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In campus classrooms, a question of he and she or ze

Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 11, 2010

Timothy Corvidae is a student in the University’s School of Social Work. Corvidae doesn’t identify with any specific gender and uses the pronoun "ze" instead of "she" or "he."

Corvidae is a member of a group of people on campus who face language barriers as a result of their decision to not identify with a specific gender. Though these individuals represent a minority of students, their cause has recently made its way to the forefront of campus discussion.

Recently the Michigan Student Assembly passed a resolution to recommend removing gender-specific language from the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities and some students and professors are discussing mandating the use of gender-neutral language in University classrooms.

In its simplest form, gender-neutral language encompasses the use of the singular “they” as well as non-binary pronouns like ze, in place of the traditional he/she. This form of speech eliminates any word with connotations of gender like “chairman,” opting instead for the nonexclusive “chair.”

Corvidae said finding alternatives to the traditional gendered language is important because there is an intense level of exclusion in texts that only use binary language.

“I don't identify either way (as male or female),” Corvidae said. “When I read texts that use him or her, I feel like, ‘Where am I in this text?’ And it's as though I'm invisible.”

Anne Hermann, interim chair of the Women’s Studies Department, said eliminating gendered undertones is essential to ensure fairness in language.

“If I were the ‘chairman’ of the Women’s Studies Department, there would be this incredible disconnect between my title and who I am,” she said. “And I would be constantly reminded that I’m not really supposed to be in my position.”

Noah Meeks is a volunteer at the Spectrum Center — the University's office for LGBT affairs. Meeks said traditional debates over gender have been limited to eliminating language associated with men in situations that are meant to be all encompassing.

“We rejected ‘he’ as an all-encompassing pronoun,” he said. “With ‘him or her,’ we need to recognize that some people don't identify with either, and although there are few of them, they still need to be accounted for.”

Meeks said in past years many on campus would be opposed to incorporating gender-neutral language, but now students and faculty are more open to the idea.

“There’s more awareness, more openness and more resistance to the idea of a binary gender system,” he said.

In recognition of non-gendered students on campus, the Michigan Student Assembly passed a resolution to amend the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities to use gender-neutral language exclusively as part of a package of recommendations to the student code.

The resolution is currently being reviewed by the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs — the leading faculty governing body on campus — and if passed, will continue to University President Mary Sue Coleman for final approval.

Loren Sherry, assistant director of the Spectrum Center, helped to compile the resolution. He said that when he went through the approximately 10-page Statement and replaced every use of binary language with a gender-neutral alternative, he was very specific about the choices he made.

“We didn’t foresee gender-neutral pronouns (such as ze) passing, and so we used more repetitive language like ‘the student’ instead,” he said.