Pronouns used to be remarkably simple and no one gave them a second thought. That is no longer the case.
It is becoming quite fashionable for the “woke” or socially pressured colleagues at work and school to proclaim their pronouns while introducing themselves in meetings, on their name badges, in their email signatures, or on their Zoom profiles, such as “she/her/hers,” “they/them/theirs,” “ze/zir/zirs” and many others. Some who object are even asked to do the same. The Wall Street Journal recently featured a major story explaining, literally, “Why Gender Pronouns are Becoming a Big Deal at Work.” The New York Times has also engaged the controversy of late.
Increasingly, companies and schools are encouraging employees to participate in the practice. Some are even requiring it. How should Christians and those who take a scientific view of sex and gender respond to such practices in the workplace and campus?
It is an important question because we all want to be good citizens and friends where we work and learn. But we also want to live in fidelity to the truth of what it means to be human as male and female. Therefore, we must understand what is going on with this emerging pronoun trend and why it matters.
Pronoun policies are sold as an effort toward inclusivity, and it is strongly inferred that the only people who would oppose them are the narrow-minded or bigots. But it is critical to understand this is not true at all, and this black-and-white, good vs. bad framing itself should concern us all. There are indeed various reasons to resist being compelled to state one’s pronouns. Some of these concerns are articulated by people who refer to themselves as “trans.” Let us look at a few.
- Personal Pronouns Rest on a Problematic Ideology of What It Means to Be Human
The pronouns under discussion always refer to people. Biologically, people are either male or female. Famed academic and feminist social critic Camille Paglia, who identifies as transgender, is insistent on this point. She explained in 2017, “The cold biological truth is that…[e]very single cell of the human body remains coded with one’s birth gender for life.” Across cultures, it is the first thing everyone asks at the arrival of a new baby, even before the child’s health. And for very good reason. Paglia adds, “Intersex ambiguities can occur, but they are developmental anomalies that represent a tiny proportion of all human births.” Exceptional malformations, not the rule. Leading French feminist theorist and philosopher Sylviane Agacinski states it plainly as well in Parity of the Sexes,
“The human species is divided into two, and like most other species, in two only. This division, which includes all human beings without exception, is thus a dichotomy. In other words, every individual who is not man is woman. There is no third possibility.”
People do not “identify” as male or female. They are not “assigned” male or female. Every part of their body, right down to their DNA, establishes and demonstrates the fact of their maleness or femaleness. This is the first and fundamental fact of what it means to be human. We are all created, born, and live as male or female, even though we all do so uniquely.
But the new pronoun craze is rooted in the wholly novel and counter-scientific assumption that sex and gender consist of a spectrum of possibilities, and thus, the need to announce one’s true sex or gender. Participating in the announcement of one’s pronouns is intended to give legitimacy to this new and unfounded view of what it means to be human. And being required or even pressured to participate in the belief of a new theory of humanity that is founded purely in gender ideology is wrong.
So, let us be clear: The pressure to participate in publicly declaring pronouns is the pressure to adopt and agree with a new and fabricated view of what it means to be human. Yes, people can believe what they want. And individuals can choose to use whatever words they desire. But no one can demand others give allegiance to a belief with their words. To do so is wrong and is contrary to the classically liberal idea of freedom of conscience. And claims toward inclusion and kindness can tend be strongly manipulative.
There are many reasons to resist playing the pronoun game, but biological reality is primary.
- The New Rule States It’s About Personal Safety and Protection, But Are Not
Advocates for announcing public pronouns say it is necessary for the sake of the individual, to protect one from being “mis-gendered.” Thus, using them exists to serve the well-being and comfort of the individual whom the pronouns refer to. Therefore, the individual to whom the pronouns refer (you) must not be compelled to state their pronouns if they do not feel the need to. Especially if they feel uncomfortable doing so. Requiring participation violates the very spirit of the rule itself. Not participating simply indicates that being “mis-gendered” is a not a concern.
Dr. Michael J. Murphy, gender studies professor at the University of Illinois Springfield and self-identified gay trans man, agrees explaining, “requests to ‘give your pronouns’ purport to be an inclusive gesture aimed at creating a more welcoming space for transgender and gender non-binary people.” “But, he adds this concern, “It’s a subtle but powerful demand that effectively dis-ables the recipient of the request and threatens negative consequences for any questioning, resistance, or refusal.” Professor Murphy rejects pronouning as “a form of social coercion that only masquerades as inclusion.” He is precisely right and employers and schools should not subject their people to it.
- Being Asked About Pronouns Is Offensive to Some Trans-identified People
Many mistakenly assume that announcing pronouns is the progressive and considerate choice at work and school. As The New York Times warns, there are real and unanticipated down-sides to the very people such policies claim to help: “For trans or nonbinary people who aren’t ready to come out, though, this policy is problematic: It pressures people to either out themselves before they’re comfortable or lie.”
Others who identify as “trans” say asking others to announce their pronouns can make them uncomfortable for two very different reasons. Rachel Levin, a professor at Pomona College and trans advocate, explains this in a very interesting essay at Inside Higher Ed. One reason is simply that some students who identify as “trans” have not yet determined how they want to specifically be identified and asking them to announce makes them deeply uncomfortable. She tells of one such student whose “eyes filled with tears” when she was asked about pronouns and answered, “I don’t know.” The question puts certain students or employees on the spot and forces a conversation they are not ready to have. That is not kind or considerate.
But the larger group of “trans” individuals includes those with the very opposite problem. They are not confused at being asked to announce their pronouns. They are deeply offended that people ask. Why?
These are individuals who have specifically undergone incredible financial, emotional, and physical strain in hopes of “passing” as one gender or the other. Dr. Levin learned this in her research with transgender people. Early in her career, she kindly asked a trans woman about pronouns and this individual also “burst into tears.” As a trans woman, “she had hoped that she ‘passed’ and that my question made her feel like she did not.” These are people who have gone to extreme lengths to “become” the man or woman they believe they are, and when people ask them their pronouns, they take this as a dismissal of that dramatic effort. It does not make them feel more included. It questions the very thing they have worked so hard to convince themselves and others of.
Professor Levin explained “Those incidents taught me that questions about pronoun use can be painful to the very people who we are trying to support.” She discourages the practice of pronouning because “the result of this practice is that students [and co-workers] whose gender presentation may not match their gender identity are forced to lie or out themselves in a new and possibly unsafe environment.”
Professor Murphy agrees, explaining that, “Institutionalizing a practice that coerces others to give an account of themselves in terms of gender seems contrary to that project” itself.
Rather than virtue signaling that one is sensitive to current gender politics, isn’t it just better to simply be kind, gracious and helpful to all we come in contact with on a daily basis, regardless? Doing so creates far fewer problems and is simply the right thing to do. It is far better to love people because of what makes us equal – our common humanity – rather than needing to emphasize our differences.
Therefore, it is perfectly fine and reasonable for any individual in any workplace or school to definitively and kindly declare “I choose not to announce my pronouns. Thank you for respecting my choice.”
In fact, doing so can actually make others feel safer.
See Part II on navigating demands to use others’ pronoun preferences.
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