Gender pronouns matter, especially at school

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Joshua Sutcliffe, a teacher at an Oxford secondary school, was recently suspended for referring to a transgender student as a girl as opposed to a boy. The act of misgendering was revealed to the public through a complaint launched by the parent of the student. Given that the case is currently under investigation, it may be worth taking a step back and reflecting upon the dangers of misgendering in general.

Misgendering is often deeply discomforting and potentially triggering for trans individuals. For individuals who have openly come out as trans, it may be associated with memories of historical abuses directed towards the individuals on the misguided perceptual, socially constructed basis that they are somehow ‘deviant’ or ‘misfits’ with respect to cisheteronormative gender expectations.

Alternatively, it may be correlated with specific traumatic episodes of transphobic bullying, violence, and harassment, such that the act of misgendering could instigate flashbacks that are vivid and excruciating to bear for affected individuals. Even in its least harmful form, misgendering actively reminds the subject of the days prior to their coming out or coming to terms with their self-identification, more often than not featuring deeply rooted feelings of dissonance and anxiety.

For individuals in the closet, misgendering serves to reinforce the controlling images that police their behaviours, actions, speech, and thought – making coming forth with their gender identities highly difficult. Trans students are particularly vulnerable, given their situation within power structures that are often difficult to navigate and obstinate towards recognising their identities.

Secondly, misgendering transforms spaces into actively hostile environments, through signaling that the intimate identities of trans individuals are up for debate and questioning.

Imagine studying or working in an environment where despite repeated attempts to establish your name to your friends, your friends insist on calling you – not by abbreviations or names that are even proximate to your own – but by a name that you deeply and repulsively dislike. Now imagine that the name they call you shapes the attitudes and expectations they hold towards you, as well as policing the interactions between you and your friends.

Misgendering signals to trans individuals, as the above plausibly may to you, that their gender identities are neither decided by nor controllable by them; that the majoritarian whims can dictate whether they are accorded with the most basic respect to which every human being is entitled. It erases the voices and autonomy of trans individuals, by articulating the bigoted view that their most intimate preferences and values do not matter. It suggests that their very existence could be ignored at the whims of callous external bodies.

More fundamentally, the process renders spaces unwelcoming for trans individuals. It makes the trans student in your class less likely to come forth with answers or questions, because they fear being shunned and humiliated in front of the rest of the class. It renders the trans worker in your workplace emotionally drained and apprehensive of working in a group, because group work – to them – implies a continuous uphill battle against repeated prescription of an erroneous gender identity upon them.

Finally, misgendering exerts substantial pressure on trans individuals to engage in the emotionally exhaustive labour of performing their gender. In more conservative settings, this may be the performance of the gender to which they are assigned at birth (and feel deeply incongruous to). This is actively harmful, as it forces trans individuals to suppress their true identities and continually enact rituals and performances that are contrived at best, and self-deprecating at worst. The exhaustion comes from the need to maintain an external appearance that is so fundamentally antithetical to whom they really are.

What can be done? For starters, let’s do away with the egregious association of gender pronouns with the ongoing free speech battle concerning ‘offense’ on campuses. Much like safe spaces and trigger warnings, gender pronouns are not about free speech and most definitely not about what is often trivialised by conservatives as ‘offense-seeking snowflake culture’. Not misgendering others isn’t a matter of ‘PC culture’ – it’s a matter of basic decency. In a liberal society, there exist certain baselines that we accept that we never cross. Not misgendering others should be one of them; encouraging individuals to use the correct pronouns would be a step in the right direction.