On the weekend of December 11th, several articles were published stating that Oxford University Students’ Union had produced a leaflet which told students “to use gender neutral pronouns such as ‘ze’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’”.
As far as we’re aware, the information which has been published is incorrect. We have not produced a leaflet implying that all students must use ‘ze’ pronouns to refer to others, or indeed to themselves. We believe the resources which are referred to within many of the articles could be support materials used by our student leaders and welfare representatives, which alongside other information and tips, reminds individuals of the importance of not assuming the pronouns of their peers while also aiming to normalise stating pronouns in introductions. Further to this, the assumptions made may in fact refer to a policy used with the Students’ Union Council, where it is asked (for accessibility and minuting purposes) that everyone who speaks states their name, college and pronouns. There is also a further possibility that our work and remit has been confused with the work of the wider University, whose Trans Policy and guidance does include a mention of neopronouns (pronoun sets like ‘ze/hir’, ‘ey/em/eirs’).
In this situation, and in light of the factual inaccuracies published, we would like to highlight that our support for trans students includes respecting neopronouns and non-binary identities. 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.
We do however suggest the use of genderless pronouns like singular ‘they’ to refer to individuals whose pronouns haven’t been confirmed. This avoids assuming what pronouns a person uses based solely on how they present themselves. We also recommend that at events like campaign meetings, workshops and training sessions, people introduce themselves with their pronouns. It reduces awkwardness, emphasises that gender cannot be assumed, and most importantly helps make trans students feel comfortable. It’s a very small step that can have massive positive effects.
Requesting that people state their pronouns, and do not assume the pronouns of others, is not particularly radical or controversial. It’s a standard practice, not just in Oxford but in student communities and LGBTQ-friendly spaces all over, and we encourage its spread. We find it disappointing that a piece of misinformation has resulted in a media storm around what is a very basic effort to ensure our trans students feel welcome within the Oxford community.