August 29, 2018 – The Transgender Language War
The Transgender Language War
California threatens to jail health workers who refuse to use ‘preferred’ pronouns.
Abigail Shrier Aug. 29, 2018 6:37 p.m. ET
Without permitting parents to opt out, public schools across the country are teaching children that “gender” is neither binary nor biological. It’s closer to a mental state: a question of how girllike or boylike you feel. Students will fall anywhere along a gender spectrum, according to these educators.
So how girllike does any girl feel? The answer might reasonably be expected to vary throughout adolescence, depending on whether a girl was just dumped by a boy or tripped in the hall. Mishaps that once only compromised one’s pride now threaten a child’s gender identity, the ever-evolving claim to a “girl card.” As if adolescence weren’t already hard enough.
This is the left’s allegedly defensive battle, waged on behalf of an aggrieved microminority even as it sets its sights on broader ideological territory. Consider recent state and local actions punishing those who decline to use an individual’s pronouns of choice. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last year threatening jail time for health-care professionals who “willfully and repeatedly” refuse to use a patient’s preferred pronouns. Under guidelines issued in 2015 by New York City’s Commission on Human Rights, employers, landlords and business owners who intentionally use the wrong pronoun with transgender workers and tenants face potential fines of as much as $250,000.
Typically, in America, when groups disagree, we leave them to employ the vocabularies that reflect their values. My “affirmative action” is your “racial preferences.” One person’s “fetus” is another’s “baby boy.” This is as it should be; an entire worldview is packed into the word “fetus.” Another is contained in the reference to one person as “them” or “they.” For those with a religious conviction that sex is both biological and binary, God’s purposeful creation, denial of this involves sacrilege no less than bowing to idols in the town square. When the state compels such denial among religious people, it clobbers the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion, lending government power to a contemporary variant on forced conversion.
But individuals need not be religious to believe that one person can never be a “they”; compelled speech is no less unconstitutional for those who refuse an utterance based on a different viewpoint, as the Supreme Court held in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). Upholding students’ right to refuse to salute an American flag even on nonreligious grounds, Justice Robert H. Jackson declared: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” This is precisely what forced reference to someone else as “ze,” “sie,” “hir,” “co,” “ev,” “xe,” “thon” or “they” entails. When the state employs coercive power to compel an utterance, what might otherwise be a courtesy quickly becomes a plank walk.
In most contexts, I would have no problem addressing others in any manner they chose. If a therapist wants to be called “doctor,” far be it from me to point out that she has a marriage and family therapy license, not a medical degree. But the Constitution’s protection of free speech neither begins nor ends with good manners. It extends all the way from rudeness to meekness, protecting those who hurl insults and those who would rather say nothing at all.
To the extent that the transgender movement seeks to promote compassion for those who struggle with their biological sex, we should be grateful for it. To the extent that it seeks to regulate others’ perspectives—commanding them to ignore biology and obey the dictates of new, state-mandated perception—we should resist it as an incursion into our most sacred liberties.
“Words in their primary or immediate signification, stand for nothing, but the ideas in the mind of him that uses them,” wrote John Locke. Ideas are merely the concatenations of words; if you can compel the use of certain words, you control thought and force those who differ into silence. Often, that seems to be the actual goal of gender-identity enthusiasts, since the minuscule numbers of those afflicted with true dysphoria couldn’t otherwise justify the rewriting of all manner of school applications and government forms.
If there is any issue that can rouse conservatives and drive them to the polls, it is this one, with good reason. They perceive that their way of life is at stake. They know that if gender activists prevail, they will be left with a world they neither recognize nor like very much. They will be unable to communicate their displeasure; the words will have been stolen from them.
Ms. Shrier is a writer living in Los Angeles.