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Do we mispronoun?

andrea_lunsford
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Throughout my career, I have learned so very much from my students: I think all teachers of writing feel this way since we often have an opportunity to learn about our students from all the writing they do in our classes. In the last decade or so, I have learned especially from my transgender students, listening to their stories, writing and reading with them about not just gender equity but also about what we might call sexual equity, the right to be who they are, all the time. The uproar in North Carolina over bathrooms and who can use them has made me think more and more about this issue of equity. So I was thrilled to find a video, made by middle and high-schoolers, on issues of sexuality, called Breaking Binary.

In this video, a group of bright and articulate young people talk directly about their experiences of claiming a sexuality/sexualities, about the misperceptions and prejudices they constantly face, and about their deep desire to learn in an atmosphere of openness and acceptance. I’ve watched it twice now and recommend it highly, for teachers and for students (I’d say for parents too!). And in watching, I learned a new word: “mispronoun.” One of the students in particular uses this word, saying that “I am mispronouned all the time,” meaning that others assign her a gender she doesn’t live or accept. I thought back over my career, and I am certain that I have “mispronouned” students without ever knowing it. Now I know better: I know to ask students to tell me their preferences, but I regret not having always done so. As the students in Breaking Binary demonstrate, I was, too often, unthinkingly caught in the binary they so thoroughly break.

As a result of these thoughts, here’s a draft of a section I’m writing for my textbooks, on gender and pronouns:

The search for gender-neutral pronouns has a very long history; literally hundreds of new words have been proposed, but none have ever caught on. Today, as writers and speakers communicate with people who identify across a wide spectrum of sexualities, the need for such new pronouns is especially great. A good option is to determine the pronouns people with to use: do they prefer she/her, he/him, or an alternate gender-neutral pronoun such as ze/zir (for example, "Ze called me" or "I called zir")? Another common option is to use they/them as gender-neutral pronouns ("I called them"). Clearly, norms for pronoun usage are evolving and changing, as language always does. While the evolution continues, use words that reflect your sensitivity to issues of gender and sexuality, and respect the identities of those to whom you are writing or speaking.

If you have other suggestions, please respond. And thank you for reading this.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.