Tennessee lawmakers blast gender-neutral pronouns at UT

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, speaks to reporters in his office on March 28 in Nashville, Tenn.

And once again, this is not a policy or a mandate. We are not changing how we do things. ... This was only a piece of information to be viewed as educational.

NASHVILLE -- The political backlash shows no signs of going away over a request by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville's Office of Diversity and Inclusiveness that students and faculty use "gender-neutral" pronouns.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, weighed in on the controversy Tuesday, blasting the group's web posting "as the clearest example of political correctness run amok that I have seen in quite some time."

The speaker said he hopes top UT officials "take quick action to resolve this issue" and warned that if they don't "the legislature will most certainly weigh in when we return in January."

photo A list of gender neutral pronouns provided by UT.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, meanwhile, said in a statement he finds it "difficult to believe that such a ridiculous suggestion as gender-neutral pronouns would be published on a university website without leadership's approval.

"To me, it suggests a lack of institutional control, and I believe the Senate Education and Government Operations committees should investigate and review," added Watson, calling the matter "ridiculous." State taxpayers, he said, "should not expect to be paying for this kind of stuff."

Family Action Council of Tennessee President David Fowler, a former Republican state senator from Signal Mountain, is urging religious conservatives to phone their objections directly to UT system President Joe DiPietro's office.

"'NeUTer' UT's Political Correctness," says an online letter from Fowler, who also wants people to email lawmakers. "This is not just some crazy thing that will pass. It reflects the new worldview running higher education in Tennessee, namely the view that there are no differences between men and women and that sex is not binary based on x and y chromosomes, but some kaleidoscope of variations imagined in one's head."

The event triggering the hoopla came last week when UT-Knoxville's Pride Center director, Donna Braquet, posted a newsletter on the university's Office of Diversity and Inclusiveness' website.

Braquet offered a set of new pronouns to create what she called a more inclusive campus for gays, lesbians and transgender students.

"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 wrote.

Braquet requested that instead of calling roll, instructors ask each student to provide the name and pronoun "he" or "she" - or perhaps "ze" - wishes to be referred by. Additional pronouns included "ze" and "xe," among others.

The university later issued a statement explaining that "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."

The statement added that "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."

The Office of Diversity and Inclusiveness is not a single-issue office for gay, lesbian and transgender people but also deals with groups including women, minorities and people with disabilities.

In an interview Tuesday, UT-Knoxville Vice Chancellor of Communications Margie Nichols elaborated.

"This was in a newsletter," Nichols said. "This was not something that was published on the university's main website. . It's not something from the chancellor's [Jimmy Cheek's] office. We publish hundreds of news letters and those are not always reviewed by the chancellor or even by me because news letters come from departments, they come from offices."

On a university campus "there's a lot of autonomy," Nichols said. "Those kinds of things don't rise to the level of authorization by the leadership. And once again, this is not a policy or a mandate. We are not changing how we do things. If that were the case, it would have been reviewed. This was only a piece of information to be viewed as educational."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.