- - Tuesday, January 21, 2020

When I was in middle school, my history teacher told our class that no one was fully male or female, that we were all comprised of masculine and feminine traits. It was hard for us to fully comprehend, and I recall a few uneasy chuckles, but it marked the beginning of my grasping that gender identity exists along a spectrum. This made acceptance of transgender identity a non-issue for me when “gender” pronouns recently turned into a controversial topic.

Still, I have come to reject the use of non-binary pronouns, believing you should be referred to by whatever sex you happen to be. The reason I do so — even at the risk of being fined $250,000 in New York or running afoul of administrators at Stanford — is that when interacting with someone, my intuitive reference point is one’s biological sex, not his or her sexual identity (gender). That is, I look past the expression of self which I accept and even celebrate as their right, to try and discern what sex they are. The process is swift and automatic, perhaps even evolutionary, a way of ordering the world and even determining who anatomically is a prospective mate. In other words, we may call them gender pronouns but they’ve always operated for me, and I suspect for the majority of Americans, Pew Research found, who see the addition of “gender” pronouns as illogical, as sex pronouns.

As it turns out, much of what we claim relates to gender actually concerns our physical, biological selves.

In being asked to tick off a “gender” box at the doctor’s office, you’re really being asked about your sex; your gender can’t, for example, tell the doctor whether to check you for prostate cancer. Public restrooms are designed with your sex in mind. So are bras and blue jeans, and, for better or worse, crash test dummies and science equipment. In police reports, substituting your preferred gender for sex make it harder to corroborate a victim’s rape claim.

This is not to take issue with where you relieve yourself or what you wear. It is to point out that the pronoun police and the rest of us are applying pronouns to people through fundamentally different lenses, one emphasizing who a person feels like (culturally), the other who the person is (anatomically).

Neither usage, though, indicates the user’s attitude toward trans people. (I for one am committed to calling trans people whichever sex they turn into after reassignment surgery, and in the meantime fully accept their gender nonconformity.) Thus, the claim in places like New York that those who refuse to comply with a pronoun of one’s choosing are discriminatory is baseless — and itself runs the risk of being discriminatory against a whole range of people, from the anatomically and grammatically correct to people of faith. A Virginia teacher is suing after being fired for not using a student’s preferred pronoun on religious grounds.

Further, forcing others to expand their gender vocabulary often hinders greater acceptance and integration. A friend who recently participated in a video game design competition balked at congratulating the winning team because the seeming contradiction between its members’ gendered and biological selves left him fearful he might address them by the “wrong” pronoun. Unfortunately, another friend who is transitioning to becoming a man refused to accept our differing views on when it’s acceptable to be called by a new pronoun and we haven’t spoken since.

Demanding special pronouns can also come across as narcissistic and leave people feeling bullied, which they naturally resent, threatening tolerance and good will.

It’s mostly white liberals (or perhaps more accurately, woke white “liberals”) who favor preferred pronouns. Nearly half of Democrats don’t see the point, and clear majorities among Latinos, blacks and whites don’t either, according to a recent poll. Even readers of The New York Times are dissenting, with readers responding to an op-ed bashing “those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns” by saying that adding pronouns “is a power play,” “pretty silly as well as confusing,” “imposing your will on others,” “a gift to the queer-haters out there,” “an example of painfully theatric political correctness” that is “absurd” in its “attitude that we must all conform to make everyone else feel special and perfect all the time” (culled from the six most popular reader responses). 

Commendably, new “gender” pronouns seek to bridge the disconnect between what transgender people are and what they feel like, but this simplifies rather than expands on their identity. If, for example, someone claims to be a “himer,” all that tells me in the vaguest of terms is that the person is not comfortable being called a man or a woman. (If it really matters that I acknowledge your gender dysphoria, you’re better off saying, I’m a man or a woman but I feel like … fill in the blank. That’s more transparent and contextual, and I’m more likely to empathize.)

So, rather than try, and politically charging our interactions in the process, we would be better off renaming “gender” pronouns themselves — to say “anatomical” or “sex” pronouns (and a third available to intersex individuals). This would be more in line with how they typically function, and limit false expectations of what non-binary pronouns can achieve. It will also free us to be more substantively inclusive.

• Ioannis Gatsiounis is a writer in Texas.

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