BY MICHELE NAROV
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.
In addition to the work by MSA and other student groups, in interviews last week many professors said they agree that gender-neutral thinking should be used in the classroom.
Robin Queen, professor of linguistics, wrote in an e-mail interview with The Michigan Daily that educators should promote awareness about the exclusionary aspects of language.
“The main issue, in my opinion, is to help writers (be they students, administrators, instructors or staff members) become aware that there are choices to be made and that those choices have consequences,” Queen wrote in the e-mail.
Corvidae said teaching gender-neutral language is an important step because so many people are unaware of how to handle gender in their speech.
“One of the biggest challenges with gender-neutral language is that people don't know how to use it,” Corvidae said. “They feel embarrassed if they don’t know how to read people’s gender because that's something that's really important in our society.”
Corvidae said using gender-neutral language in the classroom allows students a “safe setting” to practice non-exclusionary speech.
But though many agree that this inclusive language is important, no LSA department currently holds a gender-neutral language policy.
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said a sweeping University policy on the use of gender-neutral language is unlikely because the administration tries to give as much leeway as possible.
“The University tries to avoid regulating speech as much as possible,” he said.
Aric Knuth, lecturer in Department of English, said though he is often skeptical of new policies, he was surprised to hear no policy is in place.
“It surprised me because we are people who are in the business of language,” he said. “And we understand how language interacts with and often represents other kinds of big intellectual problems in our lives.”
Hermann, chair of the Women's Studies Department, said to her knowledge, no professors are calling for a specific policy, and she isn’t sure it is imperative that one is enacted.
“I don’t have anything against it being standardized, but I don’t see a need for it,” she said.
Meeks said even though he fully supports the issue, he’s not necessarily in favor of a specific policy.
“There is balance in making sure people are aware of it and practicing using it versus pushing it to the point where people resist it and there’s a backlash,” he said.
Queen wrote though she would support a departmental policy, it may not be the best route toward addressing the issue.
“The kinds of changes being advocated by policies about gender-neutral language use seem to be especially effective when they come from grass roots, local efforts (e.g. from the bottom up rather than top down),” she wrote.
Despite the lack of an official policy, professors continue to encourage the exploration of different language options.
The Department of English ruled in favor of the singular “they” as grammatically correct, and many professors in the Women’s Studies Department implement gender-neutrality into their curriculum to some extent.
LSA junior Kelsey Sovereign said gender-neutral thinking is strongly encouraged in her women’s studies classes.
“In our society you often are either designated as a man or a woman, but we talk about not necessarily labeling things as one or the other,” she said.
She also said that specific assignments often call exclusively for gender-neutral language.
Keith Reisinger, graduate student instructor for the Women’s Studies Department, said the issue reaches far beyond any departmental policy or the confines of the University.
“I think we as a whole need to change how we talk about gender and people,” he said.