone gender non-conforming, person there and I expect that my gender expression will create uncomfortable situations. I imagine a moment where, perhaps getting changed at the accommodation we rented before heading out to dinner, I will find myself standing in a binder, boxers, and too much body hair. I expect familiar stares and uncomfortable questions. I don’t expect my friend to fully understand this or make an effort to make the space safer for me.

When I go to the gym, I expect that there won’t be a changing room or a shower that feels comfortable for me and my trans and intersex friends to use.

When I want to buy clothes that I feel good in and fit my body, I expect it to be a challenge and I expect it to be difficult to explain to a sales clerk what I am looking for.

When I open a syllabus and read when and where each student should submit “his or her” assignment, I expect that I will have to understand that this means me too.

When I attend a lecture or read a scientific article, I expect findings to be neatly divided between two genders. I expect to have to imagine or speculate about what might be relevant for trans people like me.

So, when I receive an email for the University that begins “Dear Sir or Madam,” I expect it. I expect to be erased and, worse, I might not even notice.

I am trying to learn to expect more from my community, my university, my friends, and perhaps myself as well. Instead of having to imagine, shimmy, or force myself into the spaces I inhabit, I would like to expect for the people around me to remember and welcome my presence. I would like to invite you to help me achieve this by adopting language that acknowledges the existence and signals the inclusion of gender non-conforming people.

Ilios Willemars (to be determined), Assistant Professor Media Studies

Leiden University has decided to start using gender neutral salutations in their communication from now on, and has decided, at the same time, to formulate that decision as an advice to the wider academic community. The idea that one shouldn’t assume to know in advance by which gendered terms colleagues and students wish to be addressed seems overwhelmingly obvious to some, where others might benefit from such advice. Progress of a kind. Because why is it that the message couldn’t be: we used to make these mistakes in the past, and have decided, finally, to make an effort to no longer make the same mistakes in the future. Why is it, in other words, that a shift in official university policy to cease using gendered salutations in their own communication, has to be formulated as a piece of advice instead of apology?