About three years ago, right after starting a new teaching position, I was faced with a crisis of conscience. As a composition instructor my focus is on teaching the arts of rhetoric and argument, but I have to handle some grammar in there as well, and I was having an increasingly difficult time dealing with the fact that I was being expected to teach binary gender pronouns when I have friends who are genderfluid and are neither he nor she. That manifested itself on the .org with me writing about the issues surrounding gender pronouns and why I was beginning to consciously use they, them and their to refer to singular subjects, even though that isn’t considered “standard grammar” by many. I was blessed enough to have a cool boss who understood this issue when I brought it up to her, and since then I’ve devoted time in each of my classes to explaining the issues involved here and how they may be expected to use different constructs when writing to different audiences; “standard grammar,” despite its name, is in many respects a fantasy of some uptight bossyfaces, many of whom I suspect are still in apoplectic fits after I omitted an Oxford comma earlier in this paragraph. (I like ticking them off, mostly because of the horrible English teachers I had to put up with when I was younger.)
Fast-forward to today. That boss of mine moved to a different position at the college this past summer, her assistant took over her old position, and I’m in the running for the assistant’s old full-time job after nearly nine years of living in Adjunct Hell. In a couple of weeks we have our in-service days, during which I’ll be presenting on the issues of genderqueer students and pronoun usage to my fellow faculty members. This feels, in a lot of ways, like an audition for me to show that I’ve got what it takes to handle this full-time job, so not only do I have to present on this topic, but I have to present the fuck out of it. As luck would have it, I’ve already been talking to many faculty members about this issue due to recent news stories, and going back through these stories as I’ve been preparing my presentation has been a difficult, often painful reminder of the difficulties that so many of us are facing.
The conflation of sexual orientation and gender identity has been a running theme throughout my life, starting with watching reruns of Soap when I was very little and seeing Billy Crystal’s character, Jodie Dallas, go to the hospital for sexual reassignment surgery even though he only identified as a gay male (because, according to a very common “logic” back then, if you wanted to have “real sex” with a man then you had to have a vagina). I was a teenager when The Crying Game came out, and the dialogue from that movie shows again how even “liberal” Hollywood screenwriters didn’t understand the concept of gender identity. When I came out on the .org back in 2002, I got lots of emails from people who were clearly just as confused on the issue, and even though there’s been a lot of progress made on that front in recent years, there are still a lot of people out there who either don’t understand the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, or deliberately misunderstand it in order to cling to their hateful prejudices.
This stems from old beliefs, particularly in Western cultures, that sex (a physiological/chromosomal construct) and gender (a societal construct) were inextricably linked, and anything which was seen as an aberration from this link was not only uncommon but ungodly. It’s easy to remember that we’re less than a hundred years removed from when American women could be arrested simply for wearing pants instead of dresses or skirts; I was already old enough to drive when the rule forcing women to wear dresses or skirts in the U.S. Senate was finally removed. The men of my parents’ generation were often condemned as “obviously gay” simply for wearing their hair long. Over time things like guys getting their ears pierced, or women shaving their heads, became more and more accepted (thank you, early punk culture), but it’s safe to say that there’s still a large portion of this country that sees anything that breaks old beliefs about sex and gender as “an abomination unto God.”
Outdated beliefs are problematic in and of themselves, but the larger problem is that these beliefs are also tied to a dangerous slippery slope argument that anyone who breaks these old beliefs, in even the smallest way, must therefore be willing (if not eager) to break all of them. This is what underlies the old belief that a homosexual must, ipso facto, be a pedophile, because anyone who wants to have sex with someone of the same gender must, according to this way of thinking, also want to have sex with anyone and everyone, consensual or otherwise. We’re finally reaching a point in America where this belief has lost sway with most people when it comes to sexual orientation, but it’s still very much believed when it comes to genderqueer people, as I witness myself nearly every time I go out in public. The fact that the stereotype of the “trap,” a transgender person who represents themselves as a particular gender to try to “trick” people into having sex with them, is still so prevalent in our media just shows how much longer it will take for this problem to go away for genderqueer people.
I’ve talked about this slippery slope argument several times before but it always bears repeating, especially because reported murders of transgender people keep going up year after year. In substance, this is little different from the “justice” enacted by authorities in centuries past to punish those who deviated from gender norms by “fixing” them, often by killing them. Perhaps the murders are no longer officially sanctioned by the authorities, but genderqueer people are still subject to higher levels of violence from others, to say nothing of a rate of attempted suicide over nine times higher than that of the general population.
This is what makes the news stories coming out of Tennessee in the wake of the University of Tennessee’s Pride Center informing their university community simply of the existence of non-binary genderqueer people and their pronouns (not, as some right-wing media portrayed it, an “order” to use the pronouns or even to abolish binary pronouns altogether) so galling. It would be bad enough if this smear campaign had merely succeeded in getting the university to remove the post from its website, but the fact that Tennessee legislators are discussing additional “investigations” into the Pride Center’s post, and even to cut funding for diversity at the university, is absolutely chilling. To say nothing of how much this has the immediate potential to stifle the exercise of free speech, for non-binary genderqueer people, and anyone else legislators decide to target, this is an attack on their very existence, erasing not just the linguistic devices that describe their identities, but their very identities themselves.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the resistance to gender-neutral pronouns and respectful pronoun usage comes from the very same people responsible for forcing the term “political correctness” into the American vernacular twenty-five years ago, and are still trying everything in their power to reassert the belief that they not only have the power to freely and openly disrespect other people (which, at least from a purely legal standpoint, is potentially valid), but to suffer no ill consequences from anyone for doing so (which is total bullshit). As with the debate over “politically correct language,” their arguments are based on the false logic of languages being apolitical constructs that never change over time. Language, like gender, is a human construct that does not exist independently of human existence, and as such is inherently political. The only question is whether language should be used as a tool of inclusion or of exclusion, and the people who want to deny non-binary genderqueer people their identities and pronouns, claiming that they’re “just making up” words (as if any word in any language isn’t a made-up construct), are not substantially different from those who throw around racial epithets to hurt others. Saying “you don’t exist” is just as harmful, if not more so, than saying “your existence is inferior to ours.”
That this summer reading controversy has erupted at Duke University at around the same time just goes to show right-wing hypocrisy on these issues all the more clearly. Conservatives constantly claim that their viewpoints are underrepresented and/or marginalized on campus and, in some instances, they are right about this. When they turn around and demand that material which doesn’t conform to their narrow worldview is removed from campus — whether an autobiography of a lesbian’s life or a simple post telling the campus about genderqueer students — they completely undermine any credibility they might have. In trying to turn colleges and universities away from the “liberal indoctrination” they perceive, they reveal that they want to turn education into another bludgeon with which to beat everyone about their heads with their beliefs and the “facts” that support them, and to silence (or at the very least drown out) anyone who opposed them.
Denying genderqueer people their pronouns and identities, and using political power to try to silence those who would merely point out their existence, may be a less violent act than the murders of past and present, but it is no less an act of erasure, an attempt to force people to disappear not just out of history but the present day as well. No person deserves that, and no institution of higher education should kowtow to those who would force them to deny the most basic levels of recognition to each and every student they serve. If universities cannot, or will not, stand up to this conservative strong-arming, then it’s up to the rest of us to stand up for them.