If you happen to use the wrong pronoun when referencing a transgender person at Oxford University, you could be violating the behavior code.
How could you possibly know which pronoun a transgender person prefers? You can’t be sure without asking – and if you don’t know, Oxford University Students’ Union Council recommends sticking to something genderless (not to be confused with gender neutral), like “they.”
Better yet – in an attempt to make sure everyone is aware of everyone else’s preferences, the students’ union council recommends people introduce themselves with their preferred pronoun.
“Hi, my name is Elizabeth Greenaway and today my preferred pronoun is ‘she.’”
OK – now that we’ve got that out of the way –
The original story published by several sources referred to a leaflet the Oxford University Students’ Union Council had supposedly distributed encouraging the use of “ze,” a gender neutral pronoun, instead of “he” or “she,” to avoid offending transgenders. But a recent statement from the students’ union website says otherwise:
“We would also like to clearly state that we would never tell anyone to use ‘ze’ pronouns instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ if ‘he’ or ‘she’ is the pronoun someone wishes to use. That would be misgendering and would likely have the biggest impact on individuals (ie, some trans students) who may already be struggling to get people to use ‘he’ or ‘she’ for them. It would be totally counterproductive.”
And you thought using a gender neutral pronoun for transgenders saved you from violating Oxford’s behavior code? Oh you silly conservative, of course not – because what if someone is offended by the use of that pronoun?
So what is Oxford’s behavior code and what happens if you “misgender” or offend someone with you choice of pronoun?
It all starts with Oxford’s very own Transgender Policy, which states:
“Transphobic bullying and harassment could be regarded as grounds for disciplinary action, which may include expulsion or dismissal. Such behaviour will be dealt with under the University Policy on Harassment and Bullying.”
How could using the wrong pronoun possibly be considered harassment or bullying? Because according to Oxford’s Policy on Harassment and Bullying, all it takes is “unwanted conduct”:
“A person subjects another to harassment where s/he engages in unwanted and unwarranted conduct which has the purpose or effect of: (a) violating that other’s dignity, or (b) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that other. Harassment may involve repeated forms of unwanted and unwarranted behaviour, but a one-off incident can also amount to harassment.”
Note: Oxford needs to amend this policy quickly, as they’re still using “s/he.” The sight of that could offend a transgender that doesn’t identify with “she” or “he” and put Oxford in violation of its own policy.
If the thought of all of this makes you want to pull your hair out, relax. An LGBT rights activist, Peter Tatchell, notes “It is a positive thing to not always emphasize gender divisions and barriers.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated case – not only are individuals at Cambridge University interested in embracing a similar policy, but it’s also becoming more prevalent all the way down to elementary schools.
A guidebook called “Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity?” for teachers, parents and students is being circulated to schools in Britain, discouraging the use of the words “boys” and “girls” to – you guessed it – avoid discrimination against transgenders. The book also provides the story of a 12-year-old – dare I say “girl”? – who is using hormone blockers through puberty as she transitions from female to male.
Full disclosure: I’m a woman who’s comfortable in her own skin (although I must admit I have often envied the opposite sex’s ability to pee standing up). But when I have kids, we’re going to stick to the basics and identify our genders by our genitals. And no, that doesn’t mean I won’t encourage them to use their imaginations in fantasy/pretend play (a very normal part of child development) and dress up as the opposite sex, it just means we’re not going to implement hormone blockers afterwards.