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New campaign makes gender neutral pronouns 'No Big Deal'

University of Toronto instructor Lee Airton has found, despite recent polarizing media coverage, most people don't mind using gender neutral pronouns.

Gender diversity advocate and University of Toronto instructor Lee Airton is leading a campaign on pronouns.

Eduardo Lima/Metro / Metro

Gender diversity advocate and University of Toronto instructor Lee Airton is leading a campaign on pronouns.

For Lee Airton, deciding to go by the gender-neutral pronoun they about five years ago was a big deal.

But the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education instructor has found that for most other people, it’s not.

That’s why they have started a new campaign called “No Big Deal,” encouraging people to print out free badges sporting the slogan from their website.

The campaign, which has the support of, among others, Planned Parenthood, and the Sexual and Gender Diversity Office at UofT, comes on the heels of a storm of media coverage about the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

“I wanted to start it because in the debate that was happening in Canadian media and public life I noticed there were two very polarized voices,” Airton told Metro.

“One was people saying ‘nope not doing it,’ for a variety of reasons,” they said, “and one was people saying ‘you need to do this.’”

But what Airton didn’t hear was the “silent support” they’ve found for years in the university community and outside of it.

University of Toronto has been a hot spot for clashes on gender-neutral pronouns recently. Psychology professor Jordan Peterson refuses to use them, arguing it violates his free speech. His stance has led to campus protests, both against and in support of his position, and calls for the university to do more to protect trans students. 

Last month, the university also hosted a debate on Bill C-16, federal legislation that would change the Canadian Human Rights Code and Criminal Code to make discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression illegal.

Airton said the campaign is in response to the “climate of the past five weeks,” but not about “any one person or any one event.

The “No Big Deal” website also includes infographics that people can look to as a resource if others question them.

It’s not just about people who go by gender-neutral pronouns but transgender people who go by a pronoun different from what others might assume.

Allison Burgess, UofT’s sexual and gender diversity officer, said the campaign is trying to correct some “misinformation” about trans identity.

“I love the spirit of the campaign, which is to say, a basic part of respecting each other is to use each other’s pronouns,” she said.

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