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  • Looking for things to look forward to, I read a New York Times article recently that celebrates things you learn in your forties. The piece was disappointing because A) I hope the decade's revelations are more profound than allowing yourself not to like jazz, and B) its decades-earned final line is just not true: "•When you’re unsure if it’s a woman or a man, it’s a woman."

    I may have disregarded this assertion at another time, a yuk among yuks, but it came during my first semester teaching a student whose gender I could not identify. A student uneasy being crammed into the either/or qualifier. It was an issue I have ignored, could ignore, because--like the moths on right and left of the gynandromorph--I slide to one end of the spectrum.

    Assuming one judges only the surface, not my college years wresting with sexual power, middle-school slumber parties where we learned the rules we were agreeing to play by. No, it's not always clear-cut, but it wasn't until I referred to this student with a pronoun that I realized I had an issue. In a sentence, you simply trace the referent back to its antecedent. What could I check? The student's name on my roll was traditionally female. The preferred name, as I ask students to tell me on the first day, was traditionally male. Physically, I was unsure--more conscious of the assumptions we take on or cast off with clothing, mannerisms.

    I consulted a trusted professor and director of the Gender Studies Program who told me, "Ask the student directly."

    Why hadn't I thought of that? While we guess instantly on meeting someone, asking someone's gender seemed too forward. I feared trespassing on personal territory, but this advice assured me such questions could be handled with respect.

    The answer came back "he" with a preference for the more neutral "they/their." So perhaps we might better learn over time not surety but greater openness to a vast array of possibilities as they present themselves.
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