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Pronoun Throwdown: Should ‘Preferred Pronouns’ Be Respected?
A symposium of opinions on cross-sex pronoun use.
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Without any context, a series of short opinion essays on “pronouns” may seem like the most boring thing imaginable—the type of content you might expect to find buried in the back pages of a dusty old linguistics journal. But if you’ve dipped a toe or two in the cultural and political waters surrounding sex and gender identity, you’re well aware that pronoun have become a battleground for controversy.
The controversy is rooted in whether or not to use the “preferred pronouns” for people who identify as transgender. For instance, if a male identifies as a female, should you use “she/her” or “he/him” pronouns? Is using “she/her” pronouns for a male who identifies as a female simply an innocuous show of respect, or the first precarious step down a dangerous slippery slope of reality denial that inevitably ends in the destruction of women’s sex-based rights? Or can a nuanced middle ground be reasonably defended?
Given that most debates on pronouns take place on social media sites like Twitter, where viewpoints are limited to 280 characters and as a result produce little more than heat, I reached out to people spanning the full spectrum of opinions on this topic and asked them to each flesh out their views in a short essay. To my delight (and surprise!) nearly everyone agreed to participate.
I am proud to present Reality’s Last Stand readers with such a wide range of viewpoint diversity on this topic, and I urge you to take your time with each essay to fully consider the author’s unique and thoughtful perspective.
Colin Wright Founding Editor, Reality's Last Stand
TABLE OF CONTENTS (click title to jump to that essay)
Eva is a guest essayist for Reduxx. A regular contributor at Gender Dissent, Eva is passionate about promoting lesbian activism and protecting women’s sex-based rights. You can find her traversing the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada with her partner and their husky, Freya.
Kara is a public speaker, writer, attorney, and consultant who is committed to protecting the rights, privacy, and safety of women and girls on the basis of sex in law and throughout society. She is the president of the U.S. chapter of Women's Declaration International and the author of the book The Abolition of Sex: How the ‘Transgender’ Agenda Harms Women and Girls.
Sara is a combat veteran who transitioned after getting out of the Army. She is a content creator, hosts a YouTube channel, and is a freelance writer with bylines in The Post Millennial and Human Events. She is an assistant editor for Reality’s Last Stand, a contributor to Gays Against Groomers, and a Brand Ambassador for OutspokenUSA. She has been featured in popular media outlets, including Newsmax, for her criticism of queer theory and the indoctrination and medicalization of children.
Dawn is an award-winning journalist, sports editor for the Los Angeles Blade, on-air correspondent for Connecticut Voice Out Loud on WTNH-TV, and a regular contributor to CT Voice Magazine, The Daily Beast, and other publications. For four years she was a columnist and regular contributor to Forbes. She also hosts the talk show RiseUP With Dawn Ennis.
In 2013, Dawn was the first transgender journalist to come out in network TV news, and subsequently served as an editor at The Advocate, LGBTQ Nation and Outsports.com. Dawn worked in the newsrooms of ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC as a writer, producer, and news manager. Dawn is a single mom residing in West Hartford, CT, with her three children, their dog Dahlia and their cat Faith.
Dawn has recently launched a Substack: RiseUP With Dawn Ennis.
Wilfred is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University, and the author of the books Taboo: 10 Facts You Can't Talk About and Hate Crime Hoax. His upcoming book, Lies My Liberal Teacher Told Me, which debunks the liberal narratives that define much of America’s school curricula, comes out later this year.
Wilfred’s research interests include international relations and the prevention of war, contemporary American race relations, and the use of modern quantitative methods to test “sacred cow” theories such as the existence of widespread white privilege. Outside of work, he enjoys dogs, archery, basketball, Asian cooking, and beer.
Michelle is a writer and advisor for Genspect. She identified as transgender for a period of ten years, during which time she was prescribed testosterone and underwent two medically unnecessary surgeries. Seven years after being prescribed testosterone, she decided to detransition. Michelle is critical of the “affirmation” approach used by medical professionals because it leaves no room to consider potential underlying causes for gender dysphoria and drives people to pursue extreme medical procedures.
Sall is the founder and CEO of Giggle, a social networking app exclusively for women. The platform is currently undergoing renovation and will be relaunched in early 2023 with a female-only social media feed and a lesbian dating website and app. To be notified of the launch email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Colin is an evolutionary biologist, Manhattan Institute Fellow, Academic Advisor at the Society for Evidence-based Gender Medicine (SEGM), and Founding Editor of Reality’s Last Stand.
He began writing publicly about issues of sex and gender in late 2018. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Times, the New York Post, Newsweek, Quillette, and other major news outlets and peer-reviewed journals. He has been a guest on popular TV shows and podcasts such as The Joe Rogan Experience, Tucker Carlson Tonight, Triggernometry, Timcast IRL, and others. He also loves whiskey and cats.
Eva Kurilova | @eva_kurilova
The main reason I am drawn to the gender debate is because I believe the desire to control others is one of the most dangerous desires in the world. This belief guides my perspective on “preferred pronouns,” because they are a pernicious example of the gender ideologues’ attempt to control not only the speech but the very perception of others. Forcing someone to lie about what they see and what they know to be true is manipulative, coercive, and abusive at its core.
Preferred pronouns should not be mandated in any context, and certainly not by the government. Their use should not be demanded at work, in school, in healthcare settings, in the courtroom, nor in prisons. It is abhorrent to me that some people truly believe a woman should use female pronouns for a man who raped her if that man claims to identify as a woman.
Pronoun usage isn’t simply a matter of personal choice or perception, either. When we call a man “he” or a woman “she” we aren’t stating an opinion, we are describing reality as it is. Men and women exist and are different. These are facts, and it will never be wrong to state them.
At the same time, as resolutely as I stand against the coerced use of preferred pronouns, I feel just as strongly about the policing of people who do choose to use them, whether for friends and family or even for strangers. This is a position that might get me into trouble with some on my side of the gender debate. I’ve seen it in action—I’ve seen the shock and the sense of betrayal when figures in the gender critical community reveal that they do, in fact, use opposite-sex pronouns for a trans friend. There is almost a palpable sense of betrayal and often accusations that the person choosing to use the preferred pronouns is a hypocrite.
I myself have settled quite comfortably into using opposite-sex pronouns for a trans-identified friend when speaking to my partner about this person. When speaking to other friends, my pronoun usage changes depending on the person I’m talking to. This is entirely up to me.
I can imagine that some people might be unhappy with my choices. They might even consider me to be an inconsistent hypocrite and accuse me of throwing away my beliefs and principles for this friend. In fact, I’ve been asked in the past whether my friend “amuses me” and if that’s why I keep them around.
I think such accusations, mean-spirited digs aside, sometimes stem from a misunderstanding of what my beliefs actually are. My ultimate allegiance isn’t to the idea that we must always use the pronouns that correspond to a person’s unchangeable sex. My ultimate allegiance is to the idea that no one’s speech should ever be coerced.
No one should be made to lie or to say what they know is untrue, and that comes from the overarching belief that no one should be compelled to speak in any way. If you understand my beliefs and still want to tell me that I’m a hypocrite, then so be it: that’s free speech too.
At the end of the day, I am convinced that the countless harms of gender identity ideology stem from forcing people to lie about reality, not from individuals making a private choice about the words they use when speaking about a friend. In fact, I think it is the very human impulse to accommodate and make allowances on a personal level that helps us avoid a mindset which seeks to control others.
Kara Dansky | @KDansky
I can think of several reasons never to use so-called “preferred pronouns” and zero reasons to use them. I will be focusing on the use of opposite-sex pronouns as “preferred pronouns” rather than the use of sex-neutral pronouns like the plural “they/them” or any of the recently made-up pronouns like “ze/zir” because I think that the absurdity of using such nonsensical language should be plain on its face.
I think the biggest problem with the use of opposite-sex pronouns as “preferred pronouns” is that it allows people to lie about the material reality of sex, and that’s a problem because sex is real and it matters. In 2019, a British woman published a piece called “Pronouns are Rohypnol” under the pseudonym “Barra Kerr.” It may be the best argument that I have ever read against the use of opposite-sex pronouns as “preferred pronouns,” especially the use of “she” and “her” to describe men.
In that piece, Barra Kerr explains the costs of using “preferred pronouns” ourselves as well as the costs of hearing or reading the use of “preferred pronouns” by others. She concludes that for women, “preferred pronouns” (especially the use of “she” and “her” when referring to men):
dull your defences. They change your inhibitions. They’re meant to. You’ve had a lifetime’s experience learning to be alert to ‘him’ and relax to ‘her.’ For good reason. This instinctive response keeps you safe. It’s not even a conscious thing. It’s like your hairs standing on end. Your subconscious brain is helping you not get eaten by the sabre tooth tiger that your eyes haven’t noticed yet.
Feminists have a saying: We can’t protect women and girls on the basis of sex if we cannot know what sex is. The use of opposite-sex pronouns is extremely dangerous because it obscures the category of human beings that feminism seeks to liberate from male domination, as well as the category of people who, as a class, oppress us.
Second, it takes extra work. I was once talking with journalist Matt Taibbi about some topics related to sex and gender and he said that he has “known some people who identified as trans or as women who wanted to be called she” and that he wanted to go along with it. But as I was watching his face, I could tell that he was struggling with it. It was perfectly clear from the look on his face that on the one hand, he wanted to use “she” to refer to his male friends who claim to be women, but on the other hand, it was really hard to do that knowing that those friends are male. He published several sections of our conversation, including that exchange, here.
At the end of the day, it is simply easiest not to. If you want to refer to someone in the third person without using an opposite-sex pronoun, but you also do not want to use the correct-sex pronoun for whatever reason, it is really not that difficult to use the person’s first or last name. I once wrote an entire blog post about Chase Strangio, the ACLU’s Deputy Director for Transgender Justice, referring to Chase as Chase throughout. I refuse to refer to Chase in the third person as “he” or “him” because Chase is female. But I would also prefer not to refer to Chase as “she” or “her” because I don’t want to be on the receiving end of a defamation action brought by one of the most powerful lawyers at the ACLU. Simply referring to Chase as Chase avoids all of these problems.
Use of opposite-sex pronouns is dangerous for women and girls because it obscures the reality of sex, is difficult cognitively, and is unnecessary linguistically. I hope that everyone who cares about women and girls and about material reality will stop using them categorically.
Sara Higdon | @SaraHigdon_
Like every issue pertaining to Gender Ideology, the discussion around pronouns is nuanced. There are some absolutes though. For instance, no one has the right to compel the speech of others. You can ask, but wanting to force others to use your “preferred” pronouns is a step too far. Most of the time when pronouns are being used, the person being spoken about is not present, and so insisting that others use your preferred pronouns it is an attempt to control people’s actions when you aren’t even around to be affected. Generally, out of respect, you would call someone what makes them most comfortable, but there are instances where a person may respect someone but not feel comfortable using the wrong sex pronouns for them.
I have had a number of religious friends ask me what they should do. They say, “I like and respect you but my personal convictions say I should not call a male ‘she.’ How can I still treat you with respect, but not violate my personal convictions?” The answer is simple: use the person’s name. Sara is my legal name, and just like you would use someone’s married last name, you should have no issues using a trans person’s legal name.
Whatever someone says when I’m not around is none of my business. It doesn’t affect me in any way, so use whatever pronouns you want. I wrote an article about Dylan Mulvaney, where I didn’t use a single pronoun in reference to Dylan. It was the easiest way for me to maintain my conscience, but also my values.
Personally, there are trans people that I don’t like or respect, but I still try to use the pronouns associated with how someone presents. I don’t use neo-pronouns, unless you are someone I am friends with, and even then it’s hard to do. As a trans woman, I don’t like being misgendered. As a public trans person critical of gender ideology, part of my work is getting more people to our side. The moment you misgender someone, they stop listening to the rational points you are making. Misgendering is therefore the easiest way to ensure that person, or those who support them, stop listening to your rational message. However, I understand the reasons why others don’t share in this approach.
Austin Petersen once explained his stance to me. He has always been respectful of me, uses “she/her,” uses my name, etc. He does this for every rational human being who is not trying to compel his speech. Where Austin and I differ is in circumstances when a person is not being respectful. Since Austin believes that respect begets respect, he will intentionally misgender those he perceives as being disrespectful. As he put it, “If a transgender activist wishes to change the speech laws, to undermine the first amendment, the first thing I am going to do is zing them where it hurts, to defy them in such a way to subvert their intentions.” He went on to say, “Do I care about their personal lifestyle? Not really, but I know it bothers them.” He uses this strategy to get someone to fight about issues that really don’t matter, as a way to subvert attacks on our rights. I don’t use this strategy, but I understand it.
At the end of the day, I won’t compel the speech of others, but I do believe in freedom of association. If a person doesn’t respect me enough to just use my name, or chooses to maliciously misgender me, I will choose to not be around that person. At the same time, I don’t worry when people slip up; that just means I need to work harder on passing. Our brains will automatically reach for the pronouns that they perceive a person as, unless you consciously strive to do the opposite.
The choice of what pronouns to use is nuanced, and often depend on how you feel about the particular situation. It is ultimately up to the individual to decide what pronouns to use for someone, but it is also up to the individual on the receiving end to decide how it affects them. But we should never try to force others to violate their conscience.
Dawn Ennis | @lifeafterdawn
When we were children, and when my own children were small, we talked about something important that apparently is no longer in vogue: The Golden Rule.
Whether you’re a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, Hindu or a follower of other faiths—or even an atheist or agnostic—we all have in common the essence of what The Golden Rule teaches us: Treat others how you would want to be treated.
That simple lesson applies to many things, including pronouns.
Elon Musk recently complained about pronouns being “forced” upon him: “Forcing your pronouns upon others when they didn’t ask, and implicitly ostracizing those who don’t, is neither good nor kind to anyone.”
It’s ironic that Musk and others claiming to be oppressed by pronouns use the same argument for this “debate” that they did for refusing to wear masks in public during a deadly pandemic: “FREEDOM!”
The counter-argument I make to the unmasked hordes is: “I wear a mask to protect you. I hope you will wear a mask to protect me and others.” And they will, or won’t, it’s up to them, or more often, up to the owner or operator of the building they wish to enter.
The counter-argument I make to the anti-pronoun people is: “I display my pronouns on my ‘Hello, My Name Is’ badge and in my email signature and when I introduce myself to show support and respect for others. I hope you will share your pronouns with me and others for the same reason.”
It’s simple: Pronouns, for the most part, are a tool to identify someone, and if I use the pronoun someone I meet uses to identify him, her, or them, I am showing them respect.
Note that I have not once used the term “preferred pronouns.” That’s because pronouns aren’t “preferred.” My pronouns are my pronouns. They happen to be “she/her/hers,” although some folks get their kicks misgendering me. Whatever. I know who I am even if they won’t respect me.
And that’s where we are: Choosing to disrespect someone by either using pronouns that they don’t use or opposing the sharing of pronouns altogether. When did disrespecting someone become cool?
Please understand: Making a mistake by using “he” when someone uses “she” is forgivable. It’s understandable. It needs to be corrected and then move on and try to not repeat that mistake. Intentionally calling a woman “he” or “him,” as often happens to me, is just mean. Schoolyard bully kind of mean. I have a long, horrible history of dealing with those. It took me 45 years, but I now claim victory over the bullies who called me names for living my truth.
For those who cannot grasp the concept of “they” and “them” as pronouns, I refer you to some writer friends of mine: William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth and Gregory Chaucer all used “they” to refer to a single person, going back centuries. Heck, I’ll bet you’ve used “they” as well: You notice that someone has left behind an umbrella and you say, “They’re going to need this when it rains.” It’s as simple as that.
Despite what Musk and others believe about “forcing” pronouns on folks, the concept of sharing pronouns is 100 percent optional.
All I ask is that we consider kindness. It costs nothing to be kind, to show respect, whereas the being rude or mean has a price: It inflicts harm to an individuals, damages their reputations and your own, and will result in general discontent and a breakdown of society far worse than someone using “they” or “them” to identify themselves.
Failure to adhere to the Golden Rule isn’t breaking the law. But it very well may break us as a people. Remember, please: America is a land of differences. Being different is just about the most American thing there is. And sharing our pronouns highlights those differences, proudly, patriotically and in celebration of what makes our country great. Again.
Wilfred Reilly | @wil_da_beast630
I have a simple position on public pronoun displays: I feel the same way about them that I do about participation in any other quasi-religious ritual.
If I—a bearded 5’10”/210lb man, who was a (mediocre) varsity athlete for three years—am forced to publicly say that I am a He/Him, there are in fact several points being made. The first and most obvious is that these little words could quite possibly have been something else. More broadly, I am stating my full acceptance of the claim there IS a thing called “gender identity:” that the tertiary roles and stereotypes associated with sex make up a secondary reality as important as sex itself. Per a popular chart distributed by organizations like Mermaids, for example, a biologically male athlete who loves the color pink and prefers Barbie to GI Joe might well “be a woman.”
Frankly, I view most claims like this as complete nonsense. Now—and this is important—I don’t really see them as any more wrong than many other things people accept as true. To this heretical non-believer, it is simply not accurate that there exist thousands of literally real multi-colored Gods (as my Hindu country-men believe), or Catholic saints who performed actual miracles on Earth during their lifetimes. It is just not true that the world is 6,000 years old or that a wise man of the Hebrew faith once sailed around the globe on a boat that contained two of every species of beetle. Being greeted by 72 virgin women, upon arrival in a Heaven that P.J. O’Rourke once compared to the jewelry counter at Van Cleef & Arpels, if you die in battle? My Islamic brother, I do not believe that happens!
The key difference here is that, in modern upper-middle class life, people rarely try to force me to pretend that I do believe in these^ things, whereas the “pronoun people” do the equivalent often. In this context, my take on gender ideology is that its adherents should expect the same polite non-aggression as the adherents of other non-scientific qualitative philosophies (Marxism for another). Obviously, bullying is against the rules, if not the law, in almost every civilized environment. Just as—hopefully—no school district or college would tolerate abuse of Jewish students by Evangelical or agnostic students, crude harassment of gender-atypical students or employees should never be tolerated.
Even beyond that, speaking as a “boss,” it is not hard to implement policies encouraging basic politeness: telling peers or instructors to call individuals by their preferred name or nick-name (you can change your name), or by a last name. In practice, none of these good-faith basics are very difficult to work out. Most people rarely use individualized pronouns in normal speech, as versus sentences like “That’s Smith’s bag;” neutral words like “their" exist if needed; and I personally don’t mind using preferred labels with friends like Buck Angel as a pure social courtesy—in the same way I wish Jewish buddies “Happy Hannukah.”
However, there is a big “but” here. Just as no free society can mandate that millions of non-Jews celebrate Hannukah, policies mandating universal (pretend) compliance with gender ideology are over the line. Although employer—as versus state—regulation of speech is a contested area, all policies mandating employee declaration of preferred pronouns, or use of these rather than polite compromise terms, strike me as totally unacceptable.
More objectionable still are state and agency regulations like those we now see across Canada—which punish public or academic refusal to pretend agreement with the tenets of gender ideology, as seen during the sanctioning of Amy Hamm by a nursing body for defending the medical definition of “female.” This is insanity on par with the Holy Church of old threatening to burn Galileo: a citizen of a free state is being punished for stating undisputed facts, because they offend the sensibilities of a specific group of believers, in a public discursive space where politeness simply cannot be priority #1. Darwin wept.
In sum: with gender ideology as with older faith traditions, my position is very simple. I am more than willing to politely accept a countryman’s belief that it is Hannukah, or Eid, or St. Crispin’s Day. However, I am never, ever, willing to pretend on price of punishment that I believe this myself. Is there peace?
Michelle Alleva | @somenuancepls
I spent a decade of my life transitioned (i.e., living in an opposite sex role). During those ten years, I was also deeply involved in social justice activism where using the “correct” pronouns in a given situation was a requirement. I regularly watched people get publicly shredded for failing to do so, and I often participated in the admonishing. I also became triggered and had meltdowns when people failed to ascertain which pronouns I preferred (or declined to use them when they learned I identified as transgender).
In the months following my detransition (i.e., returned to living as my actual sex), I started to realize how exhausted it was to constantly worry about pronouns. On most days, my pronoun policy for those who have transitioned is simple: I refuse to think too hard about it. In almost every circumstance, I use whatever pronouns come naturally to me in the moment.
There are a lot of cues that determine which pronoun comes out of my mouth (or via my fingers, as the case may be). Sometimes that’s appearance—if someone looks enough like a male, I will use “he” pronouns for that person (and vice versa). Sometimes it’s the name—it can feel incongruous to use “he” pronouns for someone whose name is traditionally feminine. Sometimes it’s my personal history with the individual—I have people in my life whom I never knew before they transitioned, and it feels “off” to refer to them otherwise. Likewise, there are people I’ve known for a very long time who transitioned only recently, and I have not switched to their preferred pronouns.
But there are some situations in which I put extra effort into pronoun usage. If I am having a discussion in which I predict my conversational partner will make a fuss over pronouns—assuming I care about whether or not the conversation continues—I might use whichever ones cause the least amount of disruption, or I might go to the effort of avoiding pronouns altogether. (This is not only the case for people who believe preferred pronouns are mandatory; it is also the case for those who believe sex-based pronouns are mandatory. From experience, both camps are prone to screaming pronouns at those who don’t follow their rules.)
The other situation, which is near and dear to my heart, does not involve people who have transitioned but rather involves others who have detransitioned. In most cases, using sex-based pronouns for detransitioners comes naturally, but every now and then I come across someone who is still early in their detransition. I try harder to override my automatic reaction because I know what it feels like to be reminded of something that you regret.
I have had people suggest that my continued use of opposite-sex pronouns in some instances is proof that I have somehow failed to “deprogram” myself from gender ideology. I think it’s a weak argument. In English, we might refer to objects with gendered pronouns (e.g., referring to boats as “she”). In other languages all inanimate objects have gendered pronouns, and in some gendered pronouns don’t exist at all. To me, a pronoun doesn’t indicate anything about my beliefs. It’s a part of speech that stands in place of a noun.
As long as it’s understood who I am referring to—and if one feels comfortable correcting me, one clearly understands—then I don’t see it as something I need to focus on, especially when I’ve spent enough time fussing about pronouns to last me a lifetime.
Sall Grover | @salltweets
I will not call a man “she,” “her,” or “woman” under any circumstances. Whether the man in question is my best friend, a TikTok influencer, or a rapist on trial, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me—I will never call a man “she.”
We’re frequently told to use “preferred pronouns”—aka call a man “she”—because it is “kind.” But favoring politeness over truth is how this whole current crazy zeitgeist kicked off. In reality, “being kind” has resulted in men raping women with “her penis” while being referred to as “women” in media reports.
“Just be kind,” they said. Be kind to who?
Obviously, there’s no way a movement like this could have started with “her penis.” Instead, it started by slowly normalizing calling male friends “she.” This is why I will not, under any circumstances, call a man “she” even if he is my friend. I know where this “kindness” leads.
Like any decent person, I think about my friends’ feelings and make conscience decisions to not hurt them. That is what friends do. But friendships work both ways. Friendships function on a foundation of mutual respect. Relationships with a power imbalance are never healthy and rarely sustainable.
In addition to “being kind,” we’re told that using someone’s “preferred pronouns” is “validating” them, or relieving the discomfort they feel with the reality of their biological sex. But let’s just tell it how it is: true friends don’t try to control what you say or think. True friends don’t demand that you lie. Friends who genuinely respect you do not insist that you adhere to their worldview. This is either immediately obvious in most circumstances, or we recognize the red flags in hindsight. A lot of friendships end for these reasons, as they’re not circumstances that cultivate a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship.
Similarly, a true friends do not indulge their friend’s delusions. True friends don’t participate in a fantasy that has the potential to result in unnecessary medicalization and irreversible surgery. Friends who genuinely respect you offer support to help a seemingly dire situation improve rather than help sustain it.
All of this seems to have gone out the window when it comes to calling a man “she,” or “fae,” or “zir,” or any of the other ridiculous “preferred pronouns” that have been introduced under the guise of kindness but actually undermine critical thinking and our collective perception of reality.
Finally, the damage to women’s rights due to men calling themselves women is devastating. Women’s ability to congregate without the presence of males is constantly under attack. Lesbians are being called “genital fetishists” for not considering men who “identify” as women as potential sexual partners. Male rapists are actively being housed in women’s prisons because they merely claim to be women. All of this is happening because the idea that a man could be a woman became normalized, and this started with calling male friends “she” out of kindness.
So, no, I won’t call a man “she” under any circumstances, and I encourage everyone to think more about this issue for themselves and understand that, in reality, telling the truth is kind. Men are he.
Colin Wright | @SwipeWright
In 2021 I wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal titled “When Asked ‘What Are Your Pronouns,’ Don’t Answer.” The essay argued that pronoun exchange rituals are not just silly and annoying, but are actually very harmful because they act as a wedge for normalizing gender ideology—and thus a denial of biological reality—throughout society. Because participating in these rituals makes you an unwitting node in the spread of gender pseudoscience, I urged readers to “never participate in pronouns exchange rituals.”
Many people therefore seemed understandably perplexed—enraged even—by my admission on Twitter that I generally use the preferred pronouns of transgender people in my personal life as a “social courtesy.” Doesn’t this completely contradict my essay’s central argument? Aren’t I failing to follow my own rule? No, because that essay very specifically argued that, if you reject gender ideology, you should not acquiesce to requests to share your pronouns, but it says absolutely nothing about whether you should use other people’s preferred cross-sex pronouns.
My own view on respecting someone’s cross-sex pronouns are somewhat nuanced, though I do take some hard-line positions. For instance, I will not address a child by anything other than their sex-based pronouns, as I consider using cross-sex pronouns for children a form of indoctrination. I will also never use gender neutral they/them pronouns or neopronouns like “xe/xem/xyr” or “ey/em/eir” because these are purely ideological in nature and have no biological referent. And in a court of law where the case at hand pertains to the distinction between sex and “gender identity,” I would strongly adhere to sex-based pronouns. For instance, I would not refer to Lia Thomas, the male NCAA “Women’s” swimming champion, as “she” if I were called to testify on the issue of males competing in female sports.
But just because using sex-based pronouns is important in some contexts, doesn’t mean it’s important in all contexts.
Socially, I have no issue using cross-sex pronouns for my trans-identifying friends who make efforts to present themselves as the opposite sex as a social courtesy. And I mean “courtesy” in both the “respectful act or expression” as well as the “general allowance despite facts” senses of the word. I extend this courtesy to my friends because gender dysphoria is a real condition and it makes them feel more comfortable in my presence. My friends get special treatment, because they’re my friends.
Further, all of my trans-identifying friends reject gender ideology, and none of them are actually delusional about their biology, and so using their preferred cross-sex pronouns is not participating in any kind of delusion, nor does it risk spreading a dangerous reality-denying ideology. If on the other hand I am speaking to non-friends or delusional gender activists, I would be less courteous and default to using a person’s name.
I fully understand why some choose to take a hard-line stance against using cross-sex pronouns in all contexts. It gives one a sense of epistemic closure, and following one simple rule avoids expending mental energy trying to navigate complex social landscapes. Plus, anyone following this rule can’t ever be accused of giving an inch to delusion. And it’s also true that “social courtesy” run amok and without guardrails can lead to disastrous outcomes. But if it’s so simple and effective, what’s not to like?
Simply put, I am not willing to abandon all compassion-based nuance in my life for those I care about. Truth and compassion are not necessarily in zero sum conflict with each other, and by paying attention to context I believe we can maximize both.
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