They is us — and Iowa needs more of us, ISU president says

In the war over pronouns, the manner in which people who identify as neither fully male or female on the sexual spectrum are increasingly demanding respect, Iowa State University’s president unequivocally backs a position of inclusivity.

Anyone looking to turn they into them should rethink the approach. We need more of us, in other words, more productive Iowans, says Wendy Wintersteen.

It’s not only the right thing to do, says Wintersteen, but essential for the state to attract and retain a modern workforce — which is at the heart of her mission and the governor’s and a host of other Iowans.

I asked Wintersteen about the evolving language of gender, something that surprised and bewildered me when I first encountered it on Iowa State University’s campus last year.

She wants to foster an environment of respect for all.

“Iowa really needs to have a heart-to-heart talk about how we do that,” Wintersteen said. 

Here’s what’s going on with pronouns, and it can be mightily confusing for older generations: Many students don’t think of themselves as male or female — even though they present as one or the other. Instead of being referred to as “he” or “she” many people today prefer a gender-neutral pronoun — “they” or “them.” 

At first, if you are talking with a group of people and attempting to separate one person from another, this can be confusing, not to mention grammatically confounding as you are tagging a singular person with what since the advent of the English language have been plural pronouns.

But the era of self-serve pronouns is here, like it or not.

I’ve seen students and young presidential campaign workers actually broadcast their preferred pronouns on their social media accounts or in other public presentations.

They list them like this, generally at the bottom of a Twitter profile or resume.

Pronouns: he/she

Or: Pronouns: they/them

Conservatives often argue that people should accept their biological or origin gender and invoke religion to buttress their beliefs. Meanwhile, liberals can be awfully impatient with what bufuddles older people — even a 49-year-old like me — who want to do the right thing, but are just confused to the point of feeling trapped in a looping Abbott & Costello “Who’s-On-First” routine.

Here’s how a conservation I had with a member of the ISU faculty (not Wintersteen) last year went:

Me: “So, he looks like a he, but he’s not gay, or transgender, so he’s not a she? But he’s — or excuse me — wait that’s offensive, I think, so sorry — the person — who is one person — is actually they?”

The educator: “Yes, that’s right.”

Me: “But, like, he, sorry, they, looks like a he, so what’s so wrong with that? For the sake of clarity can they just go with he to make it easier for us, or maybe switch to she, and then explain the difference later to the people actually close to them? Or can I always just call the person by their first or last name, and just avoid the pronouns?”

Educator: “No, Doug, dodging the pronouns intentionally is offensive and hurtful. You need to adapt to this.”

Wintersteen, who has strong ties to conservative Republicans and estimable rural bona fides as an educator, but is also in the position of leading a 35,000-student campus with a variety of perspectives, didn’t hesitate when I asked her thoughts on the growing use, the expectations even, on gender-neutral pronouns.

It’s no small thing, her stance on this, as the topic is at the heart of the American Culture Wars.

“I think you start by saying that in Iowa we have to embrace diversity in all of its forms,” Wintersteen said in an interview Monday in Carroll after speaking to the Rotary Club. “And if we don’t do that then Iowa won’t be able to grow like we want to grow. We want to keep our young people in this state. We want to give them opportunities. We want to build business and industry. We don’t want everything to happen on the East and the West Coast.”

So that includes people being able to select their personal pronouns? Wintersteen would be in support of that?

“That’s right,” Wintersteen said. “Because I think diversity brings creativity and innovation.”

Having organizations in which all people feel they are in a trusted environment makes them stronger, Wintersteen said.

College kids have adapted to this seamlessly. It’s not an issue to most of them.

The Des Moines Register recently ran a profile piece on a gender-neutral person and explained why the person, who would present to most outsiders as a female, preferred to be called “they,” not “she” or “her.”

But what about older rural Iowans? Can Wintersteen sell such acceptance to them? Or will she even try?

“I think it has to be a conversation about inclusiveness, welcoming-ness,” Wintersteen said. “How do we help them realize the world is changing and they need to open up their hearts and say, ‘I am willing to let other people be who they want to be.’ I think that’s what it is. You have to open up your heart.”

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