Ze and Zir He Created Them: Gender Revolt in Tennessee
So God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the image of God, ze created them;
ze and zir, zir created them.
—Genesis 1:26, 2015 University of Tennessee Edition (UTE)
The University of Tennessee has just publicized gender-neutral language recommended for campus usage. Instead of addressing students through traditional pronouns like “him” and “her,” the school is now asking faculty and staff to pursue more “inclusive” speech. This means calling all students by whatever gender pronoun they prefer. As you might expect, options abound on this point: “ze,” “zir,” and the admittedly tempting “xe” are all within bounds.
This veritable linguistic earthquake emanates from the UT Office for Diversity and Inclusion. This office houses the Pride Center at the university and is directed by Donna Braquet. Since this initiative was announced, UT’s spokeswoman has clarified that this gender-neutral language policy is not enforced as a mandate or official policy, but is a “resource for our campus community on inclusive practices,” according to The Tennessean.
Here are four quick comments to make sense of this “resource.”
First, this development is anything but “inclusive.” Think of what this linguistic shift will accomplish. It will rob many at UT of the conceptual framework they understand and appreciate, because it expresses the reality they see. Words, after all, communicate meaning. If you and I might not fully appreciate this truth, rest assured that the Office for Diversity and Inclusion does in spades.
Let me go all heteronormative on you for a second. In this world, there are men and women. Genesis 1:26 tells us that “male and female he [Yahweh] created them.” You and I might not appreciate gravity, we might deplore the encroachment of old age, but we can do nothing to scrub the fact that we must deal with these realities. So it is with sex. There are men, and there are women.
Yes, some small percentage of the population deals, as a result of the fall, with anatomical confusion (see both inter-sex and gender dysmorphic disorder). But this real confusion does not remake human sexuality any more than a gravity-free zone in a NASA training facility cancels out our earthbound nature. Those who experience gender confusion need discernment and grace, to be sure. But “he” and “her” describe all of us. What could be more inclusive than these pronouns?
Second, note that the push to normalize all sexual behavior is one and the same with the secular push to bulldoze traditional gender roles and any idea of normative gender. Our culture has undergone a dramatic renovation over the last 50 years. The concept of certain exclusive roles performed by men and women fell prey to attack. Then the very nature of manhood and womanhood as fixed realities came under fire. Gender, said the $50 college textbook, is fluid, indefinite, a mere “social construct.” Inevitably, the culture then rejected the idea of normative sexuality. There is no script for sex. You do what you want, when you want, with whomever you want.
That leads directly to the University of Tennessee’s “resource.” If you deny basic gender roles, overthrow biological complementarity, and normalize almost all sexual behavior, you are left with ze and zir. A society that undermines the basic complementarity of men and women ends up without any concept of manhood and womanhood at all. “He” and “she” are words for a reality you reject. Ze and zir it is.
Third, allow yourself to call this what it is: irreducible insanity. The dark alchemy I just described could only generate in the strange, mystical laboratory of the secular university. The university, after all, does not have to deal with reality—at least not on the humanities side. (Woe to the biologist or the chemist who treats nature’s truths as if they do not exist!) But the gender studies professor, the gay and lesbian studies scholar, knows no such boundaries.
American society is being remade in the college classroom. As a nation, we are being reeducated by the Pride Center. Will we accept this? I know many Christians and conservatives will not. They see this gender-neutral initiative as pure folly. It is irreducible insanity, madness all the way down. But how will non-Christian professors and campus leaders respond? I’m particularly curious to see if those who sit in the middle, who are neither complementarian nor radical-fringe, will find their voice. Or if they will let themselves be bullied into accepting campus codes that are, in technical terms, bonkers?
Fourth, commit yourself to heteronormativity. Christians have a stake in these conversations. Jesus did not travel to the desert to found the movement in his name. He and his apostles planted their flag right in the heart of contested territory. As Gospel-captivated people, they could not help but be “salt and light” to their society (Matthew 5:13-14). Their call is ours. We are to shine with the good news of truth and reality amidst darkness of our society.
This mission means that we offer witness on matters like this. Whatever our non-Christian professor friend decides to do, Christians are to give testimony to the beauty of complementarity. The glory of God is in the mundane. The design instinct, the exuberant aestheticism of the Creator, is nowhere seen more powerfully than in this short clause: “male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26). The University of Tennessee may think it has the market cornered on diversity and inclusion. In truth, the Lord got there long before the gender-studies experts, creating both diversity (by creating man and woman) and giving them shared dignity and purpose (by making man in his image).
Manhood and womanhood are not accidental states, mere evolutionary products with a biological purpose but no meaning beyond that, so that we can define gender and redefine it as we wish. The Lord God made man male and female, created a man and a woman and brought them into marriage, as the normative sexual reality of human life. To deny the reality of male and female is to reject the idea of creation.
UT’s policy would accomplish not merely a renaming, deleterious as that is, but a recreating, the formation of a secular world where there is no complementarity, there is no man and woman, and when you really get all the way down to the heart of the enterprise: there is no God.
Owen Strachan is associate professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the President of the Council for Manhood & Womanhood. His new book The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World is now available.