Debating gender neutral pronouns feels like deja vu

The Basics

The Office for Diversity and Inclusion at University of Tennessee, Knoxville asked in a web post that students, professors and the administration welcome all of the students to campus this year, including those who are gender non-conforming. They suggested that the college community ask students what name they would like to be called and what pronouns to use when they are addressed.

Then all hell broke loose.


What happened

The media got involved locally and nationally, the beginning of a perfect storm. Some thought the university was requiring the campus to speak in new ways, using unfamiliar terms to many on campus. All sorts of people, including newscasters, began sarcastic snickering and hostile joking about this request. These responses are not funny.

Chris Sanders, Executive Director of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) sent out a 9/1/2015 email with the subject line: Fight back! Family Action trying to get Legislature to stop UT-K's trans welcoming program. In it, he stated "Now Family Action of Tennessee is urging its members to contact state legislators to get them to "neuter" UT's program. Offensive doesn't quite capture it!”

Chris also suggested that we sign a petition "to generate emails to the State Senate Education Committee and to the State House Education Administration and Planning Committee …. so that they know you want UT to make its own decisions about programming to make transgender and gender non-conforming people welcome!"

Some state leaders began frothing at the mouth, outraged, sounding like one national radio host, Tom Starnes who wrote, “Across the fruited plain, institutions of higher education are turning their taxpayer-funded fiefdoms into gender neutral zones where free thought is outlawed,” in Back to School: Let the left-wing indoctrination begin. Mr. Starnes’ comments were inflammatory and inaccurate. UT-K’s request was in no way outlawing free thought.

In the 1970’s some women decided that they wanted to use the term “Ms.” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.,” the latter two describing a woman’s relationship only to a man. Ms. magazine prompted our now common usage of this term but a similar backlash had also occurred. Some thought women were getting too uppity, they called out the feminists, labeling them extremists, femi-nazis, and even lesbians!

Why don’t most people line up to support the change in pronoun usage?

Using a variety of pronouns may be confusing at first. Some want simplicity, hate change, and wish for clear dualities: ie. man or woman, black or white. However, we are a melting pot of colors and there are unique mixtures of genders as well. Why can’t everyone welcome the transgender community with open arms, just like Jesus would do?

Most children go through a time of exploring their bodies, their identities, and their personalities. By not allowing children to freely explore, we are telling them both biologically and emotionally that it is not OK to be who they are. That there is something, in fact, wrong with them, that they need to be different. “Be like Mary or Joe, just don’t be you.”

Such shame, rejection, and distortion can make any child confused, angry, insecure, highly anxious, and/or depressed. Why would any parent or any society want to inflict that horror upon any child?

Those who rant against UT-K’s post separate people, preaching that there is a right and a wrong way to live, to be, to exist. Not acknowledging who a person really is, especially regarding gender or sexuality, can lead to trauma through violence, bullying, and possibly premature death. Why would anyone act so hostile and demeaning toward those they perceive as different?

First of all, some people are extremely insecure even if they display strong, macho characteristics.  The most insecure people can be the loudest and the most rigid. They may also feel like their way of life (a rigid construct seeing life as black and white, not gray or brown) is being devalued by the “other,” threatening their very foundation, a strong, unmoving rock on which they depend for their very existence. If this foundation crumbles like sand, life can seem like a cascading, chaotic disaster over which they have no control. So, they yell and scream guarding their highly fragile egos.

If we challenge their rules, then we are asking them to examine everything that they believe to be true. No small matter. Thankfully, some will evolve away from their age-old opinions and open themselves up to discussion, maybe even changing their minds. But, many people gather their community members even closer together, circling the wagons, ready to fight and defend.


What happened next?

Top lawmakers in TN ramped up. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said that UT-K’s welcoming request was "the clearest example of political correctness run amok that I have seen in quite some time,” even though Margie Nichols, UT's vice chancellor for communications, explained that this was not a UT-K policy, just a recommendation.

After several days of state and national attention, UT-K decided to pull the post that began all this controversy: “In a letter to the Board of Trustees, UT system President Joe DiPietro said he was ‘deeply concerned about the attention this matter continues to receive and the harm it has had on the reputation of  the University of Tennessee.’” I am deeply concerned that the university has made this decision, evoking harm yet again to the LGBTQIA community.

This storm makes for a very difficult discussion about how to create a better society where all people are not only equal but treasured. It is a debate we will continue to have until a larger majority of people support this issue. Look what happened with marriage equality!

I agree with Marisa Richmond with the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition who said: “Anytime we challenge our notions of conformity and we find ourselves accepting different forms of diversity, I think society benefits."

Instead, our whole society suffers.




Barbara Sanders, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Nashville:

Graphic via GOPUSA

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