There is a story making the rounds about freshmen -- oops! first-year collegians -- at one university who were given glossaries of many, many gender definitions and then required to select the ones that best described themselves.
The students were pretty comfortable with their gender identities. They offended the test-givers by identifying themselves as male or female.
What they were expected to indicate was that they were cisgender. This is a lot to ask of 18-year-olds who have encountered the term only recently, but this is where we are now.
"Cisgender," for those of you who attended college before, say, 2010, describes someone who is comfortable with the gender identity and gender expression expectations assigned to him or her at birth. Almost everyone fits into this category.
Pretty much all colleges now have well-staffed gender diversity offices for lesbian, gay and other students who are uncomfortable in the cisgender category. These offices have been generating useful pronoun matrices to include the 0.5 percent of students who are neither straight nor gay, for people who are unsure of their gender identities or who are uncertain but do not fit our traditional molds.
Here is one.
And here is another, complete with examples of how to used the pronouns in sentences.
The colleges also are suggesting ways for faculty to avoid giving offense by making false gender assumptions about students taking their classes. Here are some handy tips from one school handout.
Question: How do I ask someone what their (sic) preferred pronoun is?
Answer: Try asking: "What is your preferred pronoun?" or "Which pronouns do you
prefer that people use for you?" or "Can you remind me which pronouns you use for
It can feel awkward at first, but asking for a preferred pronoun can avoid hurtful
assumptions. People will most likely appreciate your effort if you start off by asking what
their (sic: the) preferred pronoun is, and for those who aren’t familiar with preferred
pronouns, this is your chance to share what you know!
If you are asking as part of an introduction exercise and you want to quickly explain what
a preferred pronoun is, you can try something like this: “Tell us your name, where you
come from, and your preferred pronoun. That means the pronoun you like to be referred to
with (sic). For example, my preferred pronouns are they, them, and theirs (sic).”
When taking class attendance, one method is to call roll by last name, and have students
respond with their preferred name(sic: names) and pronouns.
Perhaps this tutorial offers valuable clues to students who meet other first-years at freshman (oops again!) orientation or while moving into their dorm rooms.
For me, the dialogue displays the decay of our colleges and universities.
The Situation Today
Okay, I'm not a millenial. I think asking people about their gender (and, let's face it, sexual) identities is intrusive.
Most all of us let each other know, by dress or behavior or speech, where we reside on the male-female continuum. People who do not express themselves in this way may have their reasons and certainly deserve their privacy.
If I met a person whose gender seemed indistinct, I would address the person as "you." I would not assume that the person's gender identity was any of my business.
If that person wanted to share his or her or eir or hir or vis or zir pronouns -- for use in later discussions about that person with others -- I'd make an effort to remember and use the pronouns as requested. This matter does not come up often, and my belief is that people with unusual gender identities have lives that are complicated enough without getting a lot of grief about pronoun choices.
This business of people adopting different sexual identities is expanding our understanding of gender as a binary male-female matter. We are opening our world to different kinds of people, and we might as well open the number of available pronouns to allow them to be described in ways that seem accurate to them.
On the other hand, the new pronouns do not seem to be taking hold. My impression is that most transgender people ask to be described as "they" and "them." If a transgender person is not a "he" or "she," I can live with it -- but that doesn't make a singular person a "they."
If this makes me a grammar snob, so be it.