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Saturday, August 29, 2015

As if grammar wasn't hard enough, here come 'gender-neutral' pronouns

This past Wednesday, Donna Braquet, Director of the Pride Center at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, made some waves. She (assuming I'm using the correct pronoun here) encouraged staff and students to abandon all common sense when it comes to names, pronouns, gender identities, and official school rosters. She writes:
We should not assume someone's gender by their appearance, nor by what is listed on a roster or in student information systems. Transgender people and people who do not identity within the gender binary may use a different name than their legal name and pronouns of their gender identity, rather than the pronouns of the sex they were assigned at birth.

In the first weeks of classes, instead of calling roll, ask everyone to provide their name and pronouns. This ensures you are not singling out transgender or non-binary students. The name a student uses may not be the one on the official roster, and the roster name may not be the same gender as the one the student now uses.
Leaving aside the question of why, given such reasoning, a school would bother having a roster at all, what kinds of pronouns are we talking about here?:
We are familiar with the singular pronouns she, her, hers and he, him, his, but those are not the only singular pronouns. In fact, there are dozens of gender-neutral pronouns.

A few of the most common singular gender-neutral pronouns are they, them, their (used as singular), ze, hir, hirs, and xe, xem, xyr.

These may sound a little funny at first, but only because they are new. The she and he pronouns would sound strange too if we had been taught ze when growing up.
Folks, let me remind you that this is someone holding an influential position at a university.

Imagine if students' personal preferences were allowed free reign in other areas of college life. "Yeah, I know I've been getting Cs and Ds on all my assignments, but deep down I identify as an A student. Come on, professor. Why are you being so hateful and intolerant? Isn't this supposed to be a safe zone?"

Ms. Braquet (I'm using "Ms." because I haven't seen a list of gender-neutral personal titles) concludes:
How do you know what pronoun someone uses? If you cannot use the methods mentioned above, you can always politely ask. "Oh, nice to meet you, [insert name]. What pronouns should I use?" is a perfectly fine question to ask.

The more we make sharing of pronouns a universal practice, the more inclusive we will be as a campus. When our organizational culture shifts to where asking for chosen names and pronouns is the standard practice, it alleviates a heavy burden for persons already marginalized by their gender expression or identity.
She (ze?) then invites anyone wishing to learn more to sign up for a Safe Zone workshop. I'll bet they'll need the large conference room for that.

I don't know what kind of feedback UTK received when people read Donna Braquet's suggestions, but I imagine it was quite critical, especially since the school released the following statement just two days later:
We would like to offer clarification on statements referring to gender-neutral language.

There is no mandate or official policy to use gender-neutral pronouns. We do not dictate speech. Most people prefer to use the pronouns he and she. However, some don't.

The information provided in this week's Office of Diversity and Inclusion newsletter was offered as a resource to our campus community on inclusive practices.

We strive to be a diverse and inclusive campus and to ensure that everyone feels welcome, accepted, and respected.
My apologies to the "we're not happy unless we're offended" crowd, but let me make this clear: I will not use gender-neutral pronouns, no matter how mainstream the practice may become. The world is already complicated as it is. Why must we complicate it further?

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