What word do you use if you don’t identify as he or she?

This week, a NY Times article examined the fight by trans activists to overthrow our pronoun binary, focusing on the University of Vermont, where genderqueer students, and Dorothea Brauer, the director of the university’s LGBTQ center, convinced the school to create a taskforce to seek a “broader solution to the identification issue.” Over time, the school assembled a gender policy that now prohibits discrimination based on one’s gender identity.

In order to respect all students’ rights to self-identify, new gender-based language was deemed necessary. The university now has a school-wide initiative to recognize and respect its genderqueer students that requires its 12,700 students and faculty to do the same.

The university allows students […] to select their own identity — a new first name, regardless of whether they’ve legally changed it, as well as a chosen pronoun — and records these details in the campuswide information system so that professors have the correct terminology at their fingertips.

Many genderqueer folks prefer to use the pronoun “they.” However, the school’s taskforce recommended the use of the alternative pronoun “ze” to specifically refer to genderqueer students.

Why is a pronoun so important to those who live outside the antiquated gender binary of he/she? As the NY Times explains:

For years, writers and academics have argued that gender identity is not a male/female binary but a continuum along which any individual may fall, depending on a variety of factors, including anatomy, chromosomes, hormones and feelings. But the dichotomy is so deeply embedded in our culture that even the most radical activists had been focused mainly on expanding the definitions of the two pre-existing categories.

In a sense, genderqueer is nothing new. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of a biological reality, one that many other cultures around the world already recognize and have for millennia. The use of a personal pronoun may not seem important to you, but as Robyn Ochs, a Harvard-based educator, who helped start an L.G.B.T. faculty and staff group at America’s oldest university, makes evident in the NY Times article there is a real emotional need for new language:

“Some people try to reduce this whole topic to kids trying to be cool or they’re just acting out or whatever, just trying to be different or new, but there have always been people who have felt profoundly uncomfortable in their assigned gender roles. […] Anything we can do to make them safer, or make them feel recognized, heard, seen, understood, we should do. To validate their identity and experience could, in fact, save their life.”