Harvard raises bar for recognition of gender-neutral pronouns

Students enrolling in Harvard University’s largest college will now be able to select the pronouns by which they want faculty and staff to address them.

Starting this semester, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—which accounts for nearly all of the university’s undergraduate students—is including an option in its registration tool allowing students to identify their preferred pronouns alongside conventional identifiers like nicknames and gender, The Harvard Crimson reported Wednesday.

The form includes examples such as “ze, hir, hirs” but leaves space for students to manually write down any pronouns they wish, which school officials hope will “make students feel more comfortable with their gender identity” in their interactions with faculty and advisers.

“It’s important when you are writing emails or referring a student to another person in the College, you want to do it the right way,” FAS Registrar Michael Burke told The Crimson.

Burke said that the change had been in the works for several years, with input from the Harvard Trans* Task Force, the College's Office of BGLTQ Student Life, and various students throughout the process, and was introduced this year because a new student information system facilitated its introduction.

Transgender advocates are praising the new option, saying it will spare students awkward conversations with professors and feelings of social invalidation.

“Before, folks really had to have a personal conversation of pronouns that they prefer,” claimed Joshua Blecher-Cohen ’16, an intern at the Office of BGLTQ Student Life. “Oftentimes in classes there was no space on the first day of class for folks to make that clear, and so this standardizes it across the board.”

Genny Beemyn, director of The Stonewall Center, an LGBTQ resource center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told The Boston Globe that identifying an individual by an improper pronoun constitutes a “microagression” that undermines feelings of self-worth.

“Unlike sexuality, which doesn’t come up in most classes, gender comes up all the time because we refer to people in ways that are gendered,” Beemyn explained.

Many schools have begun promoting the use of gender-neutral pronouns recently, including the University of Tennessee and American University, but Harvard is among the few to extend official recognition to the practice. Even so, Harvard is not pioneering the gender-neutral pronoun option, but rather following in the footsteps of institutions like the University of Vermont, which has had such a policy in place since the spring semester of 2009, according to University Business.

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