Addressing the trans community with dignity and respect


It’s all too often that Amy Sollitti’s gender is inaccurately assumed.

“It happens pretty much every day,” the Penn biology major says.

Identifying as neither male nor female, also known as non-binary, Sollitti, co-chair of Penn Non-Cis, prefers gender-neutral pronouns "ze," "hir," and "hirs."

“Even when I approach people and tell them what my pronouns are, they sometimes aren’t receptive or they don’t follow through, using ‘she,’ ‘her,’ and ‘hers’ anyway,” ze says. “Or, they are accustomed to calling everyone ‘Miss’ or ‘Mister’ for instance. It happens so often that, for the past year, I just haven’t been bothering as much.”

Addressing these particular types of issues, where people—whether transgender, gender non-conforming, or non-cisgender—aren’t honored for being true to themselves, are at the root of Penn’s LGBT Center’s ongoing “Pronouns Matter” campaign, which started in October during LGBT History Month.

“We have stickers available that say ‘Pronouns Matter,’ and you can write in your pronouns,” says Erin Cross, the Center’s senior associate director. “I have mine on my planner, and I take it with me wherever I go. Students can wear them whenever they want to. We are giving them out until they run out, so people realize how important pronouns are on a daily basis.”

In general, Cross says, when she introduces herself, she says, “Hi, I’m Erin, and I use she, her, hers. I just put it out there so people know. If the other person wants to share, they can, if they don’t, that’s fine, and if they look at you strange, that’s a point for you to educate them.”

At the beginning of each semester, Cross, who teaches in the Graduate School of Education, hands out information sheets to her students requesting their names in Penn InTouch, the names they’d like to use in class, their pronouns, as well as other important details, such as allergies.

“It just shows that you are supporting the whole student,” Cross explains. “If you don’t want to ask pronouns out loud, you can get them on these forms. And if you’re not sure, you can always default to they, them, their pronouns.”

On campus, Cross says misgendering with pronouns is one of the biggest issues she hears from students, staff, and faculty. But, there are certain instances where additional, disrespectful labels or terms show up—whether in regular conversations or in writing.

For instance, writers, too, should never assume a person’s gender identity.

“If you are referring to someone, such as an author, and you aren’t sure of the author’s gender identity, you can use they, them, their,” Cross explains. “It is official to do this. The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s absolutely appropriate to use the singular they. It was the Word of the Year last year for the Oxford English Dictionary for this reason.”

It also shouldn’t be assumed that everyone in the transgender community uses the word “transgender.”

“Folks might use many different labels,” she says. “It’s hard to put one umbrella word over any community. It’s the same thing here. For example, there are folks who have transitioned from female to male, who don’t use trans anymore. They say, ‘I’m just a guy.’ It’s up to the individual person to identify. If in doubt, you can ask. Just be aware of these little things.”

Also, the term “transgendered” should never be used.

“That’s like saying ‘maled’ or ‘femaled,’” Cross says.

Likewise, don’t mix up transsexual and transgender.

“Transsexual is only one identity under the transgender umbrella,” Cross says.

When writing letters, take out the honorifics, like Miss or Mr., and simply address people by their names. 

“It’s a really easy way to be open to everybody, and respect who they are,” Cross says.

And on the topic of names, it’s consequential to respect the names people wish to be addressed by. Penn recently implemented a process for trans students to change their first names in the Penn system to better ensure they are respected for who they are.

“At the very least, when preferred pronouns escape someone, it’s important to say the name they want,” Sollitti says. “Using the incorrect name can be almost, if not more, traumatizing than pronouns.”

In addition, it’s always best to default to “person” or “people” when communicating with a group, Cross says.

“Don’t use ‘ladies’ and ‘gentleman.’ That leaves a whole group of people out,” Cross explains. “You can always say ‘students,’ or ‘people,’ or ‘folks.’”

Sollitti adds that people should also be more educated on issues affecting the trans community.

“There’s lots of violence, but there’s also lots of good things coming out,” ze says. “It’s important when engaging with a trans student, staff, or faculty member, to have background knowledge of what’s facing their community.”

Sollitti says that ze’s found great support from the LGBT Center’s community, especially from Cross and Rebecca Schept, the Center’s associate director.

“I can go to them about anything,” ze says.

Anyone who would like to get involved with the LGBT Center, or any of its 25 affiliated student groups, can visit its website or stop by its beautiful, spacious home at 3907 Spruce St.

Transgender Naming