This year, Merriam-Webster officially added the non-binary pronoun "they" to its dictionary, and in doing so, noted that it had evidence of the non-binary use of "they" dating back to 1950. A 2018 survey by the non-partisan Pew Research Center found that 35 percent of Generation Z respondents (those born after 1996) reported that they personally know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns such as "they" or "them." Despite these clear signals, many institutions (and many private citizens) are struggling to keep pace with the increasingly nuanced conversation around gender pronoun use in the United States.
While the issue evolves, higher education institutions must not lose sight of the legal requirements governing pronoun use already in place in their states, cities, and towns or they risk legal exposure. For example, in New York City, the New York City Human Rights Law (the "NYCHRL") has prohibited discrimination based on gender identity for almost two decades now. These protections were expanded last year and require that covered institutions use the name, pronouns, and title with which a person self-identifies regardless of the person's sex assigned at birth, anatomy, gender, medical history, appearance, or sex indicated on the person's government issued identification. California's Fair Employment and Housing Act has similar protections. These laws generally require institutions to maintain policies that implement pronoun self-identification across their campuses.
Institutions of higher education that do not yet have such a policy in place are missing a crucial tool to combat discrimination and reduce liability on campus. For institutions that already have a policy in place, implementation should be an area of close focus since laws such as the NYCHRL require that policies be implemented in a manner to prevent harassment based on gender identity or non conformity for employees. Agencies such as the NYC Commission on Human Rights are increasingly looking past the language of policies to examine the effectiveness of implementation. Recognizing that employees who will be responsible for implementing your institution's policies may still be unfamiliar with (or confused by) the emerging rules of the road and descriptors such as cisgender, non-binary, and intersex, employee training and campus awareness on the nuances of these policies and laws is a crucial piece of the equation for regulatory compliance and preventing discrimination on campus.