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“They is starting law school next week:” Gender-neutral pronouns are awkward at first but worth it.

My Law and Public Policy class begins next week.  But before we jump into reading cases and writing briefs we will introduce ourselves and share our preferred pronouns.  I prefer “she/her/hers.” Every year I have two or three students who prefer “they/them/theirs.”  At first I thought this was a ridiculous waste of everyone’s time. We have legislative processes to learn!  Executive orders to scrutinize! But, I’ve come to appreciate the practice. It reminds me to be mindful of people unlike me and I hope it signals to the students that our class values inclusion.

In 2015, the press was already reporting the use of gender-neutral pronouns as trending. I’ve noticed more and more people using them, especially in academics.  Students at American University, for example, offer their preferred gender pronouns with their names and home towns when introducing themselves. “We ask everyone at orientation to state their pronouns,” said Sara Bendoraitis, the University’s director of programming, outreach and advocacy, “so that we are learning more about each other rather than assuming.”

In addition to learning about others, using the gender-neutral “they/them” can also teach us something about ourselves.  I was born female and continue to identify as female.  But this is a privileged position, one which I almost always take for granted.  Transgender people and gender-non-conforming people face harassment, bias and even violence at increasingly alarming rates.  In 2016, advocates tracked 22 deaths of transgender people, the most ever recorded; 17 deaths have already occurred in 2017.  My gender conformity provides me with protection and privilege I never knew I had.

Finally, the inclusion and acceptance of gender-non-conforming students benefits all types of students. It makes the classroom a safer place for students to learn and encourages students to contribute to the discussions.  My class on immigration policy will be much more nuanced and informative if immigrants in the class share their experiences. Our discussion of the Affordable Care Act will be enriched by a student who talks about growing up poor without access to healthcare beyond the emergency room.

Of course, gender-neutral pronouns have been mocked. Even recently, a mother of a student at a “super-hippie” private school in San Francisco complained to me that the school asked which pronoun her daughter preferred during registration. Her daughter is 11.  When the University of Michigan announced a “designated pronoun” policy, one student protested by choosing the “pronoun” “His Majesty.” He told Fox News, “the question is: When will that end? How much is the University willing to sacrifice its pursuit of truth and its mission for this fantasyland of political correctness?”

The answer to His Majesty’s question is that “truth” is not sacrificed. In fact, the truth for transgender students is recognized, true dialogue about the subject matter is encouraged, and the truth of our diverse country is honored by the simple practice, as strange as it may seem at first, of allowing for the use of gender-neutral pronouns in classrooms across the country.

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