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Drake, Kimberly. Genderqueering Language. Writing Instructor, March 2015. Posted 07/14/2015.


Drake, Kimberly. “Genderqueering Language at a ‘Women’s’ College.” The Writing Instructor (March 2015). Web. 08 July 2015.

In a special edition of the online journal The Writing Instructor, Kimberly Drake, a professor of writing at Scripps College, explores the efforts of her first-year writing students to navigate the complexities of gendered language and the possibilities of “genderqueered” language. Scripps is traditionally a women’s college in the Los Angeles-area Claremont Colleges. Drake recounts efforts to refine language in official documents and in the classroom at Scripps and other colleges, in particular single-sex institutions, as they face the challenges necessitated by the increasing presence and visibility of transgender students.

Drake reports on the experience of Calliope Wong, who was denied admission by Smith College, a women’s college, because on many of her application materials she was identified as male. For Drake, this event highlighted the particular issues confronting single-sex institutions, which, she argues, have been predicated on a clear, foundational “gender binary” of “male” and “female.” Further, she writes, these colleges have traditionally presented their mission as providing a “safe space” for women to realize their potential with no interference from the patriarchy in the culture around them. Drake notes the special resonance of language use in such an environment and interrogates the concern that the missions of these institutions will be compromised if students’ efforts to alter language result in “turning the gender binary into a continuum.”

Scripps students, as Drake presents them, represent a range of feminist positions; some consider it unnecessary to insist on feminist stances because they feel these are implicit in the Scripps environment. Although Drake knew of queer students at Scripps, she felt that “cis-gendered heterosexual women were the normal Scripps students, and those not falling into this category did not have a strong public presence on campus.” As this situation began to change, however, Scripps students made the language of the Scripps Associated Students (SAS) bylaws gender-neutral so as not to “exclude and silence” a portion of the student population (Anna Salem, SAS president 2009-10, qtd. in Drake).

Drake posits that such choices are not perfect solutions to the problems of visibility and inclusion faced by students who do not fit the normative gender binary. While gender-neutral language precludes clearly sexist choices like generic “he,” it evades confronting the prevailing hierarchy that continues to assume a binary and leaves unchallenged the primacy “implicitly granted to members of historically privileged categories, such as heterosexual men” (Mimi Marinucci, qtd. in Drake). Drake writes that “[f]ull access . . . will not be gained by avoiding pronominal reference to the gender binary.”

Tracing the history of gender reference at Scripps, Drake reveals that over time, official documents and public events ranged from employing plurals to constituting students as “she” to a ceremony in which women were only mentioned twice, in the phrase “men and woman.” Members of the Board of Trustees and faculty were historically “he.” Drake posits that the often-chosen retreat to the plural may have resulted from the need to dodge the grammatical problems associated with the supposedly colloquial use of “they” in singular constructions but also possibly from the perception of some that a “representative college student” could not be female. To some students, surrendering the use of “she” as a designation for Scripps students compromises the feminist implications of such a choice. The students, however, ultimately voted to prefer gender-neutral options as a way of refusing the “gender oppression” inherent in sustaining the binary through the use of “she.”

Drake recounts the experiences of students in her first-year writing classes, which she designs around the language of social protests, creating a “brave space” for free discussion within the “safe space” Scripps provides. In particular, Drake develops readings and assignments that present the power of discourse to structure identity and culture, urging “imaginative resistance.” In exploring how language choices can provide such resistance to gender oppression, students learn that the use of “they” to address the lack of a neutral singular pronoun as well as efforts to create neutral pronouns have a long history, including the use of “yo” as a non-gendered pronoun by current-day teenagers in Baltimore.

As an example of an imaginative response to the problem, Drake’s students read Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time about a woman in a mental institution who travels in time to a utopian, egalitarian society in which “identitarian categories” disappear, with “person” and “per” replacing personal pronouns and possessives. Students experiment with Piercy’s solutions, moving on to consider other options like “ze” and “hir.” Students grappled with the claims of Judith Butler that not just “gender identity” and “gender performance” but also “anatomical gender” (qtd. in Drake) are all “socially constructed.” These efforts resulted in the conclusion that “if you are admitted to Scripps, it’s because someone in power believes you have a vagina.” The students in this class appropriated a phrase from a video game to generate a slogan, “Person’s Gender is a Lie,” which they used on T-shirts.

Ultimately, Drake argues, using language to refer to gender in ways that diverge from expectations about what is normal disrupts the ability of institutions like Scripps to subsume the diverse identities of individuals under the static gender binary. When readers found a student’s use of “ze” and “hir” in a scholarship competition “distracting,” Drake writes that this “distraction was purposeful and political,” demanding the recognition of gender as a continuum rather than a binary. Such genderqueering of language, in Drake’s view, replaces the idea of a normative, homogenous community with an acknowledgment of the differences within it.

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

3 thoughts on “Drake, Kimberly. Genderqueering Language. Writing Instructor, March 2015. Posted 07/14/2015.

  1. Thanks for letting me know about this article, Virginia. I would never have known about it, else.

    I appreciate Drake’s viewpoint. (And yes, I have read Marge Piercy’s book. I wish we would’ve taken up “person” and “per” as pronouns, as her future society did…that was much easier than what we’re dealing with now.)

    I still have a problem using a singular “they” for one, single individual because it doesn’t balance numerically. But I’m going to call people what they want to be called. I’m writing a trangender character now who, fortunately for me, prefers the pronoun “she” regardless of outward gender, which makes it much easier; however, I have a cousin who is gender-fluid with an androgynous name who prefers “they.” I would have a hard time with this in conversation even though I would try hard; I probably would instead use my cousin’s name a lot, or say “you” because that’s also acceptable in certain situations.


    • I’ve been in higher ed for 25 years, and I’ve watched institutions and teachers trying to deal with problems much like the one you describe. Dennis Baron, whom I reference in the JCHW post, mentions a student who wonders why it’s not common courtesy to call people what they want to be called. Yet, as Baron documents, for some, this effort is a stretch too far. As gender issues become more visible, these questions will arise more often. There is a lot of work in writing studies (rhetoric and composition) as to how best to deal with the cultural clashes that ensue. Thanks for your interest and good luck with your character!

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