PC-ness run amok? Harvard students get 'ze' gender pronoun

© Jessica Rinaldi
The ubiquitous pronouns “he” and “she” are gaining some pals at Harvard University. During registration, students can now opt to be referred to by a whole host of gender-neutral pronouns, including “ze, hir, and hirs” or “they, them, theirs.”

The Ivy League school in Cambridge, Massachusetts joins American University, the University of Vermont and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in allowing students to select their own gender pronouns. American offered students a guide to help them choose in which the Washington, DC school noted that “the practice of asking individuals what pronouns they use for themselves should be done in an effort to respect the diversity of gender identities beyond man and woman.”

“Never argue with or question a person’s gender identity or pronouns,”American’s pronoun guide noted.

For these schools, it’s a powerful inclusion tool, as well as a conversation starter.

"If someone is being alienated or potentially outed by inappropriate gender references, we think that's not appropriate," Michael Burke, registrar of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told AP.

"If on the first day of class your professor is referring to you as a man, and you identify as a woman, even if you're not trans, you could understand how that might affect you," he told Reuters. "It's jarring."

The school is planning to train professors on how to look up students’ preferred pronouns. So far, 4,000 students have submitted pronouns, with just over 1 percent choosing something other than “he” or “she,” Burke told AP.

But some people complain that the move towards inclusivity is one towards too much political correctness. The University of Tennessee in Knoxville removed guidelines on identity pronouns from its site after receiving backlash from its community, including a US congressman.

As a UT graduate, I am personally embarrassed by this stupid revision of personal pronouns by someone who obviously had...

Posted by Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr. on Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The expectation is that it will increase awareness of different gender pronouns across the storied Cambridge campus.

Harvard senior Henri G-D, who feared potential job discrimination against transgender people, told the Harvard Crimson that professors and advisers sometimes mistakenly do more harm than good by making assumptions about gender, leading to “awkward conversations.”

“It’s just that they literally don’t have any information, which puts it on the students to explain,” Henri said, hoping that the registration tool will prevent those issues.

Harvard will not use the self-chosen identifiers to change students’ overall gender assignment, especially when it comes to determining housing, as it was done in other colleges.

Ohio State University began offering housing for transgender freshmen this year. Nearly 200 schools have gender-neutral housing policies. More than 150 US colleges and universities have created gender-neutral bathrooms, according to the Stonewall Center of UMass Amherst.

This year, the University of California system’s applications will start to include more options, letting students choose from labels including "trans female" or "genderqueer"

Higher education is following a trend from outside academia, rather than guiding the change. Facebook began giving users unlimited options in choosing custom identities in February, up from the paltry 58 choices they had before.

Sweden may be the worldwide leader in gender-bending. The country created the gender-neutral pronoun “hen,” which was added to the Swedish dictionary in 2015, replacing the words on “hon” (she) and “han” (he)  when the text refers to a transsexual, or in places where the gender of the person is either unknown or irrelevant. Its army has gender advisers, though they are mostly on hand to deal with issues faced by cisnormative women in the force. A public library in the northern town of Umeå debuted unisex “hen” toilets with a new, specially designed sign in February.

Elsewhere in Europe, major institutions are also trying to be more inclusive when it comes to gender. In 2009, the European Parliament banned gender-related titles and professional descriptions, publishing a pamphlet called 'Gender-Neutral Language' that tells MEPs to address female colleagues by name only. It also asked them to use “athletes” instead of “sportsmen” and “artificial” instead of “manmade.” Last November, the Royal Bank of Scotland declared it would offer its account holders the option of using “Mx” as their title instead of the cisnormative “Mr” or “Mrs.”

The High Court of Australia officially acknowledged the existence of a third “non-specific” gender in April 2014, settling a long legal battle fought by sexual equality campaigner Norrie, who claimed that gender is not a “binary” concept connected with only men and women.