When the creators of a new, Penn–specific trans–inclusive language guide talk about their work, it is with a mixture of pride, exhaustion, and a fierce desire to do even more.
The trans–inclusive language guide emerged from a collaboration between Penn Non–Cis and the Penn Association for Gender Equity (PAGE), after multiple frustrating experiences regarding language at Penn that was not trans–inclusive, in classes, clubs, and reporting, including that done by Street and The Daily Pennsylvanian. It outlines definitions of descriptive terms, transphobia, systems of power, common cissexist language mistakes, and dated, exclusionary, or offensive terminology to avoid.
At the forefront of this project is Lia Thomas (C ’22, she/her) and Claire Medina (C ’22, they/them), the co–chairs of Penn Non–Cis, as well as Sam Pancoe (C ’22, she/they), the chair of PAGE. Sam suggested the guide as a collaborative effort between PAGE and Penn Non–Cis, especially with a growing number of non–cisgender people on PAGE's board.
Lia, Claire, and Sam created the guide along with five other key contributors—Brennan Burns (C ’20 she/her), Amanpreet Singh, a former Street Arts writer (C ’21, they/them), Favor Idika (C ’23, they/them), Serena Martinez (C ’23, they/them), and Emily White, Street's current Style Editor (C ’23, they/she)—and many other people who read the guide pre–release. Through constant working and reworking, they came to the guide as it stands: 19 pages of information, specifically addressing trans–inclusive language in a Penn context.
“This is not a new idea. There are obviously a lot of things that are on the internet. But people don’t really take the time to look for these resources, unless it's presented to them in a way that is for them,” Claire says. Claire notes that while the DP and Street do have a trans journalist language guide, these guidelines are often not followed, so there’s a need for this kind of learning to be Penn–specific.
The first step came when Claire and Lia worked to revitalize Penn Non–Cis during the pandemic, creating an affinity space for non–cis students at Penn, as well as hosting events, panels, and speakers. But they soon found that Penn spaces that target women and LGBTQ people, like the Penn Women’s Center and the LGBT center, often lack trans staffing.
Motivated by their personal experiences with transphobia at Penn, the guide quickly became a larger, more activist, and more intense labor. The creators went back and forth on whether the information presented was too complicated, but also whether it was right to simplify inherently complex issues. There were conversations about whether certain portions of the guide should have been included or not, such as the section on transphobic terms and slurs.
“The section on slurs and transphobic language was probably the hardest part to put together because we went back and forth on ‘Should we include this?’ ‘Is this something we want to have in there?’” Lia says. “And we decided on including it because these things get said, and you want to warn and tell people.”
Many of the conversations, both in the guide and out of it, were carefully centered on such material realities. Something important to the creators was emphasizing how transphobia is not an issue that could be discussed on its own and is instead inextricable from other issues such as racism and imperialism. Claire and Lia, as the co–chairs of Penn Non–Cis, are both white, and everyone involved in creating the guide came from a Western framework. The creators were aware of their positioning, noting in the guide itself that it comes from “a specific U.S.–dominant framework of gender.”
“We really want to acknowledge that because there's so many different trans experiences,” says Lia. “And I'd be cognizant of your own experiences, and you can certainly share those, but those are not necessarily overarching.”
“There are people who don't live in America or have been colonized, and the way that their gender is perceived is siphoned into this very Western binary,” says Sam. “And we didn't feel like we have the time or the space to really adequately address that specifically when talking to Penn students in America … We tried to condense a lot of things. I know it's really long, but we tried to pare it down to the bare essentials. So that's why that’s in there but not in a full way.”
At the end of the guide is a short list of additional educational materials that strive to go beyond the limitations of space, digging further into race and transphobia. The educational materials stemmed from resources all the creators had engaged with themselves, including material from Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies classes taken by Serena and a syllabus Claire made for a project in a seminar where they tried to center trans women and trans women of color who are often both excluded from academia and are hyper–visible in society.
The project blossomed into a deeply collaborative effort that drew from the creators’ own lived experiences for much of the terminology, reflecting a diverse group of voices behind it.
“Everything in the guide is an attempt to explain why these things matter in the way that they're presented. But it definitely took a lot of conversations,” Claire says. “And there are a lot of people who were involved in this. People wrote different sections.”
Lia hopes that there can be updates and developments beyond this year’s release of the trans language guide. In particular, she hopes that there can be yearly updates and revisions after more feedback from the release of the language guide to a broader audience.
However, the creators make clear that the guide is not the be–all and end–all for trans activism at Penn. As the guide mentions, “The use of inclusive language is not what makes a space trans–friendly or safe.” The next question becomes, ‘What happens now?’
Lia, Claire, and Sam all acknowledge the different changes and next steps that might take place, either from the language guide or from other reforms, such as encouraging the Women’s Center and LGBT Center to hire more trans staff, especially trans women, sharing the language guide and engaging with Penn organizations such as Counseling and Psychological Services and Penn Violence Prevention, and working alongside the revamp of PennInTouch.
“One of the biggest things that’ll be helpful [is] gender neutral bathrooms being more spread throughout campus and more widely available,” Lia says. “More support from faculty, if they're more aware of trans issues.”
“On my end, I'm working a lot with the Women's Center and roll–out to student groups. So we're doing presentations to PAGE constituents who are interested, and then we're also doing presentations to Penn Violence Prevention educators,” Sam says. “So just as a starting point, getting people talking about trans issues. And then also working, like Claire said, to make the centers themselves more inclusive and representative.
And for Claire especially, it’s difficult to wrangle with the sheer scope of activism that they wish to happen in the face of various limitations, and the work that there is still to do.
“I mean, something something abolish Penn, right? Where does it end—land back, trans faculty?” Claire says. “I'm hoping we can actually make a change and figure out the most safe way to do it … I want things to be better.”
The trans–inclusive language guide is only the first step, and Claire hopes for the realization of much, much more: to abolish the Penn Police Department as Police–Free Penn advocates for, to move fraternities off campus along with many other reforms suggested by the Council Against Fraternity Sexual Assault, and ultimately, to achieve all justice that is firmly intertwined with the justice they seek.