More Universities Move To Include Gender-Neutral Pronouns | KUOW News and Information

More Universities Move To Include Gender-Neutral Pronouns

Nov 8, 2015
Originally published on November 10, 2015 4:25 pm

More and more colleges and universities are allowing students to choose their own gender pronouns, meaning instead of just "he" and "she," the options now include pronouns like "ze," which are intended to be gender neutral.

Harvard is one of the universities that made the change official this year. Now, undergraduate students have a variety of pronouns to choose from when they register.

Van Bailey, the director of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Queer student life at Harvard College talks with NPR's Michel Martin about how Harvard is implementing and reacting to the changes.


On what led to the change

Students. We have a very dynamic and diverse student body. There were a group of students who were able to reach out to our campus partners and the registrar's office and a number of other campus constituents to really talk about their needs, particularly as transgender and non-binary students.

And we wanted to figure out a way where our students didn't have to — in their first introductions to their professor — feel like have to go into a huge paragraph about their identity, but rather have some options and control to express themselves that reflected their identity. That was a series of conversations that we had over four or five years actually.

On how the change works on campus and choices

[As] people who work on campuses, we have access to student information ... we wanted to be able to have everything that a person needed to respond to a student that reflects their identity. This is showing up on advising records, this is showing up on rosters.

We offer several options. "He" and "his," "she" and "hers," "they" and "theirs," we have options for "ze." We have options for folks who say, "Call me these sets of pronouns," for instance, I use sets of both "he" and "they."

On allowing gender fluidity at the expense of pronoun clarity

The singular "they" is something that we do in society all the time. We might not want to officially say that but we definitely do and we're not particular about a person's gender. You know, often times we'll say "they are doing this" if we don't really understand what their gender is or we don't have that information before then. As well as, I think that language is evolving and is connected to our identities, so I think, you know, this is really about inclusion, it's about respect. And at the end of the day I think we need to definitely begin to evolve as we understand how people are identifying.

On how people on campus are responding

It's an exciting time. We're having folks reach out to people like myself to do trainings and education with them if they're saying, "OK I'm trying to understand how this works in real time," and we're happy to do that. The students are excited about it. They're excited to have the control and the options. They're excited that that doesn't have to be a barrier to their classroom experience. You know, because that can be a really kind of chilling experience for a student ... we want to be able to create as many opportunities for students to feel as safe as possible in our classrooms and included as possible and for our classrooms to welcome our diverse student body that we have here.

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Transgender young people are also changing the conversation on college campuses. More colleges and universities are allowing students to choose their own gender pronouns, meaning instead of just he and she, the options now include pronouns, like ze, which are intended to be gender neutral. Harvard is one of the universities that made the change official this year. Now undergraduate students have a variety of pronouns to choose from when they register. Joining us to talk about all this is Van Bailey, director of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Queer Student Life at Harvard College. Welcome.

VAN BAILEY: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

MARTIN: What led up to the change?

BAILEY: We have a very dynamic and diverse student body. There were a group of students who were able to reach out to our campus partners and the registrar's office and, you know, a number of other campus constituents to really talk about their needs, particularly as transgender and non-binary students. And, you know, we wanted to figure out a way where students didn't have to, in their first introductions to their professor, feel like they have to go into a huge paragraph about their identity, but rather, you now, have some options and control that reflected their identity. So that was a series of conversations that had - that was had over the last, you know, four or five years, actually.

MARTIN: How does it work in the real world? Is it mainly a question of how students introduce themselves to their fellow students and to the faculty? Is it mainly a question of what shows up on the registrar's list? Or is this also relevant to questions of, like, housing, for example?

BAILEY: Absolutely. I mean, this is showing up on advising records. This is showing up on rosters.

MARTIN: What are some of the choices? Are there choices, or are students free to make one up?

BAILEY: Both. You know, we have - we offer several options- you know, him, him, his, she, her, hers, they, them, theirs. We have options for ze. We have options for folks who say, you know, call me these sets of pronouns. For instance, I use both he and they.

MARTIN: But what about people who are trying to be respectful, and they don't - would not use your first name...

BAILEY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...In speaking with you? How should they address this? Like, for example, if I wanted to show respect for you, but I didn't know you well enough to use your first name, what would I do?

BAILEY: I think using - either going with saying they or simply asking a person's gender pronoun I think is OK, too, you know? And I typically do that if I'm unsure. I'll lead with saying what my pronouns are, and then asking what somebody else's are. If people give me kind of a strange look, I will say, I want to be as respectful and inclusive as possible, and that's why I'm asking.

MARTIN: But what about people who would argue that, you know, gender may be fluid, but plurals and singulars are not, right? You are one person. It's kind of allowing more, let's say, flexibility at the expense of clarity? What would you say to that?

BAILEY: The singular they is something that we do in society all the time. We might not want to officially say that, but we definitely do. And we don't - when we're not particular about a person's gender, you know, often times, we'll say, you know, they are doing this if we don't really understand what their gender is or if we don't have that information beforehand. So I think, you know, this is really about inclusion. It's about respect. And at the end of the day, you know, I think we need to definitely begin to evolve as we understand how people are identifying.

MARTIN: How's it going over? How are people responding to it?

BAILEY: The students are excited about it. They're excited to have the control and the options. They're excited that that doesn't have to be a barrier to their classroom experience, you know, because that can be a really kind of chilling experience for a student, you know, on their first day of class for them to be referred as a different gender. And so, you know, we want to be able to create as many opportunities for students to feel as safe as possible in our classrooms and included as possible in our classrooms and for our classrooms to - you know, to welcome our diverse kind of student body that we have here at Harvard.

MARTIN: Van Bailey is Harvard College's director of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Queer Student Life. And Van Bailey joins us from the studios at Harvard University, which is in Cambridge, Mass. Thanks so much for speaking to us, Van.

BAILEY: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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