The media coverage of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville's request that their community learn gender neutral pronouns and consider using them in actual conversations has been a fiasco.
There were reports of "ditching" he and she. A Fox News piece went so far as to say, "Lots of folks in Big Orange Country are turning blood red." We'll bracket the question of whether Fox was trying to manufacture the very outrage they were reporting as fact. Unfortunately, Tennessee media outlets played along with the tone set by Fox. A Facebook post by WKRN that was later changed indicated that UT-K had lost its mind, while WSMV's 10:00 p.m. report on Friday night treated the matter as a joke.
University officials facing massive misunderstanding in the media have clarified again and again that gender neutral pronouns are NOT a policy.
Guess what! Colleges have been known to roll out educational programs to make their community life better. It should not be surprising at all that an institution of higher learning should ask members of its community to learn new words and use them. That used to be called education. At a time when Mx as a gender neutral alternative to Ms, Mr., and Mrs is entering dictionaries, it seems as if any university that prepares its community for a changing world is doing its job. So we'll have to say "Well done" to the folks at UT-K!
But the general context of higher education is only one piece that should have taken most of the bluster out of the unfortunate coverage of this development. The other piece that didn't really emerge in the media coverage is the emergency situation of transgender murders in this country.
Basically, media outlets were sensationalizing, mocking, and dismissing a practice that is designed to make transgender and gender non-conforming people safer. There was a lost opportunity for media outlets to connect what is going on at UT-K to the lives of transgender people and the dangers they face.
Why did it occur to no one to ask, "What if thousands of people learned an easy way to affirm transgender people and making them safer in the face of an often hostile world?"
The upside of the sensationalized coverage is two-fold. First, lots of people around the country who had never heard of gender neutral pronouns have now been exposed to them. Second, lots of people around the country learned that the University of Tennessee-Knoxville is trying to make a difference for transgender and gender non-conforming people.
Let's hope that's the direction the discussion keeps heading!