In July of 2018, the University of Minnesota began drafting a policy related to gender identity and pronouns. It would have made calling someone by the wrong pronoun (for instance, "he" instead of "she," or "she" instead of "they") a punishable -- even fireable -- offense.
This policy was “one of the most ambitious of its kind in the country,” as the Star Tribune put it. Queer and trans advocates in the student body felt like they finally had “leveraging power” to stand up to professors who refused to call them by their preferred names and pronouns.
The immediate, nervous question from critics was this: Does that mean if you slip up and inadvertently call someone by the wrong pronouns you could automatically get written up?
The answer: No, of course not.
“We recognize that some of the expectations set forth in the policy are new concepts that will require education and learning, and that misuse of pronouns is often unintentional and not malicious,” an FAQ about the policy released in January says. If you messed up, it would “not result in discipline.”
If you were repeatedly calling a man “she” in order to humiliate him or call him out in some way or indicate you did not, fundamentally, believe him to be a man, that would result in discipline.
Or, at least, it would have. There’s a new draft of the policy out now, and it’s missing something: any punishment of any kind. That language has been removed.
“We got a lot of feedback that the purpose of this policy should be to educate and inspire our community to engage in respectful behavior,” Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action director Tina Marisam said during a student senate committee meeting last week. Bringing “discipline” into the picture made it a “scarier policy.” She also said a pre-existing Board of Regents policy covering harassment and discrimination should already cover maliciously using the wrong pronouns. The university declined to provide a comment while the policy is still in the draft phase.
Student senator Ian Smith thinks requiring someone to refer to people with their preferred pronouns and names is admirable, but represents a “constitutional gray area” when it comes to individuals who don’t want to use the right pronouns for “ideological reasons.” He also called the draft policy “deeply troubling” in a July editorial published in the Star Tribune.
“If a [transgender] on non-binary individual requests respectfully that you refer to them in a certain way, do it, and return their respect with yours,” he told the Minnesota Daily. “But ultimately, it should be your choice, not the university’s.”
The problem this creates for the university’s trans and nonbinary communities is this: They have been out and asking people to call them “he,” “she,” and “they” for a while, and some people still aren’t feeling particularly “inspire[d]... to engage in respectful behavior.”
“We are literally requesting of people to be respectful of people’s very basic identities,” graduate student Ahmad Qais Munhazim, one of the original drafters of the policy, told the Star Tribune in July -- something which, to those students, is more than a matter of “freedom of speech” or “opinion” or “ideology.” It is who they are.
Correction: A previous version of this article paraphrased Ian Smith's comments to the Minnesota Daily. The text has been updated with his complete and direct quote.