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'An important step, but we have a lot more work to do': Students, staff reflect on inclusive language and pronouns at Duke

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During a largely virtual school year, Duke has moved toward normalizing inclusive language and pronouns for transgender and gender non-conforming members of the Duke community. 

One recent change allows students to choose their own pronouns in the new version of DukeHub. Additionally, customizable Zoom titles and email signatures have made it easier to learn someone’s pronouns.

For Kiran Sundar, a transgender male sophomore, these changes have offered some relief. 

“Having to explain myself or my identity is a lot of pressure. With all of the difficulties that comes with virtual learning, being explicit with the pronouns that you use is actually so much easier,” said Sundar, vice president of education for Blue Devils United, a group for undergraduates who are members or allies of the LGBTQI+ community. 

Some students find freedom in self-expression through the normalization of non-binary pronouns. James Mbuthia, a junior who identifies as non-binary and uses he/they pronouns, finds community in identifying and meeting other non-binary or transgender students through Zoom classes.

“I think queerness is freedom,” Mbuthia said. “[The use of inclusive pronouns] allows us to express ourselves in a way that we perceive ourselves. This is something that LGBTQ people have been denied.”

Angel Collie, assistant director of the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, said inclusive language and pronouns helps to create a validating and inclusive environment for students who identify outside of the gender binary. Collie, a transgender man, says ubiquitous language such as “ladies and gentlemen” and “boys and girls” creates a harmful and compounding stress for trans and gender non-conforming students. 

“That language is a way that non-binary and gender non-conforming folks get rendered invisible,” Collie said.  

Director of the CSGD Nick Antonicci has launched an inclusive pronoun training for members of Durham and the Duke community. 

“We are not really taught how to use inclusive language and pronouns. A lot of folks don’t have access to the information. We want to give folks an example of how to be role models and show them how to use pronouns and how to ask for someone’s pronouns,” Antonicci said. 

These trainings have been attended by many staff, students and other community members, and registration is available on the CSGD website, he noted.

BDU President Grace O’Connor noted that while there is cause for celebration for recent movements towards inclusivity, there is also a need for more action.

“Keeping this movement going is really important, especially when it seems like there’s more national resistance to it. This [initiative] is an important step, but we have a lot more work to do,” said O’Connor, a junior. 

BDU, for example, is currently working with administration to add more gender-neutral restrooms across campus, O’Connor said. 

“We want to be a support and education device for people who want to learn more and become more inclusive while supporting transgender and genderqueer students,” O’Connor said.

While campus projects and advocacy efforts from groups like BDU and CSGD are actively creating a more safe and inclusive space for gender non-conforming students, some say there is still a need for broader LGBTQI+ acceptance. 

Mbuthia said that there can be institutional change, but there also “clearly needs to be a moral upheaval of Duke in general.”

“We can talk all we want about the sort of institutional level broader social movement and that’s absolutely great, but individual experiences are also super important,” Sundar said. “I don’t want to lose sight of the individuals who are very directly impacted by initiatives like this. It preserves the well-being and humanity of the people that we are interacting with,” he said.

When institutions and groups use inclusive language and pronouns, Antonicci said that transgender and non-binary students have better mental health outcomes and a greater sense of belonging. “That’s an important piece for our vision of the future,” Antonicci said 

Mbuthia believes that institutional changes, like those Duke has adopted with help from the CSGD, are indicative of a larger social movement. 

“As we continue to progress, we take on a new social culture and we can actually see that this progress is happening before our eyes,” they said. “This period will be forever remembered.” 

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