Pronouns May Cost Everything — by Frances Lumsden
“Pronouns are like Rohypnol. They dull your defences. They change your inhibitions. They are meant to. You’ve a lifetime’s experience learning to be alert to ‘him’ and relaxed to ‘her’. And for good reason. This instinctive response is to keep you safe…I want to be alert. I want others to be alert…I want these instinctive reactions that we feel when something is wrong…I owe it to girls. I don’t want to play even the tiniest part in grooming them to disregard their natural protective instincts… using pronouns on others isn’t a courtesy”.
From Pronouns are Rohypnol by Barra Kerr
This essay is a personal response to Jason Michael McCann’s article “Who Am I To Judge” and some of his Twitter posts.
In recent weeks Jason McCann and myself had a disagreement on Twitter about one of his posts;
“Pronouns: it costs us nothing and profits us infinitely to treat other human beings with love, dignity, and respect; to acknowledge in the other the personhood and identity they see in themselves. Love is truth, and never needlessly cruel”.
I responded with a short thread explaining why I disagreed with this statement. Very quickly, Jason judged that I was being hateful and blocked me and I, in turn interpreted his refusal to consider the valid reasons why many women refuse to comply with the demand for ‘preferred pronouns’ as being rooted in his inability to appreciate and empathise with women’s most deeply held concerns.
Such is the pattern in Twitter debates; all too soon neither side will listen, the worst assumptions are made and everyone ends up talking in attack and defence. After some peacemaking on the part of others, Jason and I agreed that I would write a longer response to his original post and to the article Who Am I To Judge, which I later learned contained the sad backstory to his Pronouns Twitter post. I hope this response goes some way to take a little of the heat out of discussions about transgenderism in general and pronouns in particular.
Sadly, I suspect that my hopes may fall on deaf ears, not necessarily from Jason, but I am all too aware that whenever women push back against the requests and demands to use pronouns, there is a vicious backlash; I will be targeted with misogynistic abuse, trans activists may try to find out where I live and there will be yet another furore online. Be that as it may, I feel I need to speak my truth; it is a matter of my conscience and matters extremely to the rights of women and the well being and safety of children.
Firstly a few comments on Jason’s article. I have no doubt about Jason’s compassion and genuine attempt to be a true Christian to Simone, who sadly committed suicide. I have no issue with Jason deciding to use female pronouns to honour the identity of who Simone was. That was a matter for Jason’s religious and spiritual conscience and I am not judging this negatively. Indeed, I acknowledge and respect the compassionate intention.
What I do take issue with is the further step that Jason makes, a step explained in his Twitter post “Pronouns: it costs us nothing…to acknowledge in the other the personhood and identify they see in themselves”. This step moves beyond Simone in particular and involves all transgender people in general. Additionally, this step is essentially saying ‘I honoured a transgender person’s identify and you should do the same”. This moral obligation was obvious in the many Twitter posts Jason made. This one below was to myself, in response to me saying I do not hate trans people:
“All I asked was for people to respect others. You said you don’t hate trans people, so respect shouldn’t be a problem. Solved.”
It is notable that Jason sets up a false dichotomy here from ‘not hating’ to ‘respecting’ (preferred pronouns) as if there is no other position in between. I hope to show below that there is a great deal in between. Furthermore Jason’s moral obligation was heavily slanted towards women, there is an unquestioned expectation that women should be kind and compassionate because these are “socially expected feminine attributes”. The aforementioned moves Jason makes, represents the biggest bone of contention I have with Jason’s interpretation of these issues, and the way in which he urges people in general and women in particular, to use pronouns in order to demonstrate kindness and respect to trans people.
There are other ways of being kind
Jason’s moral obligation to use pronouns, contains an assumption that this is the best way to be kind and respectful to transgender people. The idea that there may be other better ways to demonstrate kindness, respect and compassion is never discussed. For example, one might skilfully avoid using gendered language all together and refer to them by their chosen name. This has the benefit of acknowledging a very personal aspect of their identity. But I would go further and argue that while using a trans person’s pronouns may be helpful in the short term, in the long term it does lasting harm. I know of no psychological therapeutic model, no philosophical tradition, no religious tradition, no scientific and rational model of human behaviour that utilises an engagement with, and then promotion of, beliefs about a person which can be demonstrably proven to be false. The opposite is actually true; that all wisdom traditions and all psychological therapeutic models aim towards helping the person to perceive and accept reality as it is, not as how they want it to be. As it says in John 8:32 “the truth shall set you free”. Or as the Delphic maxim states “know thyself”.
With regards to this encouragement towards self knowledge, as a society, we correctly, kindly and compassionately, do not encourage anorexic teenagers to believe they are overweight; we do not enable people who are obsessed with the idea that a limb is evil and has to be removed, to actually remove it. We try, with compassion, respect and with truth, to help them to overcome their ideas about themselves that do not match reality, and we do not diminish the Hippocratic Oath to ‘first do no harm’. I believe that this approach is more morally courageous than enabling harmful false beliefs. I believe this, not just because I place a great deal of moral and ethical value upon truth as a foundation stone for living a good life, but because, in the context of pronouns and transgender ideology, we have seen that the all too ready adoption of a sole affirmative approach to ‘gender dysphoric’ children and young people does inestimable harm.
In the last few years, we have seen increasing numbers of young women who transition to live as young men, and subsequently choose to detransition. Statistics show that in less that a decade there has been a 5337% increase in girls referred to the Tavistock Clinic (Source Transgender Trend). Sometimes these girls are been put on puberty blockers, and may go on to have mastectomies, facial masculinisation surgery, phalloplasties and hysterectomies. Equivalent ‘transitioning treatments” have been given to boys and young men. These ‘treatments’ can leave young people sterile, unable to experience sexual pleasure and with other long term health problems such as a decrease in bone density, severe joint pain, compromised immune systems, depression and suicidal ideation. The ‘treatments’ offers no assurance of alleviation or diminishment of ‘gender dysphoria’. Listening to the stories the majority of these young detransitioned women tell, we hear time and time again the understandable and justifiable lament that doctors, therapists and other adults complied with their self diagnosis and demands and failed to sufficiently assess and challenge them.
Of course using ‘preferred pronouns’ is nothing like advocating puberty blockers or surgery, yet it is one small but key functional part of the normalisation of false self belief. This ‘Gender Affirmative’ approach used by Gender Identity Clinics fails to consider and explore the often complex reasons why a young person may suffer from ‘gender dysphoria’. There is rapidly emerging evidence that some of these young women and men have autism, and/or may be lesbians, gay or bisexual. An ex-employee of the Tavistock Clinic suggested that a percentage of the young people they see are effectively having the ‘gay transed away’. Similarly we know that many young people naturally or spontaneously desist from transitioning. However, if these young people have a medical and social framework, which not only affirms, but reifies their belief that they have been ‘born in the wrong body’, it is harder for them to back out of the personal and social identity that they have created. When other people are invested in their identity, (whether under threat or duress or through fear for their wellbeing or through the desire to love and support) a vulnerable young person requires a great deal of strength to break down other people’s expectations as well as deal with their own personal journey. They would need maturity, self awareness and confidence to ‘dial back’ or otherwise interrupt the narrative that they have created with such conviction and such overwhelming peer/adult ‘support’ and complicity.
I hope the preceding paragraphs may at least have signalled that the moral imperative to use pronouns might not be quite so straightforward as Jason believes. The affirmative model within which pronouns are a key component, may well cost a young person irreversible health, social and psychological harm.
The wider cost of pronoun use
Having explained some of my reasons for not affirming a trans person ‘preferred pronouns’ and beliefs about themselves, I now wish to turn to another aspect of Jason’s stated moral imperative to use pronouns. It seems to me that, for Jason, using a trans person’s pronouns, while not necessarily a simple matter of conscience, it is a moral decision which focusses only on the use of pronouns rather than the wider implications of pronoun use. He did state on Twitter he was not suggesting that men who identify as woman gain access to women’s spaces and I am grateful to him for making that clear. However I know that Jason is relatively new to the debate about the clash of rights between trans people and women, and I suspect he may not be fully aware of the profound implications of pronoun use to women’s rights and the way in which ‘preferred pronouns’ are used as a kind of weapon against us. He may also not be aware that trans people enjoy the same human rights as the rest of us, with additional rights that follow from having a Gender Recognition Certificate.
I have been paying attention to the trans debate for a number of years now, and like many other women I have seen a repeated pattern where trans activists not only request that we use trans pronouns, but demand we use them upon pain of threats, harassment, social shaming, threats to livelihoods, loss of jobs, court action, academic work being removed from libraries, books burned, rape and death threats. Lesbians are put under enormous pressure to have sex with men who identify as women. These men describe themselves as ‘lesbians’ and scream ‘transphobia’ at any women who says no to them. It is extraordinary and deeply wrong that lesbians’ boundaries are not respected.
Additionally, JK Rowling’s compassionate, knowledgable and reasonable essay was met with an astounding and appalling furore in which her life was threatened, books burned and hideous misogynistic abuse was flung around. On Twitter and other social media platforms, women have been banned and other punitive measures have been taken for the so called social but non legal crime of ‘misgendering’. As such, the demand we use pronouns is a form of compelled speech, which, if coded into law, has serious implications for the freedom of speech laws we currently enjoy in Scotland and the UK as a whole. We have seen that under Bill C16 in Canada, ‘gender identity’ is enshrined in law and a person can be taken to court and fined for refusing to use ‘preferred pronouns’. In the context of Scotland, because of the deeply divisive Hate Crimes Bill and the fact that GRA reforms have not yet been abandoned as they have in England, there is a great deal of disquiet among Scottish women that our government aims to emulate Canada in its approach to trans rights and thereby move to both silence women and compel our speech.
The dangers of enforced speech are worrying enough for our civil liberties, but there are further implications of adhering to pronoun use which are more worrying still. For Jason, using a person’s ‘preferred pronouns’ was a fairly simple matter which may indeed cost him nothing. For women it is far from a simple matter and some of us, myself included, have came to a considered decision that we will not partake of pronoun use at all, because pronouns could cost us a great deal in terms of our psychological well being.
As we have seen above, women are never just asked to use pronouns, it is often demanded, coerced and bullied out of us by trans activists. Further, the corollary of pronoun use is accepting the mantra the ‘transwomen are women’. Within this mantra there is pressure to accept not only that men identify as women, but that they actually are women. This is deeply offensive and psychologically disconcerting to some women’s sense of self. When a man asserts and demands that he too is a woman, because he dresses as a women or feels like a woman, for many women this feels like a kind of psychic violation of our bodies and minds. Ironically it inflicts upon us a kind of dysphoria or deep unease; if men can be women, then who are we really? All of our self knowledge is called into question. It is so patently ridiculous that a man could ever actually be a woman — that he could ever experience the world as women experience it — the incongruity in being required by social pressure or the law to accept him as a woman is deeply unsettling. We women develop female in utero, grow up in a female body; are socialised as females, dealing with all the myriad social expectations and socially imposed limits and constraints routinely inflicted upon our sex; we suffer decades of menstruation and health related issues; we carry babies in our wombs; we give birth; we breast feed. We bear the social pressures involved in balancing motherhood and employment. Stout hearted, we take responsibility for our fertility through contraception and abortion; broken hearted we deal with infertility and the loss of pregnancies and babies. We weather female reproductive illnesses and conditions; we get ovarian cancer, cervical cancer, breast cancer and so on and so on. But more than that, way more than that, in return, we suffer the worst of men’s behaviour; honour killings, FGM, female infanticide, sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual abuse, exploitation and slavery, domestic violence, rape and murder. And then we have to suffer the men who demand that we believe and accept they are entitled to our name.
And to this I say, ‘woman’, ‘she’ is not a costume to be put on and emulated, a costume which includes only the sexy parts of woman and the parts that men want to be, or imagine we are; a woman is a real being who lives in and actually is that female body, and who experiences all of the oppression of our sex class. Just as a person of colour would be offended by a white person claiming to be a black person, fashioning themselves to look like a black person and laying claim to the racial oppression people of colour have historically and currently suffer; those who have been born in a male body and have had a very different social experiences have not earned the ‘Wages of Womanhood’, and to me it is offensive to suggest he has. I am aware of the controversial nature of what I am saying here. But I must speak truthfully about how I feel and to be frank this truth is shared by significant numbers of women and needs to be voiced. The cost to women and society of agreeing that men are women is a burden we cannot afford to bear.
An example of this distress has recently been played out. Associated with the socially enforced use of ‘preferred pronouns’, many companies, charitable organisations, governmental agencies and political parties have adopted what is called ‘inclusive language’ to describe women. Instead of saying women, transmen and non binary people, (which actually would be inclusive), the words ‘women’ and ‘woman’ are erased altogether and we are dehumanised and verbally erased by being referred to as ‘menstruators’, ‘uterous havers’, ‘cervix havers’ etc. A charity called Sands UK, who offer support to women who have lost their unborn babies, decided that ‘birthing parent’ would be a suitable use of language to describe mothers who have sadly lost their babies. I cannot overstate the distress that has been felt and expressed by many grieving women, to have what is universally considered a deeply precious word like ‘mother’ taken away from them. To hurt grieving women in this way is morally reprehensible and needlessly cruel. And yet this is the result of the upturning of traditional, accurate sexed language of which ‘preferred pronouns’ play a key part.
The preceding paragraphs outline the potential and very real cost to women’s psychological and emotional wellbeing resulting from pronoun use and the abandonment of accurate sexed language; but the real cost to women of using pronoun goes further still. Our ability to define ourselves as biological women and thus as a sex class separate from men, is fundamentally important in retaining our legal rights to hard won single sex spaces, services and positions, such as; women’s sports; women’s prisons; single sex hospital wards, changing rooms, toilets; female positions on public and private boards, women’s awards, schools for girls, women’s colleges etc. All these spaces rest upon the integrity of word ‘woman’ meaning an adult female, and a girl meaning a female child. If women accept that a ‘he’ is a ‘she’, that a man is a woman, then we are accepting that he can rightly gain access to our spaces. This poses a very real threat to our safety, our privacy and our dignity. I cannot overstate the deeply felt concerns women have about allowing men into the very spaces which are designed to keep us safe. It is important to note here that women are not ‘transphobic’ when they say they do not want men who identify as women in our spaces; women are not afraid of trans people per se, we are afraid of men. And our fear is not a phobia, because phobia means an extreme irrational fear. Our fear is not irrational; indeed it is all too rational because we have a lifetime of experience of men’s sexual and physical violence and abuse, their propensity towards voyeurism, their willingness to record images of women and girls in states of undress and post this onto the internet. The statistical evidence of the totality of men’s violence and violation of female boundaries is overwhelming. And the individual instances of men who identify as women harming women and girls is increasing all the time. In Fife, Katie Dolatowski, a young man who identifies as a women attacked two girls in supermarket toilets. Avoiding jail, he was housed in a female-only hostel, thus putting more females at risk. In 2018 Karen White who is biologically male and was described as being a danger to women and children, sexually assaulted women in a female prison and raped two women outside prison. These incidents are not unique, as more men who identify as women are given access to women’s spaces, the incidents increase.
Furthermore, the integrity of women’s single sex spaces has been eroded in other ways; we have seen how men who identify as women have been given access to women’s sports which is both deeply unfair to girls and women and unsafe. Recently the Scottish government redefined the meaning of ‘woman’ to include men who identify as women in their Gender Representation on Public Boards Act 2018. Here, we have an act which is meant to address the underrepresentation of women on public boards actually undermining its own remit! The Labour Party, student unions, award making bodies etc have also demonstrated their willingness to choose men who identify as women over actual women. In Scotland there is a man who identifies as a women employed by a rape crisis centre despite have no Gender Recognition Certificate and having failed to declare his true sex at interview. A decade ago, if anyone had said that there would be a debate about whether men should be allowed into women’s prisons, women’s rape crisis centres or into women’s sport, most people would have rightly thought this preposterous and dangerous. And yet today we see an acceptance in some parts of society that men who identify as women should be allowed to do just these things.
How has this happened? I would argue that Barra Kerr’s arguments about Pronouns being like Rohypnol astutely highlights at least one of the mechanisms whereby society has been groomed to accept that a ‘he’ can be a ‘she’ and vice versa. We seen ‘preferred pronouns’ being introduced to schools, work places, the media, even in courts of law. The social pressure being brought to bear upon women and girls to accept that men can be women, that ‘he’ can be ‘she’ is overwhelming and insidious. Young children and teenage girls are being taught to observe ‘preferred pronouns’ against everything their instincts and learning tells them. If girls and women do not comply we are to be ‘re-educated’, punished, removed from situations so that the feelings of the trans person are not hurt. The feelings and safety of women and girls seems to be entirely forgotten in this scenario. Note that there is another fundamental power imbalance between the person who is demanding ‘preferred pronouns’ and the person being required to comply. The moral obligation to use pronouns is in essence dictating how the other person perceives them. And I would ask, is it morally correct to control how a person perceives you as well as how a person talks about you? It is placing the burden of identity of the trans person onto the perceiver and speaker. This amounts to the most extraordinary suggestion — that a transperson’s identity is depending entirely upon the validation of others. This is perhaps why so many trans people argue that, in failing to observe their pronouns, they are being erased. The idea that other people have to bear the burden of another’s existence is hugely manipulative and amounts to gaslighting. And further, one could argue that if a transperson’s entire identity is dependent upon the validation of other, what of these so called ‘gender essences’ that are supposed to be present in the minds of trans people? Both things cannot true and I would argue that it is unfair to have this profound metaphysical confusion foisted upon an entire society, individuals and to women, for whom it matters most.
The moral imperative to use ‘preferred pronouns’ when speaking with a trans person or referring to a trans person, may appear, on the surface, to be rooted in compassion, justice and love. Undoubtedly Jason’s intention was kind and honourable. But when one understands the wider and deeper issues involved in ‘preferred pronouns’ the moral certainty that Jason demonstrates is undermined and a different perspective emerges; the cost to the trans person and others may be very high indeed. The essay has hopefully shown that ‘preferred pronouns’ are part of an unquestioned affirmative approach which may cost a trans person irreversible health, social and psychological problems. There are dangers too from pronoun use for freedom of speech. For women, who have earned the ‘wages of womanhood’, being forced by social pressure, shaming and the law to accept that ‘men are women’ causes very deep seated psychological unease. We have seen how nomenclature for women is being erased and how giving up accurate sexed pronouns threatens our single sex spaces. For individuals and society, the use of pronouns is part of a wider upturning of sexed language which throws all socially-understood meanings into question. And it is for all of these reasons, that in all conscience, I cannot believe that using ‘preferred pronouns’ is compassionate, wise, respectful or salvatory. I would argue that we need to balance truth with compassion and that in carefully acting with these virtues, we can demonstrate our respect for and compassion towards trans people.