The Political Pettiness of Misgendering Transgender People

It’s an old joke in transgender circles that some cisgender people are quicker to accept correction on a pet’s gender than they are on a human’s gender.

When we tell our gender pronouns to someone, they’ll mess up—but if we tell them that the dog they’re currently petting is actually a “good girl,” instead of a “good boy,” they will, as artist Sophie Labelle notably observed in her popular comic, immediately correct themselves

But as transgender people enter the public sphere more noticeably—as we win elections and become the subjects of high-profile court cases—we’re witnessing a surge in a much more nefarious phenomenon: The active, willful misgendering of transgender people by our political opponents on large and influential platforms.

I’d hesitate to call it the last gasp of anti-LGBT forces who know they’re on the wrong side of history—but it is almost certainly an embarrassing sign of desperation.

After Danica Roem won her election to the Virginia House of Delegates last month—potentially becoming the first openly transgender candidate elected and seated in a state legislature—the Republican House Majority Leader in Virginia proposed doing away with the traditional “gentleman” and “gentlewoman” titles, as The Washington Post first reported.

Earlier this year, as Slate noted, the Supreme Court of the United States had to rebuke anti-LGBT groups for referring to transgender teenager Gavin Grimm—whose restroom access case was, at the time, being escalated to that judicial body—for referring to the boy with female pronouns in their legal briefs.

This phenomenon isn’t new, of course. It was back in 2014, for example–immediately after Time perhaps prematurely declared the “Transgender Tipping Point”—that the influential conservative outlet National Review published an opinion piece entitled “Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman,” which repeatedly referred to the Orange is the New Black star with male pronouns.

Even before that, as Salon noted, transgender whistleblower Chelsea Manning was repeatedly and “willfully” misgendered—a phenomenon that her critics have perpetuated to this day.

Of course, far-right media outlets have been gleefully misgendering transgender subjects all along.

But as the general public slowly moves closer to accepting transgender people, this phenomenon is coming into sharper relief—and being seen as the petty move that it is.

Thirty-nine percent of American adults now say that society has “not gone far enough” in accepting transgender people, according to the Pew Research Center, outnumbering the 32 percent who say that it has “gone too far.” (However, much like partisan divides on questions like same-sex marriage, a full 60 percent of Democrats think society needs to go further compared to only 12 percent of Republicans.)

As that needle moves, intentionally misgendering someone is only going to become even more of a bad look.

It’s already terrible as a journalistic practice. Since 2013, the Associated Press has instructed reporters writing in its style to “Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.”

So the longer people try to pull stunts like eliminating “gentlewoman” or referring to Gavin Grimm as a “her” on legal documents, the more it will expose their already transparent anti-transgender animus. Indeed, these stunts may “backfire,” as writer Sam Dylan Finch noted for Rewire, with regards to the Grimm misgendering incident.

Citing legal experts, Finch described the situation as a “bit of a Catch-22,” noting that the Liberty Counsel—the litigation group then opposing Grimm’s right to use the restroom—“can’t acknowledge that transgender people are categorically real and valid; otherwise it would be forced to acknowledge that they are a marginalized group and thus subject to discrimination.”

If the Liberty Counsel did continue to misgender Grimm, Finch noted, “they seem deliberately disrespectful at best and biased on moral grounds at worst, which undermines their case by revealing an existing bias.”

Indeed, the Supreme Court seemed none too pleased with the stunt, telling the Liberty Counsel in a letter that “his” was the proper pronoun to use in this case, and to “please ensure careful compliance with this requirement in this and other cases in the future.”

If we’ve learned anything from Trump’s attempt to ban transgender troops from the military so far, it is that seeming to be motivated by anti-transgender animus in the absence of evidence doesn’t go over well in federal court.

A similar Catch-22 dynamic is now at play in the case of Danica Roem. If her future Republican colleagues refer to her as “gentlewoman,” they acknowledge what is plainly obvious to an increasing percentage of Americans: Roem is a woman. But in so doing, they risk upsetting those in Virginia who don’t share that belief.

As Bob Holsworth, formerly a Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor told The Washington Post, “They’re trying in some way to thread a needle with their own base. They’re willing to change the tradition in this sense before they will explicitly acknowledge Danica Roem as a woman.”

If they do refer to Roem as a “gentlewoman,” they not only risk angering a Republican base, they also risk undermining any future anti-transgender legislative efforts they might undertake.

Roem’s opponent Bob Marshall was trying to pass an anti-transgender bathroom bill as recently as this year and, although Republicans didn’t ultimately go along with it, anti-LGBT forces are far from finished with their legislative efforts.

If you’re a legislator who is on record calling Roem a “gentlewoman,” it will be that much harder for you to pass legislation based on the false notions that transgender women are not really women and transgender men are not really men.

But even if “gentlewoman” goes out the window, there’s no way for English speakers to avoid pronouns. Roem is proof that the reckoning is coming—that those who once tried to legislate transgender people out of restrooms will have to deal with actual, living transgender people in their offices.

Because English has gendered pronouns, we’ll be able to track that adjustment on the level of language.

Will anti-transgender Republicans, like Mike Pence did earlier this year with Chelsea Manning, avoid gender pronouns altogether in public statements about transgender people? Will they use the right pronouns and potentially undermine their legislative efforts or risk appearing sympathetic to the LGBT cause? Or will they afford their transgender colleagues less respect than they would a dog—insistently using the wrong pronouns even after being corrected?

If the situation of transgender people in this country were less dire, it would be almost funny how a few, tiny syllables can reveal so much—and how mere words like “he” or “she” have now boxed in the very people who have tried to keep us out of public life.

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