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University of Tennessee switches gender-specific pronouns 'he' and 'she' for 'xe' and 'ze' to promote inclusivity

Proposal has been met with a mixture of praise and criticism over 'lack of common sense'

Jess Staufenberg
Saturday 29 August 2015 13:15 BST
Donna Braquet says the mvoe will promote inclusivity at the university
Donna Braquet says the mvoe will promote inclusivity at the university

Gender-neutral pronouns for transgender and queer-identifying people - such as "xe" and "ze" - are being encouraged at a second university in the US.

The University of Tennessee has asked tutors to consider asking students which pronouns they wish to be addressed by, warning against assuming gender-binary pronouns "he" and "she".

Donna Braquet, director of the Pride Center at the university in Knoxville, has posted advice to respect that some students may identify differently to the gender assigned them on the register.

"The more we make sharing of pronouns a universal practice, the more inclusive we will be as a campus," writes Ms Braquet. "When our organisational culture shifts to where asking for chosen names and pronouns is the standard practice, it alleviates a heavy burden for persons already marginalised by their gender expression or identity."

The move follows the University of California's (UC) decision to include six gender categories on its applications. It also comes amid an explosion in media coverage of the issue following Caitlyn Jenner – born Bruce Jenner – coming out as transgender.

Trangender issues have received more media coverage recently after Caitlyn Jenner's transition (Getty)

Announced in July this year, UC's categories on its applications are: male, female, trans male/trans man, trans female/trans woman, gender queer/gender non-conforming, and different identity.

In this case, "transgender" is not given as a general option but rather "trans female or male" exist to indicate whether a person is identifying as masculine or feminine.

But the pronouns suggested by Ms Braquet, and of use in much of the LGBT community, give no clue as to the gender a person identifies with.

Instead of "he" or "she", there is "ze" or "xe". For "him" or "her", it could be "them" or "they" (so eliminating gender by talking about the person in the plural), or it could be "zem" or "xir" or "hir". So, "I can see zem" or "Have you seen xir?".

For "their", their might again be used, or other options would be: "That is xyr food" or "Is that food xirs?"

Ms Braquet may well be introducing us to the vocabulary of the future. Several commentators predicted after University of California's decision that such options would become wide-spread.

As she points out: "These may sound a little funny at first, but only because they are new. The 'she' and 'he' pronouns would sound strange too if we had been taught 'ze' when growing up."

Several commentators have weighed in on her advice - sometimes with obvious disdain, but also with pragmatic concerns over referring accurately to different students.

Conservative columnist Todd Starnes wrote in an opinion piece for Fox News: "His and hers is no longer good enough at the University of Tennessee - where they are willing to sacrifice anything for the sake of gender inclusivity - including common sense."

Jonathan Turley, a professor of law and a political commentator in the US, was more concerned about accurately implementing the advice.

"As an academic, this would be a pretty daunting task for keep[ing] track of so many options," he says on his legal blog. "I have a class of around 130 students. More importantly, I am still behind the learning curve on what terms like “xyr” mean, though Braquet insists that this is just part of learning the new lingo for a new age."

Other vocabularies, including many east Asian and Austronesian languages, have no gender specific pronouns. Gender neutral pronouns in European languages, such as "it", meanwhile, are seen as having the insurmountable problem of de-humanising the subject.

Let's see if "ze" manage to make its mark.

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