There’s No Plot to Outlaw “Traditional” Pronouns at the University of Tennessee

This is the crowd at a 2005 football game, not the scene at the Pride Center. 

Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The center of student life at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is the Tennessee Volunteers football team, coached by Butch Jones and quarterbacked by Joshua Dobbs. (Go Vols!) The center of queer life at UTK is the Pride Center, directed by biology librarian Donna Braquet. The university’s LGBTQ students are a small group of oddballs in a Big Orange sea. The Pride Center gives these students a safe space where they can find and connect with people who accept and support one another, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Currently, they’re under attack by a right-wing media that doesn’t take kindly to difference, tolerance, or inclusivity.

University of Tennessee tells staff and students to stop using ‘he’ and ‘she,’ ” a representative headline, far from the worst of the bunch, blared last week. A brief article by Braquet, included as part of a quarterly informational newsletter put out by the university on Aug. 26, was the cause of all the hubbub. Contrary to what several of the media stories stated or implied, Braquet’s piece did not call for the abolition of the familiar male and female pronouns, nor did it mandate any changes in the way professors or other members of staff conduct themselves on campus. (As important as Braquet is to the queer community at UTK, as part-time director of the Pride Center, she lacks the authority to make policy or to issue binding university-wide mandates.)

Instead, the post provided a primer on the use of some common gender-neutral pronouns, including “they, them, their” in addition to a few more exotic, less commonly used varieties. It also offered suggestions for best practices to make classrooms more inclusive of trans youth, including genderqueer or nonbinary trans students, such as asking which pronouns students prefer to use. Nonetheless,, the university bowed to pressure from conservative politicians including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who repeatedly condemned the article and called for its removal from the school’s website, which was done some time in the afternoon or evening of Friday, Sept. 4.

“Most people on campus hadn’t seen the email before it became literally international news—or if they saw it, most people didn’t even bother to read it,” said Johnathan Clayton, a senior who participates in Pride Center activities as a gay male student and has been following the fallout from the newsletter. Like many queer students at UTK, Clayton expressed anger and disbelief that a small article encouraging inclusiveness on campus had made UTK and the Pride Center the target of so much negative attention.

UTK is far from the first college to publish guides to gender-neutral pronoun usage or to encourage greater understanding of nonbinary transgender students. It’s also not the first university to be mocked in the conservative press for what some perceive to be excessive political correctness—that’s been going on for decades and is likely to continue. In this case, the mockery and manufactured outrage has targeted a small, but very real, group of young people. These are the handful of students in the nearly 28,000 currently attending UTK who identify as genderqueer or nonbinary.

“It’s difficult, sitting in a room with a professor going through a roll call, and they ask you your preferred name, and if you tell them a very gender-androgynous name, you get a lifted eyebrow. I think that’s the worst face—that skeptical lifted eyebrow,” undergraduate Molly Cross told me, before going on to explain that attempts to be known simply as Cross were rebuffed by professors. (A skeptical eyebrow or two might seem a minor matter, but keep in mind that Cross is already one of the very few visibly queer kids in a huge school dominated by frats, football, and binge drinking).

Both Cross and Kae White, another nonbinary-identified student who spoke with me for this article, decided to stop requesting that their teachers use gender-neutral pronouns, because they tended to lead to uncomfortable, often lengthy conversations. That made the Pride Center, a place where they can be themselves, all the more important to their experience at UTK.

“When I’m at the Pride Center, I can be totally out. In my major, it’s totally not so. There’s a standard of dress [for presentations] that is very strict and is based on your perceived gender. I don’t feel comfortable being myself,” White told me.

What students like White want from their college experience, what they hoped would come out of Braquet’s post on gender-neutral pronouns, is quite modest. It certainly isn’t to abolish the use of standard male and female pronouns entirely. (To make certain of this, I asked each of them, point blank, and they denied having any designs whatsoever on the pronouns other people use.) Instead, they’d like other people around campus to recognize terms like nonbinary or genderqueer when they hear them, and for them to be open to trying to use “they/them/their” in place of more familiar, gendered terms.

Although I heard of a few students who might prefer to use the more unusual “ze/zim/zir” pronouns, I was unable to locate any to speak with for this article. When it comes to those terms, Cross told me, “Using ze/zim/zir pronouns is extremely difficult. You get tripped up because it’s not what you’re used to. But, it’s about respect.” Both Cross and White agreed that feeling respected and having others do their best to remember to use their preferred pronouns was the goal, not perfect compliance, and White acknowledged that in a very large class, it would be impractical for a professor to ask every students about their pronoun preference.

I guess it’s possible that gender-destroying radicals hell-bent on forcing their version of political correctness on everyone at the school may have been present somewhere on the UTK campus, but I found no trace of them. What I did find were young queer people of various gender identities and sexual orientations who had found a welcoming home base in a large and somewhat intimidating school. “Although we’re in the top 20 most LGBT-unfriendly schools, Donna Braquet really doesn’t make it feel like it.  She’s always doing research, always asking her students what they need, making sure everyone is represented, no matter how small a group it is,” Cross explained. “She gives so much to this [community]. It’s super inspiring to see someone who is so dedicated to queer youth in the South.”