Following a mid-pandemic parental leave, teacher Marley Dewar returned to work in the spring to find the letter S on their nameplate — which had long displayed "Ms. Dewar" — had been covered up with an X.
Dewar identifies as a queer, non-binary parent and educator in rural Manitoba, and uses they and them pronouns. And after coming out to colleagues, students and families near the end of the 2020-2021 school year, they started using Mx. as a teacher title instead of Mr., Mrs., Ms. or Miss.
"It’s completely changed my attitude about myself in the class. I find that I’m more confident and I feel more myself. I feel visible and seen," said Dewar, a Grade 7/8 homeroom teacher at Hartney School, after a recent school day.
Be it through icebreaker activities or casual conversations, teachers and students have been getting acquainted with each other since returning to classrooms across the province earlier this month. Educators who are gender-queer — an umbrella term that indicates one identifies with neither, both or a combination of male and female genders — are increasingly using Mx. as an honorific, to both denote their non-binary identities and hold space for the LGBTQ2S community at school.
The gender-neutral prefix, which is pronounced to sound like mix, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015, as the title grew in popularity.
It was first coined in the 1970s as a feminist term for those who did not want their gender to be revealed in their title, according to Merriam-Webster’s definition, which was included in the publication in 2017.
Lindsay Brown first came across the honorific about 10 years ago, when the English teacher at Maples Collegiate was studying the work of Kate Bornstein, an American author and gender theorist. Brown recalled being awestruck after reading an article Bornstein, who is transgender, had published that referenced Mx.— so much so, the Winnipeg teacher began using the salutation.
Students and colleagues alike have quickly picked up the honorific, but many still struggle with using they and them in a singular context, said the non-binary educator.
"It makes me wonder: is it just that this is a word that they have never heard before, and that’s why it’s easy to pick up? Whereas, changing from she/her to they/them involves language they’re familiar with and that unsettles them?" they said.
Brown’s English Language Arts classroom is a fitting place to have such conversations; they suggested one does not need to look any further than a Shakespearean script for proof that dialect is ever-changing.
"But, at the end of the day, what does it really matter? What’s more important: the grammar of what you’re speaking, or accurately reflecting somebody’s identity back to them?" added Brown.
It is not lost on teacher Kim Cao how visibly binary schools are — from male and female washroom signage to Mr. and Mrs. decor on teacher desks.
Cao, who identifies as a Vietnamese, non-binary and queer educator, said they would have felt accepted, had they had a teacher who went by Mx.
"It would have created a lot of relief for me, in terms of my own internalized shame and decentralized homophobia or transphobia, that I struggled with growing up," said Cao, who started using Mx. after learning about the title from Brown, their teacher mentor.
In their roles as an English and history teacher, and an advisor of the Gender and Sexuality Club at Collège Garden City Collegiate, Cao aims to create the safe spaces for LGBTQ2S students that were lacking when they were young.
Cao handed out sheets to students during orientation sessions this year to give them each an opportunity to introduce themselves privately, disclose preferred pronouns, and indicate what they would like to be called at school, as well as the name they would like Cao to use should the educator need to call home.
"It’s so crucial (students from gender and sexual-diverse backgrounds) feel like their existence is valid and that they see themselves represented in someone who is in a position of power," Cao said, adding teachers are kidding themselves if they don’t think they have any queer, trans, or non-binary students in their classrooms.
That’s why Cao said it’s important to give students opportunities to claim their names and pronouns, incorporate anti-oppressive, intersectional materials and authors into lessons, and use visible markers like rainbow flags to show students they are welcome.
"Those little markers matter, whether it’s pronouns in your email signature or on Zoom," they added.
As far as Dewar is concerned, much work also needs to be done to update both professional development sessions and the provincial sex-ed curriculum so LGBTQ2S students feel accepted at school.
"One of the reasons why I came out with my staff is because I felt having this representation was important, normalizing my identity and who I am, and showing kids you can live your authentic self, if you’re non-binary," said Dewar.
The rural teacher noted that being out as a teacher is a statement, whether or not educators want it to be, since they are providing representation for students who might not be able to find it in their community.
They added: "It is nice knowing that sometimes, even just being here makes a difference."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.