When it comes to transgender topics, one of the more frustrating and banal arguments is about misgendering. Nearly every expressed position on the matter is entirely lacking in insight and typically only signals one’s position in the culture wars. Because it’s such a culture-wars-y topic, people mistake incredibly common positions for controversial ones. This was exemplified by this one well-received comment I saw recently:
hot take: preferred pronouns are a courtesy not a right
I will use this comment as an illustration of the flawed discussion around pronouns and misgendering.
To begin with, there are more possibilities than just courtesy or right. Thinking only in those terms is unimaginative and stifling. In terms of “things you ought to do,” you might think of respect, courtesy, civility, and the observation of rights. People are typically accorded a level of respect prior to you knowing anything substantial about them. This respect can be discarded or upgraded based on new information. Courtesy refers to a kindness that is characteristic of pleasant people, but is not necessarily expected or demanded. If somebody is being rude to you, then most will agree that you don’t need to be courteous to them. Civility refers to a base level of behavior useful when engaging with society. There is a bigger moral hurdle to clear when being uncivil, because while a society can survive with a miserably uncourteous populace, it by definition cannot thrive with an uncivil populace. Lastly, we generally hold that all people have certain rights which one ought not to infringe upon without a very good reason.
Contrasting courtesy with rights suggests that the only options are “you probably should be courteous, but you don’t have to, it’s no big deal if you aren’t” and “you need to respect rights and are an awful person if you don’t.” While you might not want to spend time around an uncourteous person, this is more personal preference and far different from the strong social sanction that comes with infringing upon people’s rights.
So, where does misgendering fall? We first need to consider what function pronouns like he/him/his or they/them/theirs play in our society. They do not signal genitalia, or any other thing you might be inclined to call biological sex. The vast majority of the time, we assign pronouns without considering if someone has a penis or not, or whether their chromosomes are XX or XY or something else. In cases where we aren’t sure, we typically pick the first pronouns we hear someone else apply to them.
Pronouns are gendered, as opposed to sexed. Pronouns refer to our recognition (mistaken or otherwise) of other people’s gender. To be more detailed, and actually contribute something of value to the conversation, pronouns are a part of someone’s gender expression. While gender identity is internal and subjective, expression is outward. Pronouns are about as outward as they come, involving explicit acknowledgement by other people.
Pronouns are gendered and a part of a person’s gender expression. To intentionally use the wrong pronouns for someone is, in a way, a lie. The message spread when using the wrong pronouns is directly in opposition to how the person being talked about expresses themselves and is.
If I was telling you about a person I knew, named Sam, and said that she did this, and she did that, and she said this, and she was looking into that, and then you met Sam, and Sam was a big burly hairy cisgender dude who uses he/him pronouns, you might rightly regard me as having lied to you about who Sam is. This is because in using she/her pronouns, I expressed something to you which was not accurate. I painted a picture in your mind which could’ve been closer to reality, but I chose not to make it so. If this isn’t a lie, it’s certainly close enough to one that you could be forgiven for accusing me of lying to you. The same holds true for transgender and nonbinary people. If one intentionally misgenders a transgender person, then they are conveying an unnecessarily deficient message about who that transgender person is.
Lying has a place in society, smoothing over smaller bumps in social interactions. (This is my position, but the following holds true if you hold that lying has no place in society.) Using the wrong pronouns, however, does not smooth over bumps; it creates them. It is nearly always considered an offense to the person being misgendered, and it conveys the wrong message to the person being spoken to. This is not just disrespectful or uncourteous; it is uncivil. A society cannot run well if people are willing to intentionally deviate from reality just so they can feel good about their micro-triumph in a culture war. That’s just dysfunctional.
So, the comment above made two major errors. The first is in contrasting courtesy and right. While using one’s correct pronouns is not a right, this does not mean it is merely a courtesy. A commitment to a reasonably accurate presentation of reality is pretty important to living in society, more so than courtesy.
The second is referring to the correct pronouns as “preferred pronouns,” as if it’s similar to a preference between dramas and comedies. It’s more equivalent to going around telling everyone that a person likes comedies more than dramas when you know that isn’t the case, except pronouns are more personal. “That’s your preferred favorite movie, but I’m going to say that your favorite movie is something else.” That’s not how people talk.
Refusing to use the correct pronouns is worse than uncourteous; it is practically a lie. Using the correct pronouns is a matter of truth and civility.