The University of Oxford’s student union (OUSU) has discounted media reports claiming that it has told students to use ‘ze’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ to avoid offending trans students.
Over the weekend, it was reported by the Sunday Times that the move was outlined in the student union’s leaflet, stating that it was an offence under the university’s behaviour code to deliberately use the wrong pronoun for a transgender person and that students hoped to extend the use of gender-neutral pronouns to lectures and seminars.
The so-called ‘decision’ was well-received by some, and panned by others: LGBT rights activist Peter Tatchell described the school’s announcement as a “thoughtful, considerate move”, while the Telegraph’s Jacob Furedi accused the student union of attempting to “police” the English language.
Oxford student union denies telling students to use gender-neutral pronoun https://t.co/pxtC2VjiXG
— Guardian news (@guardiannews) December 13, 2016
Georgia Roberts, a final year student at the University of Exeter, wrote in the Telegraph that the move “slots in rather nicely with the new student bubble culture of safe spacing, no-platforming, and the generally surreal atmosphere of mollycoddling on campuses across the UK, which could see students ill-prepared for the real world”.
On Monday, the OUSU published a statement in response, rubbishing the claims.
“As far as we’re aware, the information which has been published is incorrect. We have not produced a leaflet implying that all students must use ‘ze’ pronouns to refer to others, or indeed to themselves,” it said.
Claims that we released materials telling ‘students to use ‘ze’ in place of ‘he’ or ‘she’ are incorrect https://t.co/QOPDciBta1
— Oxford University SU (@ousunews) December 12, 2016
The union clarified that the resources referred to by many of the reports covering the issue were likely support materials used by student leaders and welfare representatives, which remind students of the “importance of not assuming the pronouns of their peers while also aiming to normalise stating pronouns in introductions”.
“We would also like to clearly state that we would never tell anyone to use ‘ze’ pronouns instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ if ‘he’ or ‘she’ is the pronoun someone wishes to use,” it added, saying that doing otherwise would be “counterproductive”.
The union went on to say that it was disappointed that “a piece of misinformation” resulted in a media storm, overshadowing efforts to ensure that trans students feel welcome at Oxford.
“Requesting that people state their pronouns, and do not assume the pronouns of others, is not particularly radical or controversial. It’s a standard practice, not just in Oxford, but in student communities and LGBTQ-friendly spaces all over, and we encourage its spread,” it said.
The Sunday Times falsely claimed that @ousunews has told students to use ‘ze’ in place of ‘he’ and ‘she’ https://t.co/Qo48pH9CsL
— Cherwell (@Cherwell_Online) December 12, 2016
According to the university’s independent student newspaper Cherwell, the editor for the education section of the Sunday Times, Sian Griffiths, said that the initial story’s main source was an OUSU policy document published in June 2016.
After browsing the document, Study International found no such reference to ‘ze’. There was only a request to “identify one’s preferred pronoun” during OUSU meetings and events.
In its statement, the OUSU also said there was the possibility that its work and remit was confused with the work of the university at large, which carries a Trans Policy and guidance that mention the use of neopronouns (pronoun sets like ‘ze/hir’, ‘ey/em/eirs’).
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