Confronting the ‘Cis’ in ‘Classicist’

Photo: close-up picture of three GLSEN signs that each say “Protect Trans Students” underneath a blue, pink, and white heart. Credit: Drew Angerer for Teen Vogue

Confronting the ‘Cis’ in ‘Classicist’

Advocating for a More Gender-Inclusive Discipline

By Y. James Aykit


My journey in Classical Studies was sparked by homophobia. I was two weeks into my freshman year of high school when I confronted my Spanish teacher for having an anti-LGBTQ poster in his classroom. It was an incredibly bold move that had major—but not punitive—consequences: namely, transferring into Latin class.

I took Latin all throughout high school. When I started socially transitioning in my senior year, my Latin teacher was one of the first teachers I told. When I told her about the transphobia I was facing, she was incredibly supportive of me. Perhaps it was also incredibly bold to come out as a trans man in an “all-girls” Catholic school. Regardless, I was looking forward to going to Penn, where there were no religious expectations.

This past fall, I started my senior year at Penn. In some ways, I felt no better than I did as a senior in my Catholic high school. At Penn, I have been openly transgender and queer, holding an executive position in Penn’s club for trans students. But throughout college, I had never met another trans classicist. Even as a biology major, I never met another openly trans biologist.

At one point in my sophomore year, I made a ‘zine which I titled “Being Queer in a STEM Career.” On the last page, I drew groups of people sitting around tables; everyone was colored gray except for the folks at a table in the lower right-hand corner, who were rainbow- and trans-flag-colored. “You have to make space for yourself in a system that wasn’t built with you in mind,” I wrote. With this message as a guiding principle, in the fall semester of my senior year at Penn, I decided to make space for myself in Classics by seeking out other trans classicists and literature enthusiasts for a final project titled “Confronting the ‘Cis’ in ‘Classicist’: Reflections on Hermaphroditus.”

For this project, I utilized Twitter profiles like @TransInClassics and Facebook groups for trans people in academia to connect with professional classicists, writers, and English majors willing to discuss their personal experiences. While I was only able to interview a handful of people due to the short timeline of my project, each of my participants had a very unique background. Although I heard some inspiring stories about supportive colleagues and environments, there was an obvious running theme throughout all of our conversations: in our discipline, we can do better to support trans students and faculty members in Classical Studies. 

It was clear that our discipline needs change. But how can we make this change? In my interviews, the people I spoke with presented several recommendations for general use, as well as suggestions specific to the Classics classroom. Below, I present a collection of these recommendations. The following suggestions are meant to be an illustrative, not exhaustive, list of ways to support gender minorities, and some may be applicable to supporting classicists of other identities.



Across all of the conversations I had, the most suggested improvements related to the use of pronouns in the academic environment at large. 

  • Include your pronouns in your email signature, Zoom name, Canvas profile, and on syllabi.
  • Take a few seconds to check for pronouns in the email signature of your colleagues and students. If you don’t see pronouns, ask for them. If you do see pronouns, use them. 
  • Importantly, if a classmate or student tells you privately that they are using different pronouns, be sure to ask if it is safe to use those pronouns for them when speaking to others. 
  • A good guide for inclusive language practices was recently published by Penn Non-Cis and the Penn Association for Gender Equity (PAGE). If you are a faculty member, share this with your students, or include a link on your syllabus or Canvas page.


Class Discussions

The following suggestions for promoting gender inclusivity in the classroom came from the students I spoke with.

  • When discussing a piece of literature in a class, professors should work with students to create a list of “ground rules” prior to the discussion. For example, one rule could be “what is said in this space stays in this space unless it makes sense to share.” 
  • Content warnings and resources should be included in syllabi and Canvas modules, and students should be allowed to opt out of classes in which the discussion material is very personal. 
  • Professors should organize courses such that there is enough time to fully and thoughtfully address nuanced course content, such as gender in antiquity.


In the Classics Classroom

In addition to speaking with students, I had the chance to hear from professors, instructors, and teachers in the discipline of Classical Studies, who provided me with the following suggestions for addressing gender in the Classics classroom.

One participant, a professor, talked extensively about the difficulties of addressing sensitive topics in a language class. How can we make time and space for topics like race and gender when a course’s primary learning objectives are based on grammar concepts? This professor’s preferred method for working around this issue is to address gender by asking students about syntax. For example, when translating a story about a woman, how often is she the subject of the sentence? When she is not the subject, who is? 

Other respondents working in education focused on the intersection of gender and translation. When translating general statements in the classroom, do we default to “he” in English? A participant who teaches Classics and languages in middle school said that they like to work with students to come up with non-gendered pronouns for languages that do not have a gender-neutral option. This participant recommended using “A Style Guide for Gender Inclusivity in Latin” by Lupercal for this purpose.

After connecting with this diverse group of classicists and compiling my final report, I felt reinvigorated with hope for a more inclusive Classics environment. Higher education, and Classics in particular, have an unfortunate history of elitism and dominance by cis, white men, but the landscapes of this discipline and of academia at large are changing. With each conversation that we have about a historically underrepresented or marginalized group, we, as the future leaders of this discipline, are actively working to advance our field and reshape the long-standing perception of Classics. We don’t have to teach perfectly or always present positive material: as long as we try our best, welcome feedback, and work to enact change, we will be successful.


James Aykit (he/him) is a recent graduate (College ‘21) from the University of Pennsylvania with a major in Biology and a minor in Classical Studies.


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