Correction: This story has been updated. It initially misidentified the gender of Aiden Ramirez-Tatum, a UM freshman.
Ann Arbor — Felix Boratyn was in a small lecture class at the University of Michigan when the professor referred to him as “her.”
It was an uncomfortable moment for the UM student, who is transgender and often has to correct people who misgender him.
“My pronouns are he/him, except that is not always immediately obvious,” said Boratyn, a senior from Chicago. “My friends and I joke that you have to give people the Trans 101, where it is essentially a beginner class in gender, and you have to explain how gender isn’t necessarily dictated by your assigned gender at birth.
“It’s not fun to have to explain to people what gender means to you. It’s a pretty personal question.”
Boratyn has become the face of a movement that prompted UM to institute a new policy in September that allows students to designate their own pronouns on class rosters, such as he, she, him, her and ze, a gender-neutral pronoun.
UM joins a growing number of universities that are part of a gender revolution — and a new language emerging with it.
The importance of pronouns, along with other language about gender and identity, has evolved gradually along with awareness of the transgender community in media and research, said Lal Zimman, assistant professor of linguistics at University of California, Santa Barbara.
But it’s also connected to more people desiring to identify themselves outside of mainstream labels. Language is constantly changing, Zimman added. Like many social movements, change often begins with young people.
“The driving ethos behind pronoun language activism is the idea of self-identity,” Zimman said. “Each individual is the authority on who they are. Trans identity depends on the gender they connect with, regardless of whatever other people might think from looking at them.”
While individual sexual and gender identity has been nuanced for centuries, experts say, young people are transcending it unlike ever before.
“We are seeing now a very different generation on how they identify their genders,” said Genny Beemyn, coordinator of Campus Pride’s Trans Policy Clearinghouse, which tracks policies at universities across the nation. “They don’t want to be put in a box.”
Campus Pride lists more than 150 universities that allow students to change their names to one other than their given name, and a handful of universities that allow addition of a preferred pronoun. While not on the list, Eastern Michigan University this fall began allowing students to change their names, and/or add a pronoun, with 130 students so far using the policy, EMU spokesman Geoff Larcom said.
Since UM’s policy was announced in September, 1,900 of the university’s 44,718 student body designated pronouns. Of those, more than 1,000, have designated “she” as their preferred pronoun, UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said.
Petition led to policy change
The policy changes arrive with a growing acceptance of the transgender community even as many are victimized. Across the country, events are planned in November to observe Transgender Awareness Week and Transgender Day of Remembrance, including several in Michigan.
Boratyn took up the idea for a pronoun policy soon after he was misgendered at UM last winter while enrolled in an activism class. He found some like-minded people, posted a petition on change.org and approached the administration about expanding rights for transgender people.
“I hope this normalizes the idea that transgender people deserve a place in institutions,” he said.
Only a few generations ago, it was not common for someone to identify as transgender, experts say. But now, young people who are trans and beyond are charting new paths, adopting language and creating prose to express themselves.
Among the lexicon: binary (identifying with male or female), nonbinary (not identifying with either male or female), demisexual (no sexual attraction without emotional bond) and pansexual (those with feelings for all genders and sexes). Meanwhile, the acronym LGBT is evolving to LGBTQIA to stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex (someone born outside the physical categories of male and female), and asexual.
The expanding language around gender identity even prompted the American Dialect Society earlier this year to declare the 2015 word of the year to be “they” in the context of a gender-neutral singular pronoun.
“Its not often that we would pick something like this choice of a pronoun,” said Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. “But something we feel as basic to language as pronouns may be undergoing a shift with gender identity.”
Student seeks end to policy
After UM unveiled its new policy, not everyone embraced it. Grant Strobl went into his class roster and added that he wanted to be known as “His Majesty.” Strobl, a junior, said he made the move to call attention to the absurdity of the policy.
“This policy is truly ignoring reality,” said Strobl of Grosse Pointe. “Ze and xir aren’t even recognized words. ... For hundreds of years, (some) have been experimenting and trying to find a gender-neutral pronoun to no avail, and all of these words are going against the mission of the university, and that is to pursue truth.”
Strobl said he spoke with an administrator and plans to push to reverse the policy. “Because we should be pursuing truth,” Strobl said.
Aiden Ramirez-Tatum, a freshman, doesn’t understand why Strobl even cares about “linguistic creativity, which is a part of academia.”
He was attracted to UM when he was a sophomore at Greenville High School and came out as transgender. He was interested in attending UM because of its gender inclusive housing and restrooms, and also the gender services wing of the health system.
“I wanted to go somewhere where I feel safe,” said Ramirez-Tatum, who lives in East Quadrangle, where there are four gender-inclusive restrooms. “Awareness and safety oftentimes comes in this little bubble.
“You go to a new place if you are trans and you find that bubble where people know what’s going on, where people will be kind to you and accommodating and where there’s other people who are like you and you can talk to.”