I was recently sent an angry opinion piece titled, "My son's freshman orientation at Virginia Tech was full of leftist propaganda." Author Penny Nance, a contributor to The Federalist, a conservative web magazine, was highly offended that orientation name tags included pronouns by which students identified themselves: he, she, or them, to acknowledge gender identities that don't conform to male or female.
The Cal Poly alumnus who circulated the article urged local university administrators to "stay away from this 'Politically Correct' NOISE" described by Nance. "DON'T GO THERE!" he admonished.
Well, if you're siding with Nance, you'd better buckle your seat belt because Poly's Week of Welcome students are hitting San Luis Obispo, and we're going to see name tags that designate a singular use of "them" or perhaps "ze," another non-gendered pronoun coming into use.
These new pronouns recognize that some people can't neatly check either a male or female box. So, if you hold fiercely to traditional gender ideas, I suggest that instead of railing against this change, you try to expand your powers of empathy. Expand your box. New pronoun usage is a fresh way to respect people's individual identities. What's more, expanded pronoun use is not some silly social whim. It's the law.
The California Gender Recognition Act (SB 179) that went into effect as of Jan. 1 stipulates that "every person deserves full legal recognition and equal treatment under the law" and ensures that intersex, transgender, and nonbinary people have state-issued identification documents that provide full legal recognition of their accurate gender identity." New pronouns are not just about college name tags. You'll now see a nonbinary gender category (the letter "x") on California birth certificates, driver's licenses, identity cards, and gender-change court orders.
And you know what? The sky will not fall.
Your head may spin a bit, but nonbinary gender markers are changing rapidly across the nation. Left Coast California is joined in SB 179-type legislation by Arkansas; Colorado; Washington, D.C.; Maine; Michigan; Minnesota; Nevada; Oregon; Utah; Vermont; and Washington, and bills are pending elsewhere.
Why is the pronoun kerfuffle not about political correctness? Because failing to respect someone's gender identity is disrespectful, oppressive, and harmful. Nance seems to think she has special X-ray vision that enables her to look inside people and check them off as male or female. But you can't always assign a gender identity to individuals by looks. Doing so negates their very being.
"Using only binary gender pronouns and identification tells transgender people they don't exist," said Michelle Call, executive director of SLO's Gay and Lesbian Alliance, in a phone interview. "It's hard to live in the world when it refuses to accept who you are."
In fact, while suicide is, shockingly, the second leading cause of death among young people aged 11 to 19, data from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other studies show that LGBTQ-plus youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide. Nearly half of all transgender youth in SLO and elsewhere have attempted suicide, while more have experienced suicide ideation and self-harming activities.
Half of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have seriously considered suicide. Nance may think that these kids will feel better if they just buck up and get in a box, but are you willing to gamble the lives of our children by forcing them to adhere to specific pronouns, gender expressions, gender identities, and sexual orientations? How silly—no, how dangerous is that?
Sam Neil Byrd, coordinator for LGBTQ-plus initiatives at Cal Poly, told me, moreover, that "communities are strongest when they're diverse ... We need individuals from different perspectives, world views, and identities in order to solve the complex problems of our world." Byrd articulates the practical reason behind the Cal Poly and California State University "Commitment to Inclusive Excellence": to prepare citizens to become problem-solvers and leaders.
Accepting gender identities different from our own also promotes human kindness and mutual respect. What your mom might call "being polite." "I'm from the South," Byrd said. "I view my work to build a coalition across campus and create solidarity for LGBTQ-plus issues, including pronoun use, as 'radical hospitality,' that is, part of my Southern heritage."
Pronouns are personal, they are important, and they are not a "preference." They recognize who you are. Look, if you're upset because you believe our language is somehow set in stone to describe reality, think again. Language is constantly evolving and changing. My generation ushered in Ms., and people had conniptions but got used to it.
A San Luis Obispo mom I know has a child who came out as "they." "It's hard to adjust," she said. "I admit I didn't take it seriously at first, but the more you use a non-gender pronoun, the more you use it generally—and then the more you find yourself taking the time to politely ask people what pronoun they go by."
"It's so important to understand and be aware of your child's gender identity," she said. "Asking more questions leads to more communication and acceptance. This world is changing so fast, you make mistakes, but our children are asking for progress, not perfection."
I hope people such as Nance will eventually understand that, in classic American lingo, our children are declaring their inalienable right to pursue their own happiness. Δ
Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.