“Bein’ good isn’t always easy,” as an old folk song puts it, and begin’ politically correct in the brave new America is extraordinarily difficult. Who can keep up with what’s new in confusion and abuse?
The attempt is particularly difficult since transgender folk, ever on the scout for a comfortable place “to go,” became the majority in America. If you doubt they’re the majority, just read the newspapers. Pay no attention to the official U.S. government estimates that about one-tenth of 1 percent are unhappy with their sex, or “gender” as you’re supposed to call it now, whether you’re a noun or not.
The New York City Commission on Human Rights says you’ll have to try harder, anyway. The commission said last week that all employers, landlords and business firms in the city must refer to transgender people by politically correct pronouns. “His” and “her” are for bigots. Everyone must learn to use “ze” and “hir.” We’re not sure which is for whom, but in New York City the “intentional or repeated refusal to use an individual’s preferred name, pronoun or title” will be a violation of the law. Facebook counts 71 “gender options” already, with more coming, and it’s impolite to ask or try to figure it out by looking.
Nevertheless, the commission’s guidelines say that “covered entities may avoid violations by creating a policy of asking everyone what their preferred gender pronoun is so that no individual is singled out for such questions.”
Legal enforcement is available. If a business firm discovers that an employee or a customer refuses to use a preferred pronoun, that employee or customer should be ejected from the store or, if an employee, sacked on the spot.
All this means, says Eugene Volkh, a law professor at UCLA who keeps up with these things, “people can force us, on pain of massive legal liability, to say what they want us to say, whether or not we want to endorse the political message associated with that term, and whether or not we think it’s a lie.”
Even if someone evades the long arm of the law after forgetting whether “ze” is for what was once “him” or maybe “her,” that someone can run afoul of other vigilantes. A professor at Columbia University in New York City suggests that people who flout the new rules of pronouns be “publicly shamed” to compel obedience. It’s not clear what this shame might be, but one custom could be borrowed from the schoolyards of yesteryear, when a shamer pointed his index finger at a shamee, brushed it with his other index finger, and chanted “ah, ummm, shame on you!”
Some people suffer from something called “gender fluidity,” and their “gender identity” changes from day to day, even hourly to hourly. Others, who haven’t a clue to what they are, call themselves “otherkin.”
The Charlotte Observer, an otherwise serious newspaper in North Carolina, last week urged young women to become familiar with the male genitalia they’re likely to see in what was once called the men’s room. In an astonishingly rude editorial, comparing a fear of male genitalia to fear of black people in post-segregationist America, the editors concede that “the thought of male genitalia in girls’ locker rooms — and vice versa — might be distressing to some. But the battle for equality has always been about overcoming discomfort — with blacks sharing facilities, with gays sharing marriage — then realizing it was not nearly so awful as some people imagined.” The author of that needs an aspirin and a lie-down.