By Valfrie Claisse
When attempts to uproot deeply seated traditions are in place, controversy arises.
In the United States, addressing people in formal settings—“Ms.” or “Mrs.” for women and “Mr.” for men—after a “Hello!” is a practice that is as traditional as using ketchup and mustard on American hotdogs. But a policy is in place to do away with the titles we use to fully construct someone’s formal identity for our everyday social interactions.
On Jan. 26, the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center issued a new policy advising the faculty and other staff members to avoid using the titles “Ms.,” “Mrs.,” and “Mr.” when addressing students, effective during the spring semester.
“Effective Spring 2015, the [graduate center’s] policy is to eliminate the use of gendered salutations and references in correspondence to students, prospective students, and third parties,” reads the memo sent through email to all faculty and other staff members, on Jan. 16.
The policy was announced in an internal memorandum signed by the Graduate Center’s Interim Provost Louise Lennihan. In the memo, Lennihan encouraged professors to stick with the official names of students, or use the preferred names without the gendered salutations, particularly in official correspondence, as The Wall Street Journal first reported. This would include “all parts of any letter including address and salutation, mailing labels, bills or invoices, and any other forms or reports,” the memo states.
The policy is part of CUNY’s latest effort to create a safer and non-discriminatory learning space for students. Addressing the issue of gender discrimination in college campuses, the policy is aimed to achieve a gender-inclusive environment. The current use of the heteronormative titles, CUNY argues, excludes recognition of transgender students and those who identify outside the gender binary.
The CUNY Graduate Center is the first learning institution in the country to mandate such a directive aimed at gender neutrality.
It is also the grounds where new policies are occasionally tested before a potential, full-fledged implementation to the undergraduate branches within its system. This means that even though the policy has only been issued to the Graduate Center for now, many John Jay undergraduates are already affected, especially those who consider going to the university for their graduate studies after atending John Jay College.
The policy and its implications are all the more meaningful for students who already do not conform to the gender norms.
Upon learning about CUNY’s new policy, Kadeem Robinson, 18, a John Jay sophomore, was more than passionate and thrilled at the prospects: “It’s very exciting because they are finally taking into consideration gender nonconforming people. It’s good that they are finally accepting the fact that there’s not just male or female, that there’s more to it.”
Matthew Matos, a sophomore at John Jay, maintains a neutral stance on the necessity of the ban of the gendered titles.
“I understand how people could get offended by using these titles, but then again, it’s also been used for long as a form of formality,” said Matos.
While Matos thinks the traditional courtesy titles are harmless, some students believe that “Ms.,” “Mrs.,” or “Mr.,” along with any other titles, are just as important to people’s identities.
“For me I see the titles as equal. I see race the same as gender, because this is something that means a lot to somebody,” Robinson said.
“The effects [will] create a more comforting base for students to express their identities that they haven’t ever had before,” said Devyn Serrano, vice president of the LGBTQ and Allies club. “The policy will publicize the school as a safety zone that will not butcher their preferred names and pronouns the way some of their lives already consist of.”
Despite the good intentions of the university, the response to CUNY’s newest policy ranges from skepticism to strict disagreement, with the policy itself and with the way CUNY has handled its endeavors of moving past being a gender-exclusive institution.
Some members of the faculty at the Graduate Center expressed varying concerns about the policy.
From a semantic standpoint, linguistics professor at the Graduate Center Juliette Blevins told the Wall Street Journal that she “would like to do everything possible to foster a gender-inclusive learning environment on campus.”
“However, I do not believe that prescriptive language policies should be a part of that effort.” she said.
Olivera Jokic, an English and Gender Studies professor at John Jay College, weighed in on Professor Blevins’ statement, saying that “to prescribe what language change people will adopt usually doesn’t work like that.”
While she agrees that the policy is progressive, she insists on the line between the heteronormative man-woman gender binary and the role of language itself in society.
“You don’t pretend that it is the language. It’s not the category itself. Removing the language will not necessarily mean that gender has been removed.”
Kathlyn Salazar, a junior at John Jay, doubts the need of a language policy. “There’s no necessity for such a policy,” Salazar said. “One can just advise another to say ‘don’t call me ‘Ms.,’ and I think that’s efficient.”
The policy instated by CUNY has both supporters and detractors, but the ban of the heteronormative titles becomes all the more important, especially as the country undergoes steps towards gender equality. The most recent is the issue of same-sex marriage, which the Supreme Court will decide in late April this year whether marriage equality is a constitutional right.
Political correctness is another concern among those who disagree with the policy.
Scott Tankersley, a John Jay senior who volunteers as a peer ambassador at the Women’s Center, responded to the typical claims against policies directed toward gender equality. “If believing that treating non-binary people as human beings that they are is political correctness, then call me politically correct,” Tankersley said.
As the nation continues to work against gender-based inequality in many aspects of people’s lives, college campuses are taking initiatives in addressing these issues. In John Jay, the opening of the three gender-neutral bathrooms earlier in the semester is part of this campaign.
Gender, as it shows, remains to be a critical category that we as a society use to assign identity and expectations on people.
Considering the initial failure of the policy to gain support and successful implementation, Jokic offered a consolation in favor of the new policy in place.
“We’ll just figure out other ways. What the interest is to have a comprehensive way of dealing with gender and figuring out a way to make it not matter anywhere,” said Jokic. “But we don’t have that yet.”