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University of Kansas gender identity buttons: Progress on campus?

Some students and employees at the University of Kansas have begun wearing buttons featuring their preferred gender pronouns as part of a campaign by the university's library system. 

Buttons advertising part of the University of Kansas Libraries' "You Belong Here" campaign are displayed in Lawrence, Kansas on Dec. 27, 2016.
Sara Shepherd /The Lawrence Journal-World/AP
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Buttons featuring gender pronouns are flying off the library shelves at the University of Kansas, where a campaign headed by the school's library system aims to make students with varying gender identities feel welcome. 

The pins, originally intended for library employees to wear as part of the system's "You Belong Here" marketing effort, have proven popular with students as well. There are three versions available: "He him his," "She her hers," and "They them theirs," for people who don't identify as male or female. 

"Because gender is, itself, fluid and up to the individual," a library sign reads. "Each person has the right to identify their own pronouns, and we encourage you to ask before assuming someone's gender. Pronouns matter! Misgendering someone can have lasting consequences, and using the incorrect pronoun can be hurtful, disrespectful, and invalidate someone's identity." 

With its library buttons, the University of Kansas in Lawrence joins a growing number of schools making efforts to accommodate students who are transgender or who don't identify as any gender at all. Some, such as Champlain College and the University of Vermont, in Burlington, Vt., have supplied similar gender pronoun pins and name tags to students and staff. Others, including Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass., and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, made headlines when they began letting students register their own pronouns for official university use.

These moves have been applauded by LGBTQ advocates, who say respecting the preferred pronouns of LGBTQ individuals is important for creating an inclusive environment on college campuses. But critics argue that universities are overstepping their boundaries by promoting what they see as political correctness gone too far. 

"There is a growing trend in the United States, especially in colleges and universities, for some people to use and prefer nontraditional pronouns," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, to Inside Higher Ed. "That is just a fact of modern American society. Society changes, language changes and today on college campuses, there are increasing numbers of people who specify nontraditional pronouns. Why not respect them?" 

A surge of university initiatives aimed at creating more inclusive campuses in recent years have raised concerns about whether efforts such as the "bias-free language guide" developed by staff and students at the University of New Hampshire in 2013, are stifling free speech and intellectualism on campus. But Kevin Smith, dean of libraries at the University of Kansas, sees the "You Belong Here" campaign as protecting, rather than suppressing, free speech. 

"A commitment to support the voices of marginalized people is part and parcel to the libraries’ commitment to the values of the First Amendment," he told the Lawrence Journal-World. 

Some critics of the pronoun buttons and similar initiatives don't feel the same way, and argue that the pins are inappropriate and unnecessary. 

"Why do any of us have to get involved in someone else's personal life? Why do others feel compelled to try to force their personal issues on others?" wrote one commenter, David Reynolds, on an article in the Lawrence Journal-World. "Why can't we just relate to each other by our names and leave each other's intimate personal issues out our daily normal interactions?" 

At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, administrators last year removed a guide to transgender pronouns from its website after facing backlash from state lawmakers. Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey described the guide, which included pronouns such as "ze" and "xe" alongside "she," "he," and "they," as "the clearest example of political correctness run amok that I have seen in quite some time." 

"The social issues and practices raised by the Office for Diversity and Inclusion are appropriate ones for discussion on a university campus," wrote Joe DiPietro, president of the University of Tennessee System, in a letter to his board announcing the guide's removal. "However, it was not appropriate to do so in a manner that suggests it is the expectation that all on campus embrace these practices." 

The University of Tennessee is not the only university to face criticism for its efforts to spread awareness of gender-neutral pronouns. Danielle Berube, director of residential life at Champlain College, acknowledges that her staff's decision to hand out pronoun buttons during freshman orientation this year may have made some people uncomfortable. 

"It would certainly be a generalization to say everyone is on board," Ms. Berube told the Burlington Free Press. "Certainly, there’s resistance or folks who maybe it just doesn’t jive with their beliefs or their own thinking, but we’re in an educational atmosphere, so this is the place where people are supposed to confront their values and beliefs and understand them or push on them. This is the place where we should be doing this."