The Tennessee waltz



What is going on in Tennessee? First we learn that they tried to ban mothers and fathers before coming to their senses. Now we learn that their flagship university tried to ban he and she—before it came to its senses. What senses are these, and how is it that Tennessee keeps losing them?

This week, we’ll look at he and she. At our first faculty meeting, before I’d learned of the issue in Tennessee, I heard a moment of gender awkwardness when the chair of one of our departments stood up to introduce a recently hired colleague. Looking for new faces in the crowd, I had noticed this newcomer, a solid, androgynous looking person with a fashionable close haircut, dressed in traditionally male garb. For a fleeting moment I wondered if this individual was male or female, especially since women have greater latitude in their dress and appearance these days. When he was introduced as Jason, I had my answer—which was further enlarged by the detail of Jason’s having earned his B.A. at Mount Holyoke. Then the introducer slipped, and between the hes and hims came shes and hers. I don’t think it was a big deal, either to us in the audience or to Jason, but one did notice a passing ripple of confusion.

That confusion, I suspect, would not have been helped by the suggestion offered through the University of Tennessee’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion. Following in the footsteps of other entities, official and unofficial, they proposed that, in calling the roll during the first week of classes, professors should “ask everyone to provide their name and pronouns.” Not only, presumably, will they hear “he” and “she,” sometimes given by students whose body types and clothing might have suggested a different pronoun, but they may also hear ze, xe, and other iterations of a gender-neutral pronoun. It’s almost amusing to think that asking this question publicly of every student in the class would “ensure you are not singling out transgender or nonbinary students”—in fact, it could ensure exactly such singling out.

Nor, I suspect, is there any greater chance of Jason’s preferring ze to he. Clearly Jason identifies as a specific gender, as male, and in English we have gender-specific pronouns that work just as well for a trans person as for a cis person. That leaves, however, the possibility that many individuals, regardless of their gender or their attitude toward gender identity, might prefer to be regarded, particularly in a professional environment, in a non-gender-specific manner. Right now, English doesn’t really have a way to meet this goal (singular they is useful, but it doesn’t cover all the bases), and so some advocates have proposed ze, hir, xyrs, etc. Maybe such terms won’t catch on, but maybe they will — and if they do, I doubt such change will signal the end of society as we know it.

Still, the uproar in Tennessee, as reported by Inside Higher Ed, was loud and raucous enough to cause the university chancellor and the president of the state university system to reveal that they were “deeply concerned” and to announce that “references to the use of gender-neutral pronouns will be removed from the Office for Diversity and Inclusion website.”

The complaint, of course, was about supposedly politically correct arm-twisting. And to be fair, as it walked back its own policy, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity mischaracterized the tone of its initial missive.  “This quarter we chose to raise awareness about inclusive language,” the protested, “specifically gender-neutral pronouns. The information provided in our e-newsletter was offered as a resource — not as a policy or mandate — to our campus community on inclusive practices.” Well, maybe not. But the original announcement, which has now been taken down, did use the mighty art of persuasion, with phrases like “We should not assume” and “The more we make sharing of pronouns a universal practice, the more inclusive we will be as a campus.” Suggestions are framed as commands (“instead of calling roll, ask everyone to provide their name and pronouns”). Not to follow in the footsteps laid out for you would, the e-newsletter implies, create “a heavy burden for persons already marginalized by their gender expression or identity.” That’s not just raising awareness. That’s making an argument. It’s a complicated argument — arguments about language always are, as this CHE video suggests — but surely one worth having. Come on, Tennessee. Stop dancing around these issues. Get in the ring with each other on this stuff, and duke it out.