Fear of New Pronouns

U of Tennessee, facing political backlash, removes guide to language choices that many transgender people prefer and promises review by system leaders before any future guide is issued.

September 8, 2015

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville, under orders by the head of the University of Tennessee System, on Friday removed from its website a guide to pronouns that many transgender people prefer.

The guide, which led to numerous false reports that the university had banned the use of such traditional pronouns as "he" and "she," created a political uproar in the state, with many legislators vowing to punish the university for having published the guide.

Joe DiPietro, president of the university system, announced the guide's removal in a letter to his board.

"Despite the aggressive efforts by UT Knoxville to communicate the fact that the campus does not require the use of gender-neutral pronouns, I am deeply concerned about the attention this matter continues to receive and the harm it has had on the reputation of the University of Tennessee," DiPietro wrote. "The social issues and practices raised by the Office for Diversity and Inclusion are appropriate ones for discussion on a university campus. However, it was not appropriate to do so in a manner that suggests it is the expectation that all on campus embrace these practices. Chancellor [Jimmy] Cheek and I have agreed that references to the use of gender-neutral pronouns will be removed from the Office for Diversity and Inclusion website. Chancellor Cheek will instruct the vice chancellors not to publish any campuswide practice or policy without his approval after review with the cabinet."

While the guide was removed from the university's website, a cached version may be found here. The guide notes that many transgender people do not like to use traditional pronouns and that some prefer what would normally be plural pronouns ("they" and "theirs") while others prefer singular words such as "ze" and "hirs." (The full list illustrates this article.) The guide suggests that faculty members not assume anyone's preferred pronoun or gender identity, and that they ask people their preferences and use them.

The guide doesn't ban anyone from preferring traditional pronouns, and does not ban the use of "he" or "she." As criticism of the guide took off, the diversity office issued a clarification that said, in part: "There is no mandate or official policy to use the language. Neither the university nor the Office for Diversity and Inclusion has the power or authority to mandate use of gender-inclusive pronouns."

Bloggers and columnists picked up on the guide in the last week, with most of the commentary mocking the guide, with headlines such as "University of Tennessee Bans 'Gender-Based' Pronouns. For Real …" and "Say what? University of Tennessee invents pronouns 'ze, hir, hirs.'"

In fact, the University of Tennessee didn't invent those pronouns. Advocates for transgender people have used them for some time, and many colleges share information about these pronouns (without requiring anyone to stop using "he" or "she") as part of efforts to make transgender students and faculty members feel welcome. Here is a guide in use at Ohio University, for example. Ohio allows students to designate a preferred gender pronoun. Harvard University has just adopted a similar policy.

But none of this stopped Republican legislators from attacking the pronoun policy as "political correctness run amok" and as evidence of poor governance of the university. Hearings are planned to review the situation. The Family Action Council of Tennessee launched a campaign to "neuter" the policy, which it said was divisive and not inclusive.

The council issued a statement saying that the guide really was policy, and not just a set of recommendations. "That has the appearance of neutrality, but it is not neutral. It is not neutral because it does not say that men should be called by masculine pronouns and women should be called by feminine pronouns, which has always been the unwritten standard in our country," said the statement.

Via email, Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, answered some questions about the controversy.

As to the use of new pronouns by those who wish, Keisling said: "There is a growing trend in the United States, especially in colleges and universities, for some people to use and prefer nontraditional pronouns. That is just a fact of modern American society. Society changes, language changes and today on college campuses, there are increasing numbers of people who specify nontraditional pronouns. Why not respect them? … It reminds me of the popularization of the honorific Ms., which seemed so outrageous to so many for much of the 1960s and then became commonplace in the following decade despite self-righteous whining to the contrary."

In terms of legislative threats to the university, Keisling said "that the legislature would even weigh in on this pronoun issue, let alone demand to micromanage it, should be as embarrassing for them as it is troubling for the really good people of Tennessee. The students must have known for some time that their legislature is willfully and proudly ignorant of difference and change, but students will obviously also be less confident that the University of Tennessee has a real commitment to diversity."

Still, Keisling saw something positive in the debate, even with the withdrawal of the guide: "I think that, ironically, the action by the school under threat from the extremist Tennessee legislature will do far more to educate people about nontraditional pronouns than the information that they censured would have. Most people who simply want to respect what people think about their own identities are now more likely to be educated about the issue."


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