13 Dec 2016

Pronouns, political correctness and manufacturing controversy

After the release of inaccurate articles such as this one by The Independent, Oxford University Students' Union has issued a statement refuting the notion that it had mandated referring to other students by the gender-neutral pronoun "ze." To be clear, they say:
We have not produced a leaflet implying that all students must use ‘ze’ pronouns to refer to others, or indeed to themselves.
 They add:
We would also like to clearly state that we would never tell anyone to use ‘ze’ pronouns instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ if ‘he’ or ‘she’ is the pronoun someone wishes to use.
But they also point out:
We do however suggest the use of genderless pronouns like singular ‘they’ to refer to individuals whose pronouns haven’t been confirmed. This avoids assuming what pronouns a person uses based solely on how they present themselves.
Not really that controversial, is it - or so you would think.

Yet a quick scan of comments under the The Independent article shows their clickbaity insistence that "Oxford University students must refer to each other using gender neutral pronouns such as “ze” instead of “he” or “she”" has clearly had its desired shit-stirring effect. Every single bingo square in the awful game of "hateful, moronic shit that inevitably gets said in any debate about trans rights" is ticked. The "why can't I just call them 'it'?" square. The "urgh, Generation Snowflake needs to get over itself," square. The "there are two genders and that's it, you just don't understand biology!" square. The "you can't use 'they' in a singular sense" square. And on and on and on, although I'm pleased to note there are also quite a few voices of reason challenging the uninformed and bigoted. I myself pointed out that The Indy is spreading a falsehood, but still got replies insisting that "ze" was now being taught in schools (I usually hate it when people respond like this online, but in this case I really could only think, "um, SOURCE?!"), that this is just the thin end of the wedge before more ker-razy made-up words get foisted upon us, that the people who have fought not to be labelled are now demanding just that and how silly and illogical they must therefore be.

Thankfully, there are people out there who can see what's really going on, and in a Facebook statement, OUSU's deputy women's officer Orla White pre-empts pretty much every one of these comments by identifying exactly why the media loves to start arguments over phantoms in this manner. They write:

The most important thing. . . is not the misinformation that's being spread: it's why. 
The reason that misinformed news about trans students can go viral is because of a general lack of understanding, empathy or respect for trans people in general.
It's because ze pronouns, other neopronouns, singular 'they' pronouns and even 'she' or 'he' pronouns are considered 'funny/weird/silly' when trans people use them. 
It's because any action to make spaces more inclusive for trans people is seen as extreme, absurd and an indicator of being a 'special snowflake' with all the fun add-ons that brings. 
It's because trans people are seen as being pretenders or fakes. 
It's because trans people are seen to be 'overly demanding' when asking for the most basic level of respect. 
It's because of transphobia, basically.
Couldn't have said it better myself. 

By publishing such a poorly researched article, The Independent and other media outlets who reported on what is effectively a non-story knew exactly what they were doing. They were portraying trans people as unreasonable, demanding and wanting special treatment (pretty much the same accusation levelled at gay people a couple of decades previously when LGB folks dared to suggest that they didn't just want a life free of discrimination and violence, but would actually like to enjoy equal rights on matters such as the age of consent, adoption and marriage rights). They were pandering to an audience who thinks exactly that about trans people - that at best they are to be pitied and endured, at worst shoved back in the box they came out of - and pitting them against readers who actually have a modicum of empathy with or knowledge about what it means to be gender non-conforming. They were stirring up at internet flame war (yes, I know that term sounds so 1997, but let's face it, the concept has never died, only multiplied, since social media came along) at the expense of any nuanced or sensible discussion about how, if you're not sure what pronoun someone likes to use, it makes sense to refer to them as "they" until you do know, and when you get an opportunity, just ask that person how they'd like to be referred to.

Even if neopronouns like ze, hir and so on (which by the way, have been around for decades--it just took the culture of clickbait to bring the concept to the mainstream) weren't at issue here, something else would be - because transphobia demands it. You only need to listen to the voices of trans people to ascertain that. It's not like prior to this issue, we existed in a world where binary-conforming trans people were never misgendered, is it? Deliberately calling trans women "he" has been a favourite pastime of the cis population for decades, as were comedy sketches emphasising the failure of trans women to "pass" - think Little Britain and The League of Gentleman, where an overly masculine trans woman character was repeatedly mocked for her inability to present as truly feminine. I read on Twitter only yesterday the story of a non-binary individual who had a job interview on Skype, and heard her interviewers saying - thinking the call had ended - "MTF or FTM? I can't tell!" and laughing. And it was truly upsetting to read in the wake of the Oakland warehouse fire that people who perished in the fire were still being misgendered in reports about their deaths. Basically, there always has been a vocal pocket of cis individuals who think that being asked to refer to someone who used to identify as "he" as a "she" (or vice versa) is just soooo damn unreasonable. I would put money on these individuals not having any problem with referring to a married woman by her new surname, or by Mrs instead of Miss (assuming she chooses to make these changes, and don't get me started on the toxicity of assumptions surrounding that), yet remembering a difference of one damn letter is apparently just too much of an audacious demand to make of them.

Julia Serano has written extensively and eloquently on how trans identities are repeatedly seen as less real, less legitimate, more artificial and therefore duplicitious, in opposition to cis identities. A cis woman who wears make-up is just celebrating her femininity; a trans woman who does the same must be trying to "pass." A cis man who buffs up at the gym is just making sure his body looks the best it can; a trans man who does the same must be desperately overcompensating for his birth chromosomes. Indeed, I very recently heard a depressing tale of some acquaintances who really should know better laughing about a transmasculine's person appearance and demeanour, as if the attempts of someone born female to present masculine were both pathetic and comedic, People who believe in these overly simplistic and divisive narratives of gender are basically looking for any opportunity they can find to discredit trans people, to not have to "give in" and address as female a person they cannot bring themselves to believe is a woman, or address a trans man as male; add the idea of non-binary genders into the mix and they inevitably melt down in an implosion of "WAAAARGHH SPECIAL SNOWFLAKES PC GONE MAD WHY CAN'T I JUST CALL THEM IT WHAT ABOUT THE DAYS WHEN MEN WERE MEN AND WOMEN WERE OBJECTIFIED AND WE WERE ALL GLAD OF IT?!" The point is, the problem has never been with the pronouns. Bigots objected when we were mostly just dealing with "he" and "she" - of course they're going to go apeshit when asked to consider "they/ze/hir".There are still those who want to know why they can't still talk about "coloureds" "poofs" and "trannies," FFS, and will cry oppression from PC culture when challenged. That's not a reason for us to cede any ground to such people.

I'll leave the last words to Orla White:
So, no, we didn't publish a leaflet banning gendered pronouns. But we do stand against transphobia. The factual incorrectness of these articles is one thing; the way that it's used to make basic human decency towards trans people seem laughable is quite another.

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