’Preferred’ Pronouns Gain Traction at US Colleges
The weekly meetings of Mouthing Off!, a group for students at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, always start the same way. Members take turns going around the room saying their names and the personal pronouns they want others to use when referring to them -- she, he or something else.
It’s an exercise that might seem superfluous given that Mills, a small and leafy liberal arts school historically referred to as the Vassar of the West, only admits women as undergraduates. Yet increasingly, the "shes" and "hers" that dominate the introductions are keeping third-person company with "they," "ze" and other neutral alternatives meant to convey a more generous notion of gender.
"Because I go to an all-women’s college, a lot of people are like, ’If you don’t identify as a woman, how did you get in?’" said sophomore Skylar Crownover, 19, who is president of Mouthing Off! and prefers to be mentioned as a singular they, but also answers to he. "I just tell them the application asks you to mark your sex and I did. It didn’t ask me for my gender."
On high school and college campuses and in certain political and social media circles, the growing visibility of a small, but semantically committed cadre of young people who, like Crownover, self-identify as "genderqueer" -- neither male nor female but an androgynous hybrid or rejection of both -- is challenging anew the limits of Western comprehension and the English language.
Though still in search of mainstream acceptance, students and staff members who describe themselves in terms such as agender, bigender, third gender or gender-fluid are requesting -- and sometimes finding -- linguistic recognition.
Inviting students to state their preferred gender pronouns, known as PGPs for short, and encouraging classmates to use unfamiliar ones such as "ze," "sie," "e," "ou" and "ve" has become an accepted back-to-school practice for professors, dorm advisers, club sponsors, workshop leaders and health care providers at several schools.
The phenomenon gained notice in the San Francisco Bay area in early November after an 18-year-old student at a private high school in Berkeley suffered severe burns when a 16-year-old boy set fire to the student’s skirt while the two were riding a public bus. The parents of the injured student, Sascha Fleischman, said their son is biologically male but identifies as agender and favors they as a pronoun.
At the University of Vermont, students who elect to change their names and/or pronouns on class rosters now can choose from she, he and ze, as well as the option of being referred to by only their names. Hampshire College in Massachusetts advertises its inclusiveness by listing the gender pronouns of its tour guides on the school’s web site. And intake forms at the University of California, Berkeley’s student health center include spaces for male, female or other.
At Mills, the changes have included tweaking some long-standing traditions. New students are now called "first-years" instead of "freshwomen." The student government also has edited the college’s historic chant -- "Strong women! Proud women! All women! Mills women!" to "Strong, Proud, All, Mills!"