From the Daily: He/she/ze

BY FROM THE DAILY

Published February 17, 2010

Most students would identify themselves as either male or female. But students who defy the traditional gender binary have brought to light the importance of using gender-neutral language on campus. Limited use of gender-neutral language on campus has resulted in an exclusive environment for students that don’t categorize themselves as “he” or “she.” But a recent resolution by the Michigan Student Assembly could encourage the use of gender-neutral language on campus. University President Mary Sue Coleman should sign MSA’s resolution and University departments should adopt policies that require the use of gender-neutral language to create an inclusive environment for everyone, regardless of gender identity.

As reported by the Daily on Monday, MSA recently passed a resolution that would change the language of the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities to be gender-neutral. The resolution is currently being reviewed by the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, the faculty’s main governing body. If SACUA passes the resolution, it will proceed to Coleman’s desk for final approval. Currently, there are no University policies that enforce the use of gender-neutral language.

There have been some movements on campus to use gender-neutral language. Some professors in the Women’s Studies Department have begun to use gender-neutral language. Similarly, the Department of English recently determined that the use of the singular “their” — formerly a grave grammatical error — was appropriate instead of “he/she.” And some gender-neutral students substitute pronouns like “ze” for “he” or “she.”

Gender-specific language contributes to a learning environment that excludes some students. Gender-neutral language has a base in efforts to eliminate the ways that language favors males — most people are familiar with using “he/she” instead of a singular male pronoun to be inclusive of women. Though individuals who don’t identify with any gender haven’t usually been the focus of gender-neutral language, the use of binary gender language doesn’t include their identity. On campus, students are excluded by the use language that is specific to either gender in the classroom and assignments.

Adopting a University-wide policy would be the most effective means to encourage an inclusive environment. The symbolic weight of such a policy would create a significant impact among students and faculty. What’s more, gender-specific language is not merely a problem at this University, but also nation-wide. By adopting such a policy, the University would stand out as a leader on the progressive front.

And it wouldn’t be a burden on professors and staff. It would simply require professors to more carefully consider their words and avoid using gender-specific language that doesn’t include all students. And, as the Department of English has determined, not even the use of the once-abhorred singular “their” is grammatically out-of-bounds. Students should also be encouraged to use gender-neutral language.

But first, the University should enact measures proposed in the MSA resolution to include gender-neutral language in the Statement of Student’s Rights and Responsibilities. If this resolution passes, more progress in the use of gender-neutral language will follow.