Validating personhood with pronouns

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • September 8, 2016

At issue: LGBTQ+ equality on campus.

Our take: Time for a change of policy.

It’s the season for introductions. Traditionally, on the first day of classes, we share our names, we adjust pronunciations our professors and peers might stumble over, we share our hometowns, our majors, minors, and our hopes for the school year. And finally, we are learning to share our preferred pronouns. We teach each other about ourselves to come to understand what we wouldn’t know just by looking at a person. We do this to cultivate a community that’s mindful and respectful, a place that’s inclusive and safe. That’s why we’re introducing our new style policy for pronouns: normalizing the use of preferred pronouns in our paper. We should all be called what we want to be called—no footnote needed. 

On September 1, the Emerson community received an email from the Vice President for Diversity & Inclusion giving details on the campus’ newly-created gender neutral bathrooms. In this email, besides detailing where to find inclusive facilities, there was an attached document, titled “Why is the use of gender pronouns so important?”, explaining terms the administration deemed relevant to the conversation, such as Genderqueer and Transgender, among others. These new inclusive facilities and outreach are just the latest step on the part of Emerson towards welcoming gender diversity, an aim that we at the Beacon hope to further.

Interviewees have become increasingly comfortable with identifying their pronouns to our reporters. Although we have been respecting those identifiers for years, the Beacon only made a decision on house style last September. When we used pronouns other than she/her/hers and he/him/his, we would end the story with a footnoted explanation: “[Name] uses they/them pronouns.” But this only further ostracized people with genders outside the binary. 

Moving forward, the Beacon is ridding the paper of these footnotes. Instead, we will be asking interviewees their preferred pronouns during interviews and incorporating that preference into the piece as we usually do. This change aims to normalize the use of they/them/their pronouns and preferences. We also hope it will reduce attention on the individual's gender and allow the focus to be on their accomplishments, interests, and story. This will be the standard for our newsroom unless interviewees prefer to have a clarification at the bottom of the article—in which case we will respect those requests, as we aim to be sensitive and accommodating. 

We’re far from the first publication to embrace these changes. Considering “they” was the American Dialect Society’s word of the year in 2015, others have been catching on. Last November, the New York Times used the gender-neutral honorific “Mx.”  in an article, and the Washington Post officially allowed singular “they” in December. As a Post copy editor wrote: “Simply allowing they for a gender-nonconforming person is a no-brainer.” Not to mention that the English language is otherwise missing any gender-neutral singular pronoun—how many times have you encountered an awkward “he or she” construction? (The Atlantic made a similar grammatical argument — in 1879.)

Of course, it goes without saying that we are a student-run organization created as a place of learning—first and foremost. We want to welcome Emerson students in correcting staff if Beacon reporters neglect to ask for pronouns or assign gender. What we can promise is that we will try—we will try to respect every member of this community, and we will try to cover Emerson news while being inclusive and socially conscious. And we’re thrilled to announce this move toward a more progressive and LGBTQ+ friendly newspaper.