This post is co-authored by:
Art Munin, Ph.D. – Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, Illinois State University
Danny Mathews – Specialist in the Dean of Students Office (Diversity Advocacy), Illinois State University
The Dean of Students Office at Illinois State University hosts a training each August not unlike many institutions. It is a time to reconnect with old colleagues, welcome new ones, and cover vital information as a new academic year begins. At the outset of the training is the annual “Dean’s Welcome” where the Dean of Students, one of the authors of this article (Munin), shared reflections and aspirations for the year. But, the welcome this year was different in one aspect. That difference was a direct challenge to all in the Dean of Students Office on how language is used in one specific regard.
Simply put, at the end of his address, the Dean of Students challenged all staff to drop the word “Guys” from their vernacular. This word is routinely used to address groups of people regardless of the gender composition. When used in such a manner it erases the existence of any person who does not identify as male or masculine, furthering the patriarchal nature of this society. One of the more insidious aspects to how commonplace this language has become is that group members who are oppressed by its usage (e.g. women, gender variant/gender nonconforming individuals) many times use this language as fluently and as often as men. The Dean challenged all people to stop.
Along with the challenge came the invitation for staff members, everyone from graduate students through the Dean, to interrupt, call out, or confront when someone uses the disallowed word. Such instances have been handled very well by the staff by either directly confronting the individual mid-sentence, making a non-verbal gesture while the person is talking to get their attention, or following up with the staff member later. Each instance has been a learning opportunity for the staff to be aware of how effortlessly and regularly we gender our language and the work we all must do to deprogram these patterns.
In issuing this challenge, the Dean of Students was unsure how the staff would respond. Seeing the overwhelming positive response, the challenge was further issued to graduate students in a course that Munin was teaching and leaders in student organizations advised by the unit where Matthews works. Again, on each front, everyone included has risen to the challenge and sought to address their patriarchal speech patterns.
Other higher education entities are also tackling this issue. In 2015, the American College Health Association published New ACHA Guidelines: Trans-Inclusive College Health Programs in collaboration with the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals. This new protocol is an effort to provide standards by which university and college campuses can be inclusive and affirming of those who self-identify as transgender, gender variant, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, or in another way outside of the socio-cultural gender binary default. The first best practice highlighted is “using universal language that is inclusive of individuals outside the gender binary” (ACHA, 2015).
However, the challenge to eliminate “guys” from our speech patterns is not limited to just how we attempt to be inclusive of gender variant/gender nonconforming people. The challenge to choose inclusive language can also be understood as a means of evoking personal awareness and a sense of agency toward dismantling systems of patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny. Using the word “guys” to refer to a group of people, regardless of its gender composition, is an example of how our culture works to unconsciously preserve a system centered in patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny. The collateral damage we must negotiate is how that exaltation of maleness has rendered masculinity so fragile that it must be protected. This can be evidenced through the societal resistance to refrain from using “guys” when referencing a group.
We do not believe that this challenge has solved sexism or erased the pervasive nature of patriarchy. But, it is a step. It forces people to not only think about how a single word is used, but also, how we continually devalue or erase our community who identify as gender variant/gender nonconforming or women. This is vital work that cannot be ignored. We took this challenge and now the challenge is placed to you. Are you in?
Danny Mathews currently serves as the Specialist for Advising and Leadership Development in the Dean of Students’ Diversity Advocacy Office at Illinois State University. He is a two time alum of ISU, completing his Bachelors in English and Women’s and Gender Studies and his Masters in College Student Personnel Administration. Mathews is a Social Justice Educator and Feminist Activist. He hopes to return to the classroom to complete his doctoral work in Higher Education Administration but always looks for learning opportunities that help him show up as an empathetic and visionary leader.
American College Health Association (2015). ACHA Guidelines: Trans-Inclusive College Health
Programs. Retrieved from https://www.acha.org/documents/Resources/Guidelines/Trans-Inclusive_College_Health_Programs.pdf.