The movement to extend transgender rights and awareness continues its push to determine how people speak. Third-person pronoun usage has become a major subject of contention in the last year, with the passage of laws that seek to govern how people refer to one another. The New York City Commission of Human Rights (NYCCHR), for example, declares that “individuals have the right . . . to be addressed with their preferred pronouns and name without being required to show ‘proof’ of gender.”

The range of “preferred pronouns” has expanded widely recently, with the introduction of a new set of pronominal terms, complete with their own declensions. The NYCCHR, in its guidance on municipal anti-discrimination law, explains that “ze and hir are popular gender-free pronouns preferred by some transgender and/or gender non-conforming individuals.” The guidance further explains that “intentional or repeated refusal to use an individual’s preferred name, pronoun, or title” is a violation of human rights law, which can lead to significant fines. “Ze” and “hir,” incidentally, are only two examples of the dozens of new pronouns invented in the last few years, including “ae/aer,” “ey/em,” “xe/xem,” “per/per,” yo/yo,” and “ve/ver,” among others.

Transgender advocates insist that nobody is in danger of getting jail time for misidentifying trans-people; rather, the law is meant to raise consciousness about the issue. “Our guidance encourages people to ask transgender and gender non-conforming individuals how they would like to be addressed,” says New York City Human Rights Commissioner Carmelyn Malalis. “The law is meant to address situations in which individuals intentionally and repeatedly target transgender and gender non-conforming people with this type of harassment.” The commission fails to specify, though, how many instances of such misidentification would constitute intentional and repeated harassment.

A new California law, the Gender Recognition Act, allows people to designate their gender as “nonbinary”—meaning that they “may or may not identify as transgender, may or may not have been born with intersex traits, may or may not use gender-neutral pronouns, and may or may not use more specific terms to describe their genders, such as agender, genderqueer, gender fluid, Two Spirit, bigender, pangender, gender nonconforming, or gender variant.” The Golden State has also required nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to “use a resident’s preferred name or pronouns after being clearly informed of the preferred name or pronouns.”

Pushing further, some advocates object to the idea that pronoun choice is even a question of preference. The student health center at UC-Davis clarifies that “a common misconception or trend these days is to say PGPs for Preferred Gender Pronouns. However, for many people, their pronouns are not preferred, they are mandatory.” As anti-discrimination law tends to follow the steepest path downstream, it’s not hard to imagine legislators soon regarding designation of pronoun choice as “mandatory,” with the appropriate penalties for those contravening the new norm.

It seems fair and just to refer to people as they present themselves and wish to be addressed. It would be rude to call a transman “Miss” just to make a point, and within reason, going along with whatever benign fiction people might have cooked up about themselves is simply good manners. “Preferred-pronoun” usage, however, is a bridge too far, and not just because it’s impossible to expect everyone to memorize lists of declensions of made-up words. The pronoun debate is also an effort to force us to change the way we talk about people who are not actually present: when we speak of “he” or “she,” we are almost always talking about someone who is not there. When speaking face-to-face, the only pronoun we commonly use is “you.” It’s considered improper to use third-person pronouns in the presence of their subjects; hence the old saying, “‘She’ is the cat’s mother,” meant to admonish against using the pronominal form instead of the individual’s proper name, if he or she is present. Insisting that we refer to absent people according to made-up vocabulary words upon threat of punishment is to interpose political ideology into conversation under force of law. It deputizes all listeners or interlocutors as surveillance agents in the name of gender equality.

Free people can think of and present themselves in just about any manner that they wish; nowadays, they have more latitude to do so than ever before. This should more than suffice. Anything further is fantasy, enforced by thought police.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images


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