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Abandoning gendered nicknames would make my alma mater more trans-friendly

Students at Ohio’s Kenyon College believe the school’s Lords and Ladies nicknames are transphobic. This (old) alumnus has come to agree with them.

NCAA Photos Archive
For multiple decades, the only nickname Kenyon swimming needed was “Champions.”

When I attended my beloved alma mater Kenyon College in small-town Ohio, I never imagined that one day, a group of students would be calling for the school to change its Lords and Ladies nicknames.

And I realize that sounds like the opening of an op-ed written by an officially designated Grumpy Old Man who only wants to talk about the good old days when they used to run the Naked Mile singing Cole Porter’s scandalous new hit, “Let’s Misbehave,” but stay with me, I promise I’m going somewhere with this...

Like many Division III schools, Kenyon has a relationship with sports that could best be labeled “...it’s complicated.” On the one hand, novelist and alumnus E.L. Doctorow summed it up well when he asserted, “Poetry was what we did at Kenyon, the way at Ohio State they played football.”

(Though unfortunately, this did not mean we celebrated finishing Milton’s “Paradise Lost” by flipping over cars and setting couches on fire.)

Yet on the other, Kenyon was capable of occasionally dominating the college athletic world. When it came to NCAA D3 swimming, we destroyed all competitors, with Kenyon men winning 31 consecutive national championships and Kenyon women claiming 23 titles. Normally, we were a group of indifferent Chomsky-quoting English majors. But if you got us wet, we turned into the Yankees.

NCAA Photos Archive
That feeling when you win a championship and you’re not owned by Steinbrenner.

So sports did matter somewhat, despite the fact that our football team was routinely outdrawn by a cappella concerts or productions of “The Glass Menagerie.” And while Kenyon students could do their share of protesting, I have no memory of anyone objecting to Lords and Ladies.

Which, of course, means that I went to college 25 years ago. Because right now, there is a movement afoot among current students to change the nicknames, with college President Sean Decatur going so far as to broach the topic at a recent Campus Senate meeting.

A staff editorial in last month’s Kenyon Collegian boiled down the current students’ objections:

“The Lords and Ladies represent a rigid gender binary that does not accurately reflect the Kenyon community and the multiple identities within it. Nonbinary students, and student-athletes in particular, are forced to be identified with a name that is at least problematic and at most transphobic.”

Even as recently as two years ago, I’d have probably rolled my eyes dismissively at this. “Sure,” I would’ve reasoned as any self-proclaimed good liberal would, “I can see what’s wrong with the mascots of the Washington Football Team or Cleveland Baseball Team. But ‘Lords and Ladies?’ Who’s really offended by that?”

But there are important lessons I’ve learned from writing about transgender, nonbinary, and gender fluid athletes over the past couple years. One of the chiefest among them is that in a country that goes out of its way to erase the trans community’s accomplishments and even their existence, any gesture that makes them feel welcome provides a much-needed recognition of humanity.

In other words, this nickname change isn’t about getting on the wokeness bandwagon or being fearful of offending. It’s about Kenyon telling marginalized communities, “You belong here.” And in the context of a time when Ohio is one of dozens of states considering proposed transgender athlete bans, every message of “You belong” is vital.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch
Kenyon College is an incredible place. And it should feel that way for everybody.
Adam Cairns via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Plus, let’s face it... in the 21st century, assigning different nicknames to men’s and women’s teams should be a relic of the past. After this year’s March Madness laid clear how the NCAA opened up a mini-Club Med for men’s basketball and consigned women to a Red Roof Inn fitness center, it’s time for the whole sexist system underlying college sports to be dismantled.

Part of that dismantling means getting rid of the concept of othering women’s teams through names like Lady Vols, Devilettes, Sugar Bears and yes... the Kenyon Ladies. Both cis and trans women deserve to represent their schools in the same way that cis male athletes do, and not be made to feel like they don’t play “real college sports” by the names on the front of their jerseys.

It’s time to make the Lords and Ladies nicknames as archaic as the feudal system that inspired them. If Kenyon is ready to make a change, this alumnus is ready to support it.