Imran Syed’s column this week (Political correctness run amok, 02/22/2010) provoked a flurry of online comments as he responded to a recent Daily editorial on gender-neutral language at the University (He/She/Ze, 02/15/2010). Syed wrote, “I’m . . . concerned that this (MSA and University move to use gender neutral language) is yet another instance of a hollow gesture masking a gross lack of commitment to understanding the underlying issue and to taking the costly steps to resolve it.” I appreciated his acknowledgment of how entrenched discrimination against transgender people is, so I read on enthusiastically to hear what drastic remedy he might call for.

Sadly, he didn’t offer better actions and left readers with a call not to “enable” the University to take even “simplistic” action. Basically, it was a call to do nothing at all. If we were to forego taking even these small steps, we could guarantee that change would come only at the glacial pace Syed worries is our fate — if change were to come at all.

Syed writes, “that solution is so perfunctory that it borders on offensive.” However, I am not offended by MSA moving to use language that causes no harm to non-transgender students and facilitates a sense of inclusion for gender variant students. It would be offensive were this the only solution being considered.

It is true that transgender students, staff and faculty face challenges much greater than discomfort with non-inclusive language — for example, the right to use our preferred names, change gender markers on legal documentation, have access to gender neutral bathrooms and housing, be treated respectfully and fairly at work and in class.

If using inclusive language were so simple and perfunctory, why does it inflame such vehement resistance? In a world of rampant prejudice, a “simple” language change is not at all simple. Language change can be uncomfortable. When we made the shift away from using “man” and “he” as universal, it was awkward. Writers to this day must decide how to handle this and explain themselves in prefaces or footnotes. Reviving the use of the singular “they” would resolve that dilemma. So this solution does not serve only a tiny minority of transgender folks.

Discrimination in language is part of a larger problem. Adjusting pronouns in official documents and making proclamations about inclusion doesn’t change the world. If that were the only support transgender people were to get from the University, I would be concerned. However, arguing against such changes does not improve the situation either. As with most social change efforts, multi-pronged approaches are necessary. It makes more sense to fight for change in your own way than to fight against someone else’s efforts toward the same end.

Syed offers the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy as an example of a “solution” that didn’t solve the problem. He points out that it “did nothing to change the underlying biases that led to the exclusion of homosexuals in the first place.” This is true. By dishonorably discharging anyone who admits to being gay, the military states loud and clear that being gay isn’t acceptable. But, this is not a parallel situation. Adopting gender inclusive language acknowledges the presence of — and models acceptance of — gender variant students. This acknowledgment creates visibility, which some would argue is an important step toward tolerance and acceptance.

Many online comments seem concerned that anyone would bother to make adjustments to better include students who are in an “infinitesimal” minority. It’s true: Very few students today openly identify outside of the gender binary — emphasis on “openly.” It used to seem that there weren’t many gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer students at the University either. This wasn’t because they weren’t here. Rather, they weren’t visible because to be open about their identities in a climate of socially sanctioned homophobia might have endangered their careers and their physical and psychological safety.

Individuals who don’t identify with the gender binary of man or woman are rare; we will possibly always be quite rare, even where it safe for us to be visible. This doesn’t dismiss our right to basic respect and courtesy. Online writers pointed out that my career and my reputation as a sane human being are at risk because my gender identity and expression aren’t normative. I can’t tell from your gender whether you are mentally stable, a good student or worker, or a decent human being. You can’t tell that from mine either. When people assume they can is proof enough that language change is necessary. It isn’t a small issue. It is a necessary addition to initiatives on campus aimed at fulfilling the University’s commitment to nondiscrimination.

Timothy Corvidae is a School of Social Work graduate student.

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