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‘A very scary thing to tell someone’: The debate over gender pronouns in schools, explained

Transgender and nonbinary students are urging educators to use inclusive language, but not everyone is on board.

Alia Cusolito, a sophomore at Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett.Harry Scales/for The Boston Globe

ON THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL at Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett, Alia Cusolito donned cool, 3-inch, dangling sword earrings. The sophomore also pinned a circular black button with “they/them” in silver letters onto their shirt and a pink “they/them” pin to their backpack. The buttons were a plea for respect and for acknowledgement from teachers and peers of Alia’s identity and preferred pronouns. The teen identifies as nonbinary.

“The language we use to describe ourselves is a choice, but the gender I am is not a choice,” says Alia, who switched from she/her pronouns to gender-neutral ones in ninth grade. “Nonbinary fits me. My identity isn’t a choice.”


As president of the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance club, Alia, who is 16, wanted to attend class and walk the halls without the worry that someone, teachers included, might misgender them. Entering the building, Alia had high expectations. Last year, Alia and another club member had co-led a live online workshop on pronouns and names at a mandatory meeting for faculty. The students noted that the singular “they” has been in use since the year 1375 and suggested teachers write students’ pronouns next to names on attendance sheets. “It can be a very scary thing to tell someone when you don’t know them at all, and you’re coming into this new space where they’re the leadership figure,” Alia says today. “You want to be on their good side, and you don’t know how accepting they will be.”

Before the school year began, school librarian Allison Barker, adviser to the Gender Sexuality Alliance club (known around the country as GSAs), slipped sample get-to-know-you forms in every teacher’s mailbox. The forms, which students would be asked to fill out, included a blank space to fill in their pronouns and preferred names. Barker has distributed such forms for the past three years to help teachers ease the way for students who may feel anxious to announce their names and pronouns in front of the class.


But Alia’s first two days of school this year were a disappointment. Only three of their nine teachers gave students a way to provide pronouns and names of choice. Alia witnessed a fellow nonbinary student’s stress when a teacher called the student by their “dead name” — the term for a birth name no longer used.

“For the people who haven’t asked at all, I don’t know why they haven’t asked. It feels like they’re not putting in any effort to support us and make this a safer and more comfortable space for us,” Alia says. “I want to go over to them and say, ‘Why haven’t you asked us? What’s stopping you? We’ve sent you all of the resources you need. We need you to meet us in the middle.’” Alia brought up their frustration at the dinner table with their parents, who offered solace.

“I think it’s not asking very much to simply ask a child what they would like to be called,” says Rick Cusolito, Alia’s father and a business coach at Fidelity. “It’s basic human decency to ask somebody.” His child’s efforts at Old Rochester Regional are part of a growing movement nationwide. Transgender and nonbinary students are increasingly saying to teachers, peers, and schools: Call us what we want to be called.


‘In a country so polarized ideologically and politically, giving students the option to list pronouns has led to conflict.’

MANY TEACHERS and school administrators I interviewed, including the principal at Old Rochester Regional, say they’re listening and making changes. I’ve seen the trend myself as a parent. My son, an eighth-grader in a suburban Boston middle school, made an introductory video as part of a class assignment the first week of school. He gave his name, then said, “I use the pronouns he, him, his, and I like to read and skate.” A few other teachers at his school gave students Google forms with a blank space for pronouns. My son has completed forms like that since the start of sixth grade.

While asking for pronouns has become routine in some school systems, it isn’t at all commonplace at others. In some cases, administrators say they’re moving slowly because for many teachers the concept of gender-neutral pronouns is relatively new. And community backlash is a realistic fear. Gender identity, as well as anything to do with the LGBTQ community, used to be a hush-hush topic in schools and elsewhere. Yet today’s kids have grown up with legalized same-sex marriage and Disney TV shows and films with LGBTQ characters. Adults have not.

Often, gender-neutral pronouns and terms LGBTQ youth and allies are using with ease are novel to adults, even GSA advisers. “I think everyone who cares about children is on a learning curve. Our understanding of gender identity has evolved in the last decade,” says Maggie Charron, assistant principal at High Rock School, an all-sixth-grade school in Needham. This school year, for the first time, every team of High Rock teachers came up with a way to let students list pronouns and their preferred names.


Yet in a country so polarized ideologically and politically, giving students the option to list pronouns has led to conflict. In Virginia, a gym teacher sued the Loudoun County school system, contending that his free speech rights were violated when he was suspended for saying at a school board meeting that he wouldn’t refer to transgender students by their preferred pronouns. In August, a judge ruled in his favor.

That same month, the Utah State Board of Education told teachers they couldn’t ask students for their preferred gender, sparking a statewide debate. And the School Committee in Ludlow, Massachusetts, has been battling with conservative groups for months over how students’ gender identity requests are handled.

Those who oppose the distribution of pronoun forms, including some parents and conservative Christian groups, say schools are promoting the idea of being transgender and usurping parental rights by calling students what they want at school and not notifying parents when students do not want families to know. Opponents see pronoun forms and other accommodations for LGBTQ students as an improper “normalization” of transgender and nonbinary youth.

Advocates say the pronoun/name forms are necessary for health and safety reasons. “Simply respecting a student’s chosen name and pronoun is the single most important thing you can do to prevent suicide and mental health issues,” says Kimm Topping, program manager of the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, a 28-year-old joint initiative of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state’s Commission on LGBTQ Youth.


Just over 17 percent of youth identified as LGBTQ in Massachusetts’ most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted in 2019. LGBTQ youth, based on the same survey, are more likely to be bullied, to be homeless, and to consider suicide — they’re 4.4 times more likely to have made a suicide attempt in the past year. In previous surveys, the most current available, roughly 3 percent identified as transgender or as questioning their gender.

On September 13, Massachusetts lawmakers held the first hearing on House and Senate bills that would require incorporating LGBTQ curriculum in schools, including in history courses. Students would learn about the Stonewall riots in 1969 after police raided a New York City gay bar, the gay marriage legalization movements, and other important events. Expanding the curriculum and letting students be called what they want in school are both part of making schools safer, says Jen Manion, an Amherst College professor of history and of sexuality, women’s, and gender studies. Manion, who is transgender, testified at the hearing.

“There’s so much evidence that homophobia, transphobia — this kind of censorship and hostility — causes an incredible amount of harm to LGBTQ young people,” says Manion, who considers the biggest problem to be that many school systems rely on students to initiate the conversations on pronouns and names.

Michael Devoll, principal of Old Rochester Regional High School.Harry Scales/for The Boston Globe

At Old Rochester Regional, attended by about 680 students in grades 9 through 12, the efforts to respond to LGBTQ students’ needs are a work in progress — a collaboration between students and the school, educators there say. But students have been the main drivers of change. While some GSA club members told Alia that teachers called them by their dead names on the first day and some were misgendered, other students said the awareness campaign is starting to work. A handful of students I spoke with said all of their teachers provided an introduction form with a space for pronouns and preferred names. “Everyone deserves to be welcomed and included,” says 17-year-old senior Eddie Gonet. “It was more welcoming having those forms come up.” Eddie wrote “he/him/his” to show his allyship. When everyone shares their pronouns, it makes it just something you do.

Students upset about teachers who didn’t distribute the forms expressed their angst on an Instagram site the GSA created last fall for students to anonymously share their experiences. Alia wrote a post about the first few days: “What other emotional and mental labor do queer and trans kids need to put in before we’ll be shown basic respect?”

School officials noticed the Instagram posts. The school psychologist commented directly on the site, asking how he could help. Barker, the GSA adviser and school librarian, cited the posts when she met with school principal Michael Devoll and social workers to express concerns. “I want a student to be able to show up in class and not to have to have this conversation with every single teacher,” Barker says.

Devoll, the school’s principal for 13 years, wanted to know how they could fix it. Barker believes consistency is the key. She gave Devoll a copy of a form that’s gone viral, created by a Pennsylvania middle school science teacher who runs an Instagram site called Teaching Outside the Binary. Barker praised the form’s inclusion of an option for students to decide who should know their new identity, including whether guardians and parents should be on the list. “That’s for their safety,” Barker says. “They don’t feel comfortable being out to their parents, but in school, they have found safety in being able to express their true selves.”

In a shift for the school, Devoll has decided to suggest to all teachers that they begin using a Google form with a pronoun-sharing option starting next semester. “I’ve always said education for our kids should not be about a roll of the dice and who they get as a teacher. It’s got to be across the board,” he says. He’s pitching the forms as a best practice for teachers who don’t already have something in place.

But the forms won’t be a requirement. That would likely require school committee approval. The school enrolls students from three towns — Mattapoisett, Marion, and Rochester — which have different personalities and political bents. During the past six years, the school began adding gender-neutral bathrooms and gender-neutral locker rooms. In 2016, at the urging of the GSA and on behalf of nonbinary and transgender students, the school stopped its tradition of asking girls to wear white graduation gowns and boys to wear red gowns. Now all students wear red. Residents in some of the towns still object to the graduation gown color change, Barker says.

Barker, who identifies as a as a straight, cisgender woman, is not shy about wearing her support. She has a rainbow flag pin and a trans rights pin with a heart on her staff lanyard. She describes herself as a “co-conspirator” of the GSA students. Reaching the teachers who haven’t been responsive is one of her aims. “There is a small number of teachers who are just not understanding,” she says, “even with education.”

Andrew Beckwith, pictured at a rally in 2016 (holding megaphone), leads a conservative group against, as he says, “promoting transgenderism.”Pat Greenhouse

CONTROVERSIES ELSEWHERE may shed some light on the reluctance of some teachers, parents, and others to use the pronouns and names students want. At Irasburg Village School in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, teacher Sam Carbonetti wanted to be inclusive when he asked his students on August 26, the second day of school, to write four things on note cards: the name they like to go by, their pronouns, a subject they like to learn about, and a hobby they enjoy. He started off the class discussion by saying what he’d written, then invited students to share if they wanted. The exercise was intended as “a small component of a unit on identity” to help create an “inclusive and safe classroom environment,” explains Carbonetti, who teaches humanities to grades 6 through 8. Some students shared; others did not.

But that exercise soon turned into an uproar that rocked the tiny school of just 120 students. A parent of one of his eighth-grade students complained on Facebook that students were pressured to share pronouns in Carbonetti’s class and objected to the “normalizing” of that practice. The parent, who declined an interview request, included the teacher’s e-mail address and encouraged other parents to express their concerns. Vermont state Senator Russ Ingalls reposted the parent’s post on his official Facebook page. (Ingalls did not respond to an interview request.) Distraught, Carbonetti tweeted that he’d been doxxed by a state senator, adding, “How was your first week of school?”

Carbonetti says he has been concerned about his and his family’s safety because of the social media outcry. Local news media covered the controversy. “I live here. I work here. I shop at the same stores and have even participated in extracurricular activities with some of the folks now believing I should be fired,” Carbonetti says via e-mail.

His school’s principal, April Lane, observed Carbonetti’s lesson and supported it, she adds in an e-mail (Lane and Carbonetti would only agree to be interviewed by e-mail). Carbonetti says he received only one complaint from a parent, who e-mailed him after school hours on the same day of the activity. On August 31, Ingalls e-mailed Carbonetti an apology for the “discomfort” he caused, Carbonetti says. Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint reprimanded Ingalls. The school, meanwhile, will allow the same kind of introductory exercise in classrooms in the future, Lane says.

In Ludlow, however, School Committee chair Mike Kelliher says backlash over related issues would make it difficult for schools there to routinely distribute forms requesting student pronouns. He was referring to a set of controversies, including a furor that arose in 2019 over library books with gay and transgender characters at Ludlow’s Baird Middle School. A group that describes itself as pro-family had been blogging that Ludlow school staff were “persuading kids they are transgender,” and some parents wanted the books removed. After a review, the school system decided to keep them in circulation.

Another issue emerged last school year when a sixth-grade teacher outed a student’s request for a pronoun and name change to the student’s parents, despite the student’s request not to do so. The teacher was put on leave and then fired. Some parents and students stood by the teacher’s actions, writing letters and saying at School Committee meetings that they opposed the school district’s policy of letting students choose names and pronouns. One group, whose leader came from California, tried to drum up opposition with a flier on Facebook headlined “The Ludlow School District is pushing the ‘transgender’ agenda on middle school children.” It went on to list all the School Committee members’ names, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers.

At a Ludlow School Committee meeting in May, a student’s letter was read into the public record. It said the school system should “stop promoting propaganda that defies biology” and “establish a policy that requires the use of a student’s given name and biological pronouns.”

Then-Superintendent Todd Gazda (who resigned and left for a new job this summer) responded with ire to the accusations, reading a statement of his own. “At its core, this controversy isn’t about sex. It’s about identity. It is about ensuring a safe environment with caring adults that students can rely on to discuss problems, issues, and questions they might have,” he said in part. “For many of our students, school is their only safe place, and that safety evaporates when they leave the confines of our buildings. We cannot support any action that denies our students the right to express who they are at the most basic level as an individual.”

Andrew Beckwith, president of the Wakefield-based Massachusetts Family Institute, a conservative Christian organization, says he has been supporting parents and teachers in Ludlow who oppose the treatment of the teacher and support removing the library books in question. “That’s a perfect example of how you have what appears to be a school culture that is very aggressive in promoting transgenderism, even to young children, and doing so explicitly without the knowledge or consent of the parents,” Beckwith says. He sides with teachers and parents who want children called by the name and gender that matches their birth sex. “I believe in biological reality, male and female sexual binary. That’s how nature works. Sex is ultimately about procreation,” he says. “To have people choose their pronoun validates or normalizes what many people believe is a lie.”

The idea that the school system is preaching transgenderism is “absolutely ridiculous,” Kelliher says. “If a kid comes to us, and that’s where they’re at, we’re going to support them. They are who they are, and we’re going to take care of them.” He doesn’t dispute that parents have rights, but contends that students have rights, too. “It’s tough. That’s what we’re trying to balance, making sure we’re looking after the needs of students on these issues.”

Beckwith would like to see school systems come up with a compromise to, as he says, accommodate teachers whose religious beliefs prohibit them from calling students by anything other than the pronouns of their birth. But there’s another side for Beckwith, too, that’s about the kids themselves. “What if you believe what’s right for the kid is they feel comfortable in their own skin?”

‘The difference now is we recognize what a difficult time this is for kids,’ says one teacher. ‘They’re trying to figure out who they are.’

MASSACHUSETTS STATE LAW sides with students, according to educators in several school systems. Since 2012, the state has specifically prohibited discrimination based on students’ gender identity. State education guidelines say that school personnel “should use the student’s chosen name and pronouns appropriate to a student’s gender identity, regardless of the student’s assigned birth sex.”

The Boston Public Schools system has adapted its policies accordingly. Since 2016, it has had a written nondiscrimination policy regarding students and gender identity. That year, the school system also started offering formal support so individual students undergoing gender transition could get help navigating their school lives. School staff, including counselors, offer support and help figure out how to best make the students feel safe. If a staff member or student deliberately disrespects a student’s pronouns, the school system follows through with consequences, even termination. “The policy, the must-do, is you must call a student what they ask you to call them in terms of name and pronoun,” says Becky Shuster, BPS’s assistant superintendent of equity.

For the past five years, BPS has offered a form to update students’ names, pronouns, and gender in the computerized student information system. The form is shared at GSA clubs in schools throughout the system, says Danielle Murray, assistant head of school at Boston Latin School and its GSA club adviser. Since classes started in early September, 15 to 20 students have completed the one-page form with Murray’s help. Last year, to spur their teachers to do more to assist, 10 students made a video about pronouns and trained faculty on best practices.

Newton North High School adopted a similar approach this year, going a step further and sending a pronoun and preferred name form to every student. More than 600 of the 2,100 students completed it before school started, and the information was added to the computerized system — an option now available to Newton students in grades 6 through 12. About 30 students indicated they use they/them pronouns, school officials said.

Students have been lobbying for such changes for a long time, says Lisa Goldthwaite, a GSA adviser at Newton North, where students first presented on pronouns and related issues to school faculty about six years ago. Many students are choosing two sets of pronouns — one gender-specific and one gender-neutral — because they’re still figuring out what they want. As for the teachers, Goldthwaite says, most are just trying to understand what makes students comfortable. “Some [teachers] are further along than others,” she says.

For educators, especially those who teach and oversee children ages 12 or younger, timing discussions on pronouns and gender identity isn’t easy. At High Rock School for sixth-graders, students are typically age 11 or 12. The school opened in Needham in 2009, and Stephen Guerriero, a social studies teacher, says he then began having conversations with principal Jessica Downey about LGBTQ issues, including how to handle situations arising when a student decides to come out. “These students are here. Whether we know who they are or know how they’ve been identifying or going to identify, they are here in our room, and they always have been,” he says. “It should be a thing where all the teachers involved are trained and ready, so the issue isn’t about a single kid.”

For Guerriero, it was personal. He knew how stressful it could be to keep a key part of one’s identity private. When he began teaching elementary school in 2001, being an openly gay teacher could have been problematic. So he stayed closeted at school until 2007, when he felt the culture was more accepting. But a few years later, when he suggested to Downey that they start talking about LGBTQ issues with students, the principal was unsure. “Are they too young, and what responsibility do we have to begin talking about it with our students?” she recalled discussing with Guerriero.

Downey’s perspective would broaden over time. She, at first, was not ready to do what Needham’s upper-level schools — Pollard Middle and Needham High — were doing, including training staff and faculty on ways to make schools safe for LGBTQ students. About three years ago, Pollard’s teachers began using forms with spaces for pronouns and names students preferred. Students could indicate what they wanted to be called in different instances, including with their families. But handling that part has been a balancing act, says Pollard Principal Tamatha Bibbo, who wanted parents to be informed too.

“I have a student who goes by they/them/their, and the student said, ‘Please don’t tell my parents.’ I said to the student, ‘I don’t want to make this difficult. However, we need to let your parents know, and we will work with your parents for them to understand,’” Bibbo says. “I won’t lie to the parents. I’m not outing students. If a kid is like, ‘I’m not ready yet to have that conversation with my parents.’ I say, ‘OK.’” And if the student were afraid of getting thrown out of their home, the school would respect the child’s wishes, Bibbo adds, to keep them safe.

In the past few years at High Rock, gender identity became part of the focus of the school’s equity team and of training for all faculty. “We’ve gained a comfort in talking to students about gender identity,” Downey says. “We learned a lot of vocabulary. We heard a lot of stories.”

High Rock is trying to signal to all students that the school is a safe place, and small details help, Guerriero says. Pride flags hang in many classrooms, and stickers saying “Acceptance is Spoken Here” and “Safe Zone,” provided by the Safe Schools program, adorn many doors. The stickers also display a list of 11 LGBTQ terms and the word “ally.” Guerriero, who married in 2014, displays photos of himself and his husband in his classroom to get the message across that not everyone will have the same path. “It’s about tempering the water they’re going to swim in. All of the kids ... are learning how to be accepting and learning there are people different than them,” he says.

Alia Cusolito posted about the first few days of school: “What other emotional and mental labor do queer and trans kids need to put in before we’ll be shown basic respect?”Harry Scales/for The Boston Globe

AFTER SCHOOL RECENTLY, I met with members of High Rock’s equity team at picnic tables by the front entrance in Needham. Most are teachers figuring out the best approaches to take — like everyone else, they say, they’re learning. Drew Dorsey, a social studies teacher, says his own child, who came out as transgender at age 16, pushed him three years ago to do more in his classroom. “I use he/his/him pronouns. I put them on the board. It doesn’t take anything from me,” he says. He keeps notes on students’ requests so he knows what to use when he calls their home.

Spanish teacher Elyssa Schneider gives students the option to use “elle,” a gender-neutral Spanish pronoun created to express they/them pronouns that has gained popularity. She explains the history of “elle” in Spanish-speaking communities both in the United States and abroad.

Chris Dancy, a science teacher, is biracial and considers talking about gender identity a natural part of recognizing all identities. He first had a conversation about his own mixed-race background and being part of a specific identity group in college, but wishes that had happened earlier — in grade school. “I remember sitting in the back of classes where there were topics related to Black folks and topics related to white folks and realizing I didn’t fit,” he says. “The difference now is we recognize what a difficult time this is for kids. They’re trying to figure out who they are. We’re trying to just make space for all stories.”

Despite best efforts, misgendering mistakes will happen, Dorsey says. He’s made them in his own home with his child. “It was breaking habits for us and helping them to correct other people, making sure we’re aware when they get misgendered, and making sure that’s on our radar when we’re in groups of people.”

The principal at Old Rochester Regional, Devoll, uses himself as an example when advising faculty on the importance of owning up right away to misgendering or name errors. Four years ago, he misgendered a student at senior awards night, not realizing he’d done so until the ceremony was over. When the student approached him and said, “You misgendered me,” Devoll apologized immediately and said, “I will do everything in my power not to make that mistake again.” At senior events later that week, he paid careful attention as he announced honorees. “If you ignore the misgendering of a student or improper use of a pronoun or name,” he says, “that sends the wrong message not only to the students but to the entire class.”

Alia Cusolito, the sophomore, is more hopeful that pronoun forms and correct name usage will improve at Old Rochester Regional because of the principal’s plans for next semester. Other problems may be more daunting to solve. Ghost Desroches, a nonbinary 15-year-old sophomore who uses he/they pronouns, says Old Rochester junior high students taunted him with homophobic slurs on the bus on the third day of school. Ghost has been open about his identity since his middle school days in Rhode Island.

The teen’s name is his creation, picked because he likes the paranormal. The day we met during students’ lunch break outside, Ghost wore a filmy black dress over a white dress and a black choker with silver spikes. Cosmetic contacts covered his irises, revealing only black pupils (“gothic-like,” he described his style that day).

Ghost didn’t tell an adult about what had happened on the school bus. Instead, he went to Alia as the GSA club president and proposed a new club initiative. “If we put in some education to talk to kids about why you can’t call people that, they might understand,” he says, referring to the slur he was called.

To Alia, Ghost’s story was an all too familiar one for LGBTQ students. “They’ve been bullied in plain sight, and no one does anything about it,” Alia says. Michelle Cusolito, Alia’s mother, has observed her child’s frustration and activism, including the work Alia put into three GSA presentations to faculty last year.

“On the one hand, we’re really glad that the school gave those students the platform basically to speak to everyone,” says Michelle, an author and former teacher. “On the other side of it, there’s something wrong about the fact that the students have to do the work to show the teachers how to do a better job. They’re kids.”

Linda K. Wertheimer, a Boston-based journalist and former Boston Globe education editor, is the author of “Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance.” Follow her on Twitter @lindakwert. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.