Are “Ms.,” “Mrs.,” and “Mr.” destined to become linguistic artifacts of the past? At the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, they already are. These antique entrenchers of cis-gendered heteronormativity are now taboo there.
Interim Provost Louise Lennihan announced the new policy in January: No administrative staff may address current or prospective students using these titles. Instead, they should use first and last names. Presumably “ma’am” and “sir” are also off limits. What rules circumscribe professors’ speech is unclear. Professors aren’t mentioned in the new rules, but each one received a copy of Lennihan’s memo, which admonishes that the policy should be “interpreted as broadly as possible.” “My interpretation was that I was being asked to adhere to this policy, as were the other professors who received the letter,” commented one professor, Juliette Blevins, to the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story.
Why ditch the honorifics? The official reason is compliance with Title IX, the portion of the federal Education Amendments of 1972 that bans discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities that receive federal funding. Lennihan’s interpretation is that indiscriminate use of these titles is liable to insult students who identify as transgender, both genders, or neither gender. Hence it’s safer to use no titles at all than to risk accidentally using the wrong one.
It’s a novel reading to take Title IX as title nihilism, to be sure. No other institution bound by Title IX has adopted such a measure, and even the attorney Title IX consultant the Wall Street Journal interviewed, who says she “loves the concept,” rejects the creative legal interpretation. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, charged with executing Title IX and notoriously zealous in enforcing gender equality, has not asked any schools to consider rephrasing, let alone eliminating, gender-specific titles.
Now Admitting Biological Reality Is Discriminatory
How potentially offending a subgroup of students with standard salutations equals “discrimination” under the law is a bit of gender theory. “Gender” itself, of course, is a semantic sidestep to substitute the idea of malleable mental self-identification over that of sex, which is a biological, ontological reality. The term “gender” originates in linguistics, where it refers to types of words with masculine, feminine, and neuter endings. Extrapolating a technical term for sorting words to serve as a classification scheme for people implies that masculinity and femininity are rooted in human artifice, not in chromosomes. The idea gained prominence during the sexual revolution but traces its roots back to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead’s 1935 book “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies,” a heavily contested work that theorized that differences among the sexes were entirely determined by social norms rather than inherent traits.
Feminists have disliked “Mrs.” for a long time—why should a woman’s marital status determine her title?—but I’m aware of no such war on “Mr.” Instead, at CUNY, the concern doesn’t seem to be so much about whether men and women are treated the same, but whether “male” and “female” are concepts even worth recognizing. Lennihan’s decree doesn’t abolish gender (sex), of course, any more than the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawed war—in this world, both are realities. But it takes aim at what it deems a mere “social construct” with a mind to changing how people think about it. It implies that recognizing sex is a meaningless, even erroneous act of the mind—one in which we needn’t but also shouldn’t engage.
Perhaps that sounds like an overly alarmist view of a petty policy that asks employees to excise a mere three terms from their professional vocabularies. Doesn’t the acute emotional distress of students who get addressed in their non-preferred salutation outweigh the passing annoyance of some disgruntled students who regret the demise of formality? Shouldn’t we be more sensitive and polite?
Universities have a long record of attempts to cater to students’ sensitivities, but often those exercises are less about politeness and more about privileging a particular notion of what deserves sensitivity and respect. Thus at the same time that civility pledges are rising in popularity to make sure everyone speaks nicely, students with pro-life posters can get harassed by a professor and rebuked by an administrator for “hawking intolerance in the name of religious belief” and causing “outrage, pain, embarrassment, fear, hurt, and feelings of harassment.”
There are “safe space” training sessions and “safe space” door stickers for professors to indicate that they are “queer affirming” and “allies” for LGBTQ pride, but Christian student groups are being denied any official campus recognition because they believe (politely and privately) that marriage is for a man and a woman. “Trigger warnings” are seen as a way to protect students from potentially offensive material—but what counts as “offensive” is telling. Last April Oberlin College proposed (and eventually, under pressure, retracted) new trigger-warning guidelines that asked professors to refrain from using any gender-specific terms at all, unless they were confident of each student’s preferred identification. “If your instinct is to call on ‘the guy in the purple shirt,’” the document warned, “try instead saying, ‘you, in the purple shirt.’”
Let’s Be Rude to Be Nice
There is an obvious paradox here. When professors have to start gesturing towards their students, “you, in the purple shirt,” and administrators must write to students they’ve never met using their first names, we seem to have a breach of traditional civility. Basic rules of etiquette teach that names are preferable to vague pronouns, and that first names are reserved for close acquaintances only. At the same time that the academy has become OCD about rooting out “microaggressions” and protecting “emotional safety,” it’s endorsing policies like CUNY’s, which the New York Daily News labeled “rude.” Even CUNY professors on board with “gender inclusivity” can see the contradiction. Blevins, a linguist the Wall Street Journal cited, worries about the “negative effects it could have cross-culturally” for students whose cultures protect the usage of first names.
CUNY’s is a relatively minor trespass against etiquette, true. I’d much rather prefer to have a stranger call me by my first name than to reference me with profanity. On the scale of incivility, ditching titles is relatively tame. But so are so-called “microaggressions,” which, by definition, are so “micro” that they appear in normal, everyday speech and that most people, other than those who feel oppressed by them, can’t recognize them.
That the CUNY policy is motivated less by championing civility and more by suppressing the idea of sex as an important concept is revealed in how far the administration is willing to go to establish this new dogma: even the smallest words that presume that sex is an inherent, biological reality must not be spoken in polite society.
A Trend to Erase Sex Altogether
CUNY’s policy is a single indication of a broader trend to see sex as unimportant, or as a non-thing altogether. The University of Vermont is already officially allowing students to be recognized with a neutral gender; students can select from the pronouns “ze” or “they” or request to be identified by name only (as is now automatic at CUNY). The New York Times reports that since the university’s policy took effect in 2009, 1,891 students have specified their preferred pronoun; 14 of those chose “ze,” 10 chose “they,” 228 requested name only, and the rest chose either “he” or “she” (not necessarily matching their biological sex).
In May, Mills College, a women’s college, altered its admissions policy to receive any biological females, including those who identify as men, so long as they have not become legally male. In September, another women’s college, Mount Holyoke, decided to admit people of all gender identities except for biological males who still identify as men. Biological males who consider themselves women, or anything besides decidedly “male” on the gender spectrum, are welcome. For a women’s college to discriminate on biological sex was intolerant, because “concepts of what it means to be a woman are not static” and “traditional binaries around who counts as a man or woman are being challenged.” Other women’s colleges, including Simmons and Scripps, have followed the trend of widening their admissions parameters.
Meanwhile, when administrators at George Fox University, a Christian university, attempted to house students by their biological sex and not by their mental identification, providing separate, single apartments for those who identified as “transgender,” it came under fire for discrimination. The Department of Education upheld George Fox’s policy despite a Title IX challenge filed by a dissatisfied student, but under pressure the university reversed its policies.
In October, the New York Times Magazine published a front-page investigative piece, “When Women Become Men at Wellesley,” noting that as women’s colleges began breaking down gender norms and attempting to erase differences between men and women, they also undermined the concept that a person’s sex has any coherent meaning: “Trans students point out that they’re doing exactly what these schools encourage: breaking gender barriers, fulfilling their deepest yearnings and forging ahead even when society tries to hold them back.”
A few feminists concerned for the purity of femaleness have pushed back against the malleable concept of “gender,” arguing that biology does indeed matter, if only because transgender women who were born males enjoyed the head-start of male privilege until they transitioned to womanhood later on. But on the whole, sex as an innate reality isn’t seen as an important concept for society, morality, or even individual well-being. The reigning rule of public morality for a long time has been that you may do whatever you wish, so long as you do not hurt anyone else.
CUNY’s ban on sex-specific titles lowers once more that bar of what counts as hurting someone else. Students’ potential emotional discomfort at hearing gendered titles counts as morally proscribed harm. But the academy has been playing limbo with that libertarian conception of morality for a long time, bending lower and lower to meet increasingly restrictive rules enforced in the name of defending personal liberty. At some point, even by the most contorted of philosophies, the mind can bend no more.