Perplexities of Gender Inclusivity in Higher Education: A New Commission for Scholar-Practitioner-Leaders

Perplexities of Gender Inclusivity in Higher Education: A New Commission for Scholar-Practitioner-Leaders

Perplexities of Gender Inclusivity in Higher Education:

A New Commission for Scholar-Practitioner-Leaders


By: Dr. Michelle Witherspoon


“When inclusive education is fully embraced, we abandon the idea that students have to become ‘normal’ in order to contribute to the world. We begin to look beyond typical ways of becoming valued members of the community, and in doing so, we begin to realize the achievable goal of providing all students with a sense of belonging.”- Norman Kunc

Higher education has been commissioned with establishing cultures of inclusion and diversity on university campuses. This charge has become more challenging in recent years because of an increased awareness surrounding some of the perplexities of gender identity and expression. Many uncertainties about how scholar-practitioner-leaders should establish best practices for promoting diversity and gender inclusivity has caused stakeholders in academia to struggle to find equitable and sensitive ways to accomplish this pedagogically, mentally, and physically for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) student populations. Formerly, Sanlo’s (1998) handbook was designed as a guide for faculty and administrators on how to work with LGBT students. The eleven major sections centered on typical conversations about LGBT students that were problematic on college campuses such as: a general definition of LGBT student populations, health issues on campus, residence halls, campus life, athletics, career planning, student organizations, and administration and policy.

Currently, stakeholders in academia are having to use pronoun etiquette sheets, mutual respect contracts, and gender pronoun posters to make sure that they are being more gender inclusive. Astonishingly, Gender Inclusivity Task Force have been created on some campuses to keep everyone informed on the changing dynamics of this subject, to find alternative ways to protect LGBT students from experiencing discrimination, and to assist universities with supporting inclusive education in classrooms. Beemyn et al. (2005) stressed that these potential solutions are necessary because LGBT, more so “transgender students regularly encounter institutional discrimination at colleges and universities, so its important that professionals in higher education understand the experiences and obstacles they confront” (p. 49). Basic gender identity and expression terminology have been provided in this article to assist scholar-practitioner-leaders with using more appropriate vocabulary to promote gender inclusivity in the higher education environment.

Why is this topic so baffling one might ask? A key reason why is because society tends to formulate assumptions about the diverse classifications that exist in LGBT communities. As a matter of fact, Bryant and Soria (2015) specified that the politically correct term applicable today is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer (LGBTQQ) as opposed to LGBT. The authors also distinguished between gender identity and gender expression. Gender identity is an individuals’ internal understanding of themselves as male, female, both, or neither; and, gender expression is how individuals express their gender through presentation (Bryant & Soria, 2015). Even as a well-informed college professor on issues pertaining to diversity and gender inclusivity, Vanderbilt University’s very basic glossary was found to be a wonderful source to offer new perspectives on gender identity and expression terminology to use in higher education:

  • Agender: a term that is used to refer to individuals who do not express a gender identity or consider themselves gender neutral
  • Androgynous: a gender expression that incorporates elements of both femininity and masculinity
  • Cisgender: a person whose gender identity and sex assigned at birth align
  • Cisnormativity/Cissexism: a prevailing assumption among individuals, and within institutions, that everyone is cisgender
  • Feminine of Center: a term used to describe individuals whose gender and gender expression is structured around a sense of femininity, which these individuals need not be a woman and/or someone assigned female at birth
  • Gender Binary: a term that refers to the idea that there are only two genders and individuals should be gendered as either man or woman
  • Gender Expression: a term that refers to individuals’ external display of their gender either through clothing, demeanor, social behavior and other factors
  • Gender Fluid: a term that is used to refer to individuals who identify in a way that flows between genders, or whose gender identity fluctuates or shifts
  • Gender Identity: an individuals’ internal sense of themselves as either male, female, both or neither
  • Gender Non-Conforming: a person whose gender presentation does not align with socially-constructed gender expectations
  • Gender Normative/Gender Straight: a person whose gender expression aligns with socially-constructed gender expectations
  • Genderqueer: a gender identity label that is often used by people who do not identify with the man/woman gender binary
  • Gender Variant: a term that refers to individuals who do not conform with socially-constructed gender expectations
  • Heteronormative: a prevailing assumption among individuals, and within institutions, that everyone is heterosexual, assuming that heterosexual is “normal” and makes it more difficult to address the needs of those with non-heterosexual sexual identities
  • Intersex: an individual whose combination of chromosomes, hormones, internal or external sex organs, etc. differs from the two traditionally prescribed patterns of male (XX) or female (XY)
  • Masculine of Center: a term that covers a variety of identities and brings depth to queer/lesbian/women who structure their gender and gender expression from a masculine hue
  • Microaggression: a term used to refer to everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based on their marginalized group membership
  • Misgender: a term used to describe the act of failing to acknowledge (or use) an individual’s requested gender pronouns or using gendered language when referring to them (i.e. ma’am, sir, guy, girl, etc.), putting the misgendered individuals at risk for discrimination
  • Non-binary: a term used to describe individuals who do not identify with the man/woman gender binary
  • Sex Assigned at Birth: a medical term used to refer to the physiological (chromosomal, hormonal, etc.) characteristics that are used to classify an individual as female, male, or intersex at birth. Biological sex is more commonly referred to as “sex”, “physical sex” or “sex assigned at birth”
  • They/Them: gender neutral pronouns that are preferred by some individuals who identify as gender non-conforming
  • Trans: an umbrella term often used to refer to anyone who identifies as a gender other than their gender designated at birth
  • Transition/ing: a term used to refer to the multiple processes (social, physical, emotional, etc.) a gender non-conforming person undergoes when changing their bodily appearance to better align with their gender identity
  • Transphobia: a term used to refer to fear, hatred or discrimination against individuals who identify as gender non-conforming and/or are ambiguous with respect to gender expression
  • Two-spirit: a term traditionally used by Native American people to describe individuals who exhibit qualities that are associated with traditional expectations of male and female gender expression
  • Ze/Hir: gender neutral pronouns that are preferred by some individuals who identify as gender non-conforming

To reiterate, this is not an exhausted list of gender inclusive terms. It is hoped that scholar-practitioner-leaders will continue to work on creating more cultures of inclusion and diversity on university campuses for the betterment of society.


Beemyn, B., Curtis, B., Davis, M., & Tubbs, N. (2005). Transgender issues on college campuses. New Directions for Student Services, 111, 49-60.

Bryant, K., & Soria, K. (2015). College students’ sexual orientation, gender identity, and participation in study abroad. Frontier: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad25, 91-106.

Sanlo, R. (1998). Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender College Students: A Handbook for Faculty and Administrators. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.


Dr. M. L. Witherspoon is an Associate Professor and Dissertation Chair for the University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies, a member of the Center for Leadership Studies and Educational Research Hub, and a college professor in the communication, education, and research disciplines. 

Feel free to reply here with questions, insights, and additional commentary on this topic.



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