The End of Miss and Mister: Gendered Titles and Political Correctness

JENNIFER POLISH

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Louise Lennihan, Interim Provost of the Graduate Center, CUNY, drafted the memo abandoning gendered titles in all official correspondence.

Miss and Mister are no longer acceptable titles in salutations when addressing students at The CUNY Graduate Center (GC). In an effort to ensure that the ethos of the GC’s new preferred name policy is upheld consistently, Louise Lennihan, Interim Provost and Senior Vice President of this institution, has issued a memo to the GC community mandating the elimination of “Ms.” and “Mr.” in various forms of communication with students.

The preferred name policy – which a student can utilize by signing an extremely simple form at the Registrar’s Office in order to have their preferred name recognized on course rosters, student IDs and email addresses – is meant to make it easier for students who are transgender or students who are genderqueer or gender non-conforming to have proper names respected across the university. In a climate in which attaining changes in legal gender documentation is extremely burdensome, even in relatively “easy” states like New York, this preferred name policy is extremely important for transgender students, whose legal name appearing on class rosters can easily force them to be outed to professors and, potentially, other students. This outing can and has resulted in awful consequences, ranging from humiliation to explicit and abusive maltreatment across the CUNY system. The preferred name policy prevents this specific kind of structural transphobia in everyday university matters, such as taking attendance on the first day of term.

In order to further this goal of ensuring that students are not outed and placed at risk by their documentation, the gendered greetings such as Ms., Mrs., and Mr. will no longer be acceptable in letters, bills or invoices, mailing labels, and “any other forms or reports” addressed from GC faculty and staff to students, according to the official memorandum, dated 16 January 2015. This memo provides a crucial piece of protection for transgender and gender non-conforming students, for whom the preferred name policy may have little impact if students can still be misgendered via an attachment of an incorrect title to their name. This misgendering – particularly if it occurs prominently in a communiqué – may not only demean students and perpetuate structural disregard for respecting gender identity and expression, but it may also be seen by others and out trans students. The banning of Ms. and Mr. titles prevents this kind of misgendering and therefore greatly limits the risk of trans students non-consensually surrendering control of their identities.

The memo is not strident in its tone, however, and acknowledges any perceived inconveniences caused to cisgender (non-transgender) or gender-conforming people who might not understand the need for these changes. “I understand,” Lennihan writes, “that this effort is a major undertaking, will present challenges, and will take time to implement.” It is only a major undertaking, of course, for those who have the privilege of not having to navigate the terrain of the constant threats of outing and the violently detrimental impacts that misgendering can and does have on many people’s lives.

With this in mind, however, the memo presents the GC community with several links to resources that offer context for the decision and firmly situate gender-inclusive language in scholarly affairs. All three links provided – like that to the website of the National Council of Teachers of English, for example – situate the gendering of titles like Ms. and Mr. as co-extensive with the sexist universalizing of the male pronouns he and him. While the latter choice – using he or him as a generic descriptor of people – is frequently bemoaned as misogynist in Grad Center classrooms whenever we read (usually) older texts by (usually) white men, it is likely newer for some people to adjust to being asked to refrain from using the gendered titles that most of us lived by throughout elementary and high school. Many of us were surely taught that using Ms. and Mr. as titles for someone was a form of respect. The memo from the Office of the Provost and Senior Vice President subtly reminds people that while these titles can be profoundly good and affirming for someone whose gender is being respected, the potential for misgendering that these titles raise is powerful.

Despite the accommodating tone and almost apologetic affect of the resources part of the memo – which does not, it is important to note, include links to an explicit trans-advocacy website or resource listing – the GC has found itself the subject of much inflammatory critique over its nixing of Ms. and Mr. Indeed, Katherine Timpf of The National Review wrote about the new policy, under the headline “CUNY: Don’t Call Students ‘Mr., Mrs. or Ms.’ Because That’s Maybe Disrespectful,” with the subheading of, “Don’t do anything that someone could find offensive!” Let the games begin.

Many people who reacted negatively to the GC’s elimination of Ms. and Mr. made arguments similar to those glibly asserted in Timpf’s headline. Robby Soave of reason.com referred to the policy as “political correctness run amok” and cautioned against people who are “perpetually offended” having their “sensitivity codified.” This gendered framing of the issue transforms the discourse from one about student safety and respect, to one about vague, scare-tactic slippery slopes. Certainly, the recently popular debates about trigger warnings raise similar concerns about “over-sensitivity,” but the truly interesting analyses there are the ones which critique sensitivity as racialized into a sense of white fragility which cannot bear criticisms of one’s personal racisms. That is not the kind of analysis occurring here, however, not by any stretch of the imagination. To the contrary, by fixating on one aspect of the new policy and inflaming it beyond its context, critics of the elimination of Ms. and Mr. have hijacked the GC’s decision to somehow institutionally embrace trans students as fodder in the cannons deployed against “political correctness.”

Is this policy “politically correct,” however, or is referring to people by their preferred names a necessary component of creating a safe and respectful learning environment? If we are willing to accept this as a necessity, how can we refer with disdain to the elimination of Ms. and Mr. from salutations? Surely, respecting a student’s name finds its purpose defeated by students being misgendered and potentially outed by assumed titles. This is not about “political correctness run amok.” Blogger macon d, in his blog called “stuff white people do”, once referred to “political correctness” as an oft-deployed euphemism for racism. Indeed. Here, it is being wielded as a euphemism for transphobia and a strident unwillingness to use language in a way that will not risk reinscribing violence on trans and gender non-conforming people.

Certainly, the battle against misgendering and potentially outing someone on a graduate school document is a small one in the overall scheme of resistance to the violence of the structural transphobia that rocks this country. Five – likely more, unreported – transgender women of color have been murdered in the past five weeks across the country, demonstrating that white mass media’s recent (and often fetishizing and essentializing) love affair with actress Laverne Cox and writer-activist Janet Mock have only gone so far in transforming structures that perpetuate violence against trans women of color in particular. This is not a negative commentary about Mock’s writing and activism – which is phenomenal – but rather about the white mass media that persistently frames her work through its own terms.

Perhaps this white, often cis male media framing is best demonstrated by the utterly privileged and horrendously disrespectful way that Piers Morgan treated Mock when she was on his show in 2014. Mock was accused of policing him with “political correctness,” and much worse when she called him out on his gross mischaracterization of her life and identity. Trying to shift the focus from Morgan’s loud, belligerent calls for her to “educate” him on how to be a better “ally,” Mock suggested that “we need to have a discussion about what gender is, and gender expectations in our culture.” Indeed.
Apparently, these kinds of discussions are not the kinds that mass media are truly interested in having, at least not unless people with various dominant identities can control the conversations. When this control is threatened, it seems, those whose bodies and spirits bear the brunt of various structural oppressions are accused of policing oppressors with “politically correct” language. In contexts such as this, “political correctness” is framed as a weapon against “freedom.” But, one must ask – whose freedom? And to do what? This frivolous, privileged utilization of the rhetoric of “freedom” elides the ways that oppression renders so many people across this country “unfree.”

Certainly, the elimination of gendered titles from GC communiqués with students will not even make tangibly recognizable dents in the overall weapons of anti-trans oppression and transmisogynist violence. But if this minor tweak in language will extend respect and safety to trans and gender non-conforming students at The Graduate Center, is that not worth enduring the anger and scare-tactics of those who have the privilege to value their control over language and people more than they value people’s safety and lives? I’d like to think that’s not even a question.

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One comment on “The End of Miss and Mister: Gendered Titles and Political Correctness
  1. Apparently you are unaware that “Miss” and “Ms.” are entirely different titles whose meanings and pronunciations differ, and that “Miss” probably need not be abolished through administrative action because it’s been out of currency for decades.

    I’m a little confused, though, why anyone would identify “Ms.” and “Miss”.

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