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Pronoun Challenge in Ann Arbor

pronouns8I’ve learned to be suspicious whenever any change in language is described as inconvenient. It’s inconvenient, when you think about it, to have so many forms of the past tense in English. It’s inconvenient that we in America spell a number of words differently from the British. When the honorific Ms. was introduced in the 1960s, people complained that it was inconvenient to have to insert a new option into the list of choices on forms, or to wonder how a woman wanted to be addressed. So-called inconvenient changes also become, rather quickly, the butt of jokes made mostly at the expense of those who think that, after all, the change they have in mind isn’t really all that inconvenient.

The latest surge of complaints about inconvenience coupled with jokes at the expense of change-makers arises with the University of Michigan’s newly designed forms for students choosing classes. As The Detroit News reported:

UM students can select pronouns such as he, she, him, her, ze — a gender neutral pronoun — or other pronouns they identify with starting this week.

The change is so students can let others know which pronoun they identify with and expect others to use when referencing them, Provost Martha Pollack and Vice President for Student Life Royster Harper wrote to students on the Ann Arbor campus.

“Faculty members play a vital role in ensuring all of our community feels valued, respected, and included,” Pollack and Harper wrote.

“Asking about and correctly using someone’s designated pronoun is one of the most basic ways to show respect for their identity and to cultivate an environment that respects all gender identities.”

I don’t know the percentage of students who chose he or she as their preferred pronoun, but I suspect it was well over 90 percent and included transgender students, most of whom identify as male or female. If I’m right, two truths emerge. First, any inconvenience is slight, perhaps at the level of accommodation for visually impaired students. (I’m not naming alternate gender identity as an impairment, just talking accommodation and statistics.) Second, those who do list a pronoun other than he or she are voicing a strong preference for how they wish others to address them — a strong statement, that is, of their identity in the face of great odds. So we have a deeply desirable accommodation at little cost.

But from the backlash and the jokes, you wouldn’t think so. The top-rated comments on the News report about the pronoun option read,

When these folks get out of the U with whatever degree the U feels fit to give them (after all, they will soon find something offensive about sturctured (sic) departments, degrees, such as engineering, chemistry, physics etc. etc) .. they will encounter the real world where no one actually gives a tinkers damn about such idiocy.

. . .

Good luck, snowflakes. One day you’ll figure out that when reality becomes optional, totalitarianism becomes inevitable.

Soon followed the jokes. The chairman of the board of governors of the right-wing Young America Foundation, Grant Strobl, a student at the University of Michigan, logged onto his portal and chose the preferred pronoun His Majesty. In an interview with The College Fix, he quipped, “I henceforth shall be referred to as: His Majesty, Grant Strobl. I encourage all U-M students to go onto Wolverine Access, and insert the identity of their dreams.”

Funny … right?

Apparently the denizens of the website Total Frat Move think so. They referred to Mr. Strobl’s having accomplished “a brilliant troll job” and lambasted any who thought otherwise:

These gender pronoun snobs are the worst. He she ze xe vey ir hir het hesh ne himer shkle enn heshe hann herm. …  Thanks to “gender fluidity,” everyday is a fun game of “let’s solve the puzzle in my pants.”

The irony here is that the jokesters are the ones inserting inconvenience into the process, urging anyone looking for a snigger to exploit the system until the university gives up on it.

But maybe they won’t give up. It took 20 years, in the end, but even conservative William Safire of The New York Times, confessing that it “broke his heart” to do so, conceded in 1984 that Ms. was the most reasonable honorific to use with women who wished to be addressed as Ms.

Meanwhile, I hope that Mr. Strobl gets his wish and finds himself addressed as His Majesty in every recommendation that his professors write for him to potential employers. It will be a fine joke, or something.

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