Students lead initiative to use gender neutral language

Buttons providing awareness about gender pronouns sit in the Dean of Students Office. The buttons are part of the campus-wide Gender Neutral Language Initiative, a student-run effort to create awareness on campus about gender identity on campus. Photos by Rachel Terran

Buttons providing awareness about gender pronouns sit in the Dean of Students Office. The buttons are part of the campus-wide Gender Neutral Language Initiative, a student-run effort to create awareness on campus about gender identity on campus. Photos by Rachel Terran

Correction, Sept. 5, 2016  at 4:58 p.m.: Westminster's administration provided full funding for the Gender Neutral Language Initiative's pronoun pins and brochures.

During the first week of school, many members of the Westminster community wore pronoun buttons, picked up informational brochures about pronouns and gave introductions using their pronouns.

Bringing awareness to how individuals identify is part of the Gender Neutral Language Initiative at Westminster, a student-run effort to create awareness on campus about pronouns and gender identity.

Westminster senior Levi Barrett led the creation of the pronoun buttons and informational brochures for the campus community and said the college provided all of the funding for the project.  

“I thought it was necessary to do because first of all, pronouns are very important—especially for gender nonconforming people,” Barrett said. "I felt as though if the school wasn’t going to do that education, I wanted to take it into my own hands and start a big campaign to help bring awareness to pronouns and why people should care.”

Some of the pronoun buttons say, “ask me what my pronouns are,” encouraging people to start a conversation. The other buttons display different pronouns, which people can choose in accordance to how they identify.

The brochures, which sit alongside the buttons in the Dean of Students Office, include information about what pronouns are and why they are important.

Mark Ferne, dean of students, said the initiative seems to be receiving positive attention campus-wide.

“I think it certainly has generated some conversations around the campus, and I have had faculty and staff ask me more about this,” Ferne said. “Overall, I think campus-wide people have been positively receiving the student initiative.”

Tamara Stevenson is one of four faculty fellows working alongside students to create positive resources on campus.

“I hope it has been well received because students, in order for learning to happen, need to feel accepted in who they are and what they can bring to learning environments,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson is an organizational communication professor with insight into how organizations might shift toward using gender neutral language.

“Such shifts take time,” Stevenson said. “With ongoing practice and awareness, such shifts can be embedded in organizational practice.”

If the conversation continues the use of gender neutral language, there will be a stronger campus community, according to Stevenson.

“I think Westminster’s size and structure lends itself to be very responsive to making such shifts toward diversity and inclusion, such as making the institution more aware of gender neutral language,” Stevenson said.

Jason Schwartz-Johnson, Title IX Coordinator, said the conversation around gender neutral language isn’t new but has been increasing.

“There has been a commitment to these issues for a long time,” Schwartz-Johnson said.

Amanda Sevigny (left), a junior psychology major, and Kara McFarland (right), a sophomore nursing major, wear their pronoun buttons on the first day of school. “As a Go Leader, I noticed people were really excited about the pronoun buttons,” Sevigny said. 

Amanda Sevigny (left), a junior psychology major, and Kara McFarland (right), a sophomore nursing major, wear their pronoun buttons on the first day of school. “As a Go Leader, I noticed people were really excited about the pronoun buttons,” Sevigny said. 

“Any time we update a policy, website or any official document, we have been incorporating gender neutral language.”

Title IX is an important part of ensuring an inclusive environment for all students and employees and goes hand in hand with the pronoun movement, according to Schwartz-Johnson.

“Title IX outlines protections that we all have so that we are not discriminated against because of our sex, and gender identification falls under that,” Schwartz-Johnson said.

Kyler Salazar, a junior sociology major, has shared their gender pronouns in many classes since the shift to gender neutral language and said the movement matters.

“It’s important for me when I can let the class know what’s comfortable for me and I can tell people in a safe setting,” Salazar said. “It’s nice that I’m able just to say what pronouns I prefer so people are aware, and it opens up a dialogue.”

Nicole Tyler, a junior majoring in English and minoring in psychology, is a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion at Westminster. She said she’s seen an improvement in people’s understanding of pronouns since the Gender Neutral Language Initiative.

“I see the baby steps,” Tyler said. “I was in my first class of the day, gender and society, and we all went around and said our pronouns. A lot of times when you ask pronouns, people are so poorly educated they don’t know what it means. In my first class, everyone caught on.”

Tyler said she would like to see inclusion further embedded in Westminster’s culture.

“I would love to see this type of inclusivity, activism and advocacy be part of Westminster’s culture, not just student-led,” Tyler said.

Westminster’s campus culture is something Julie Freestone and others at the college said they’ve been working on.

“There are lots of different aspects of culture, but what we all want is for this to be a place where everyone can thrive and do their best work,” Freestone said. “That is why I am working on campus culture from an administrative level.”

Other centers on campus are also taking part in the initiative. Madeline Gere, a senior psychology major, is a student coordinator at the Center for Civic Engagement, where she said she’s seen moves toward gender neutral language.

“The Dumke Center now includes our pronouns on our staff bulletin board,” Gere said. “We invite our staff to include their pronouns on their emails. At events this year, during introductions, we will ask our participants to let us know their pronouns.”

According to Gere, the conversation about pronouns on campus is familiarizing students with the topic.

“There has been a shift,” she said. “In one of my classes, we were explicitly asked to share our pronouns and in other classes, my professors took time to remind students that they have the right to be referred to by their preferred pronouns.”

Karnell Black, assistant dean of students, said students and parents received the initiative well during orientation.

“I did a session with parents during orientation and we talked about pronouns,” Black said. “It was a learning moment for folks who did not know about the utilization of pronouns.”

Educational conversation around pronouns creates an inclusive campus environment, according to Black.

“My goal is to support students in many ways, and understanding pronouns makes it straightforward and simple so that we can address people properly,” Black said.

Westminster plans to bring further resources and attention to diversity with the appointment of Dr. Marco Barker as the college’s new associate vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion, according to Freestone.

In the meantime, student activists like Barrett, who led the Gender Neutral Language Initiative, said they will continue to push for more diversity and inclusion on campus—starting with challenging every day language.

“No matter what pronoun you use, you deserve to be called by your pronouns,” Barrett said. “Pronouns are very important because using the correct pronouns shows that you really care about someone and you really respect their identity. It’s making a gesture toward validating them.”