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The University of Tennessee in Knoxville is encouraging its students, staff and faculty to have an open mind when it comes to pronouns, knowing that sometimes "he" and "she" just won't work.
The school's Office for Diversity and Inclusion is behind the effort to get people thinking about gender-neutral pronouns like ze, xe, hir, hirs and zirs, among others, for people who don't identify with a particular gender.
In a post on the school's website, Donna Braquet of the Pride Center, an on-campus center dedicated to providing resources for LGBTQ students, suggested that teachers skip roll call and simply ask students what name and pronoun they prefer during the first week of school.
"We should not assume someone's gender by their appearance, nor by what is listed on a roster or in student information systems," Braquet wrote. "Transgender people and people who do not identify within the gender binary may use a different name than their legal name and pronouns of their gender identity, rather than the pronouns of the sex they were assigned at birth."
She admitted the new pronouns can take some getting used to: "These may sound a little funny at first, but only because they are new. The she and he pronouns would sound strange too if we had been taught ze when growing up."
Amy Blakely, assistant director of media and internal relations, told TODAY.com there's no rule that students have to use the new pronouns, explaining that the push for diversity stems from an article published in an internal newsletter, introducing the school to the alternative pronouns.
"The university is not changing anything — we're not mandating gender-neutral pronouns," she said. "We're just saying this is out there, and we want to encourage any kind of inclusivity as we can."
Rickey Hall, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, pointed out that many schools across the country have efforts to introduce gender-neutral pronouns.
"Some of our students are already using these pronouns and we're just trying be respectful of how they choose to identify themselves," Hall told TODAY.com. On the flip side, "part of our role is to expose students to things they might not normally be exposed to."
The school also sent us the following statement:
"We would like to offer clarification of the statements that have been made referring to gender-neutral language," the statement read. "There is no mandate or official policy to use the language. The information provided in our Office of Diversity and Inclusion newsletter was offered as a resource to our campus community on inclusive practices."
"We recognize that most people prefer to use the pronouns he and she; we do not dictate speech. We do strive to be a diverse and inclusive campus and to ensure that everyone feels welcome, accepted, and respected."
Inclusivity related to gender has been a hot topic this year: Target recently announced that it would eliminate gender signs from its toy aisle, no longer differentiating between "boy" and "girl" items, and there's also been an uptick in gender-neutral baby names like Quinn and Reese.