Since I’m in college now, I’ve had the “opportunity” to learn about a whole bunch of issues I never really worried much about before. These include “safe spaces” (apparently the library or your house is insufficient) and “gender pronouns.”
What’s interesting about them to me is not the concepts themselves but more the controversy surrounding them. I have friends and family on all sides of the political spectrum (can I call it that? Perhaps it would prefer to be called a “non-conforming linear structure” or perhaps “a circle” because they want in on circle privilege…). Because of this, I get all sorts of different takes.
I’ll get my opinion on gender identity out of the way…I don’t care. It’s pretty much the same attitude I have towards homosexuality, vegetarianism, foot fetishes, Star Trek fandom, and what sports team you’re willing to kill for. If you identify as a different gender from your biological sex, or you’re “agender”, or intersex, or whatever, it’s not really any of my concern nor my business.
That’s not to say I’m against these things. Think of yourself however you want. There is evidence that suggests gender identity is at least partially biological (don’t tell my Gender Studies professor who spent an entire semester trying to convince us that gender is purely a social construct!). Again, this is true of homosexuality, and I see no reason why I or anyone else should interfere with someone’s attraction or self-identification. It’s not really any of my business. If that’s what makes you happy, and you aren’t hurting anyone else, go for it. Incidentally, that is my general philosophy regarding social politics in general.
There is also some evidence that suggests treatments for transsexualism are often necessary. I am supportive of individuals who have this condition getting treatment as best as we can provide as long as the medical literature supports it. Evidence suggests that the suicide attempt rate among transgender individuals is as high as 41% compared to 4.6% of the general U.S. population (pdf). I think you’d have to be pretty callous to suggest that a 36.4% increase in suicide attempts doesn’t necessitate some sort of medical treatment, or that such a staggering difference is some sort of choice that people are doing for attention. If you believe this, I highly recommend doing some research and deciding for yourself…you may find the evidence just doesn’t support it.
I say all this to point out that I support, in general, “transgender” and “intersex” rights. I don’t think these conditions warrant differing legal implications; after all, we generally frown on discrimination due to mental illness, why would we support discrimination on the basis of a mental condition that is generally not debilitating? That sounds pretty hypocritical to me, unless you’re for discrimination against people with mental illness, and then nothing I say will convince you one way or another. Also, you’re an asshole. Pretty much by definition.
So what? Isn’t this what every moderate to liberal individual keeps saying anyway? Basically, yeah. That was all prep, because I’m about to take a right turn onto “uncomfortable discussion” street, and since I don’t give even the smallest crap about people’s sensitivities to uncomfortable topics, here we go. I write this blog to speak the truth as best as I can, even if that truth is ugly or unpleasant. Whoever you are, chances are 100% that I am NOT your therapist, nor do I have the slightest desire to be. If you are “triggered” by anything I write, a licensed therapist is the right place to go. And yes, this “disclaimer” is entirely relevant to where I’m going with this blog.
So what? Yes, I said that already. Why am I talking about transgender stuff? Why should you care? That’s a really good question. It’s actually the question that drove me to research this topic in the first place. I wrote that forward to make it clear that, when I start discussing gender pronouns, and this is important, I am not talking about transgender/intersex/whatever rights. I already told you my opinion on that. It’s right there, a couple paragraphs up. Review it if you want.
So what about pronouns? Well, there is a push among the LGBT community to encourage/force people to use the “proper” gender pronouns for transgender/agender individuals. And by “proper” they mean “what the person identifies as.” And this point is where I started running into problems. As I started with, I said I simply don’t care about transgender issues. It’s a private issue, one that often is between you and your doctor/family, and it’s none of my business. This push, however, changes that dynamic.
It’s not enough that I accept your right to do what you wish. Now I must follow along with it. I mentioned earlier that I’m not your therapist (I would make a terrible therapist!). Your therapist is there to make you feel comfortable with whatever form of gender dysphoria you have, and your psychiatrist/doctor is there to help you deal with it. I am not any of those people, and I have no desire to be.
There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the way pronouns are used in English. A “pronoun” is a generalized noun meant to “stand in” for an unknown noun. I can use “they” instead of “Jim, Jane, and John,” even if I don’t know any of their names. I see more than one person, and can utilize the pronoun as a shorthand to solve the problem of my ignorance. Jim, Jane, and John probably don’t identify as “they.” They identify as their names. I, however, am under no obligation to make sure I know their deep innermost identity in order to use pronouns. That’s the great part about them.
In other words, a pronoun is a physical descriptor of someone, used in place of specific knowledge or as shorthand. When I say “he” or “she” I’m not referring to their personal identity; I’m referring to what they look like, and in general, “he” and “she” are distinctive enough that others will know what you’re talking about.
A great example is talking to the police. If you saw a “white man, about 5’4″ tall” running out of a liquor store while the cashier chases after him shouting “stop, thief!” this is a generally useful description. But what do you really know about this person? What if they were adopted by a black family, or an Asian one? Perhaps they don’t identify as a “white” individual, but prefer to be considered the race of their adopted family. What if this individual is concerned about their height? They appear about 5’4″, but they really identify as someone much taller, say 6’4″. Perhaps they’ve met with a therapist and been diagnosed with an inferiority complex related to their height. If the criminal is caught, should you be concerned that you didn’t use his preferred vertical identity?
These examples may seem like a completely different thing. And in some ways this is true, but I think the point is important. Of that list, the only thing the LGBT community is concerned about is the “man” part, even though it is entirely possible for the individual to have hangups regarding all the other generalizations I mentioned. The other point is to highlight how such pronouns are used compared to their “gendered” (“sexed” would be a better word) nouns…man and woman. They are physical descriptors, like “black” or “white” are to race. Could a “white” man identify as Hispanic? Sure. “European?” Absolutely. “Russian?” Of course. But we aren’t generally concerned with the personal identity of someone when we say we saw a “white individual”…the generalized descriptor gives enough information.
There’s another, deeper point here. You do not have the right to determine how other’s speak. You can dislike it, you can disagree with it, whatever. But you do not get to shut down free speech because it makes you uncomfortable or unhappy. At this point, we’re going beyond the right to be treated equally and into the right to be treated special, and guess what? You don’t have a right for others to treat you specially.
Here’s another example. I was in the Marine Corps for almost 10 years. Much of my identity is tied to having been in the Marine Corps and being a Marine. When I got out, I was a Captain, and I was generally referred to as “Captain Jones” or “sir.” There are plenty of individuals who can attest to this fact.
What if I demanded everyone around me refer to me as “Captain Jones” or “sir” in the civilian world? If I asked my classmates to refer to me by rank, and give me the greeting of the day, as is proper for my identity as a Marine Corps officer? What do you think the general reaction would be?
I haven’t tried it, but my intuition suggests that this would be seen as, at best, very odd, and at worst as delusional. They aren’t Marines. They have no desire to be in the Marine Corps. And while they may acknowledge the Marine Corps exists, and believe that I should have the same rights as anyone else, and perhaps even respect the Marine Corps, they would likely not see any reason why they, as a civilian, should be required to cater to my identity. It’s not that they don’t acknowledge that I’m a Marine, it’s just that my identity does not decide how they refer to me. If they want to call me “dude” or “that guy” that is their choice, NOT mine. My discomfort, if it existed, of being referred to in such a familiar manner is completely irrelevant.
Now, they could do it out of politeness, or just because that’s what they’re used to. I’ve had former Marines of mine refer to me as “sir” even though we’re both civilians now. But I have no right to demand such a thing, and if I were to demand such a thing, that makes me an asshole.
So no, I’m not going to use your “preferred pronoun.” If you appear to be a woman, I’m going to refer to you with female pronouns, if you appear to be a man, well, you get the idea. If you appear as neither I’m going to use some sort of gender neutral pronoun, like “they.” I’m using it as a descriptor. I don’t have the time or energy to determine the deep innermost feelings of every person I meet; unless you’re someone I’ve known for a long time, I probably won’t remember your name, let along your preferred pronoun. It’s not because I hate transgender individuals, or because I’m trying to do “microaggressions” (another nonsense word), it’s because I’m describing you in a phenotypical way. If you had naturally blonde hair, and you dyed it brown, I’d describe your hair as “brown” even if you identify as a blonde…because that’s what it looks like.
There are real issues regarding prejudice against transgender/intersex individuals. There are real rights to stand up for. Changing the English language to suit your personal feelings simply isn’t one of them. If you have a problem with it, see a therapist. Nobody else has the right to decide how someone else speaks, especially by making language more confusing. Nobody has a right for others to accept their deeply held beliefs. That’s what being “free” means.
Deciding how other people are allowed to speak is a form of fascism. It’s a method to impose your will on others, and is inherently totalitarian. And while I will fight for people’s freedom to be who they choose to be, the moment someone comes back deciding how other people “should” be allowed to speak is the moment they make me their enemy. I don’t use the term “fascist” lightly, but I consider this sort of censorship and redefining of language to be one of the worst forms of totalitarian rule.
And let’s face it. If you’re trying to get people on your side, demanding changes to language is the worst way to do so. Nobody likes a Grammar Nazi!