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Please, do not misgender your students

Photo of Jim Huffman
Jim Huffman
Visiting Fellow, Hoover Institution

Last week I received a message (forwarded by the dean) from my school’s Queer Resource Center (QRC) explaining that many individuals in the LGBTQQAOPA community have been made to “feel uncomfortable and disrespected in their learning environments” as a result of being “misgendered by professors.” The QRC (a student organization) message advised that, to prevent such discomfort and wounded feelings, professors should make it known that they care “about respecting students’ gender pronouns.”

It turns out respect requires more than a friendly smile and simple ‘I care.’ A link in the QRC message took me to a table labeled “Pronouns 101” on the Trans Student Equality Resources website. There I was cautioned that, although the table includes pronouns I have never heard of (ze, zir, zem, zirs, zes, hir and hirs) and usages of familiar pronouns I had long understood to be incorrect (they, them and their as the gender neutral singular), the pronouns included in the table “are not the only pronouns.” In fact, I learned, “[t]here are an infinite number of pronouns as new ones emerge in our language.”

Fortunately, I am retired from teaching, but I do wonder how my former colleagues will cope with this brave new world of pronouns. The QRC message recommends having everyone in each class “go around and share their names and gender pronouns.” Maybe that will work, but isn’t someone likely to feel uncomfortable or disrespected for having been misgendered by the QRC’s use of the pronoun “their.” As for me, fortunately I’m retired.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a staunch defender of equal rights for everyone. I’ve signed on with Freedom Oregon and Oregon United for Marriage. I think Ted Olson was on the right side in defending gay marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court.

But really. Feeling uncomfortable and disrespected because others fail to acknowledge something that the QRC message acknowledges “you cannot know … by looking.” It reminds me of a time several decades ago in New Zealand when a Canadian friend was mistakenly identified as an American. He said he was deeply offended. He was kidding, of course. The QRC, it seems, is not.

After years of tip toeing around “he” and “she” are we now going to further mangle the English language with “zir” and “zem”? Do we really serve our students’ future needs by fabricating instructional bubbles to protect them from self-proclaimed injuries? Shouldn’t we professors be in the business of teaching our students to use language precisely rather than conducting our classes as if there really are “an infinite number of pronouns?”

In Wonderland Humpty Dumpty can insist, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” But in the real world of college classrooms, words, including pronouns, cannot mean what we decide they mean. Nor, if we are serious about communication, can we make them up from thin air.

As a sympathizer with the goal of equal opportunity for all people, my suggestion is that the LGBTQQAOPA folks follow the lead of my Canadian friend. Feign offense, if you like, but focus your energies on achieving equal opportunity and combatting bias, not on the pronouns innocently (and correctly) used by your professors.

And in case you’re wondering, LGBTQQAOPA stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, asexual, omnisexual, pansexual and allied community. I have no idea what most of that is, but I imagine the last bit is included to avoid offending those who believe they have been overlooked.