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Political Mercury

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


Meanwhile, many are confused to the point of feeling trapped in a looping Abbott and Costello “Who’s-on-First” routine.

Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen spoke in Carroll recently. She conducted an interview following the event. Photo courtesy of Carroll Times Herald

In the war over pronouns, people who identify as neither fully male nor female on the sexual spectrum, are increasingly demanding respect, and 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, it’s 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.

She wants to foster an environment of respect for all.

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“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, or appear, 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: she/her.

Or: Pronouns: they/them.

Conservatives often argue that people should accept their biological or original gender and invoke religion and science to buttress their beliefs. Meanwhile, liberals can be awfully impatient with what befuddles 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 and Costello “Who’s-on-First” routine.
Here’s how a conversation I had with a member of the ISU faculty (not Wintersteen) 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 fidas 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 told me in Carroll after speaking to the Rotary Club here. “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 coasts.”

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

“That’s right,” she 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 or fluid 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.” ♦

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.


  1. Sherm Ploeger says:

    I am beginning to understand why so many politicians want free college tuition for everyone. If faculty can’t tell the difference between male and female we shouldn’t be charging for it.

  2. Brad says:

    I am wondering, after his enlightenment, what are Mr Burns preferred pronoun?

  3. Jp Jones says:

    Whats wrong with first name basis? I do not want to be called Black Man. Or African American or Straight Man… even though some may see that as an accurate description of me… actually the most respectful pronoun/label would be Mr. Jones or Professor Jones or simply Jp. This does not mean that I am denying anyones right to be described in any manner they want i just thing getting to a first name basis with any individual person is the most inclusive thing anyone can do.

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