I’ve always found it odd that we place so much attention on what famous folks do. It’s as if we think that because we watch someone on television that we also have a say in their lives. We may root for them in our favorite shows or as part of our favorite sports teams but that is where it ends. Their lives are separate from ours and they don’t follow a script to please us when they aren’t working.
Recently, Ellen Page (last time I will use that name) has come out as transgendered, would like to be known as Elliot, and prefers male or gender neutral pronouns. Sounds simple enough.
As you can imagine some people are not happy about this. There really shouldn’t be a problem with any of these things but it often sends people over the edge. It’s like these folks think that their identity has been challenged by Elliot coming out as trans.
One of the people who is upset is the editor at Spiked-Online who published an article with a number of opinions positioned as objections. Because these things are apparently hard for people to deal with, I thought it might be useful to go over his assertions. I have quoted his main complaints and responded to each.
“Yesterday, Ellen issued a statement saying she is now Elliot and her pronouns are he and they. That’s just bad grammar.”
So . . . yeah, If we’re starting with grammar as an argument against identity then we know the person making the argument is going to take umbrage with everything.
Sure, if someone is a writer then grammar ranks high on their naughty list but even here gender neutral pronouns actually are beneficial to writers? I’ve been using gender neutral pronouns on nearly all of my articles for over a year now and it’s remarkably easy. The only time it gets complicated is when I use the plural they/them to refer to an individual while also talking about them in relation to a group. Most of the time this can be avoided by using names for specificity. I spend more time trying to figure out how to avoid ending sentences with prepositions than I do pronoun usage.
Writing with gender neutral pronouns allows what’s being said to apply to a wider variety of people. If I write about dating a woman and a reader doesn’t date women then they may not care about what is being said. However, if I use gender neutral pronouns then that same reader may be more likely to think about the situation as it applies to them. I haven’t excluded their experience and as a writer that’s important because I want my material to resonate with as large an audience as is possible. Gender neutral pronouns accomplish that quite handily.
Plus, c’mon! Are we really going to harp on a celebrity changing the way we refer to them? Really?! When Sean Combs decided we should call him Sean Puffy Combs we did it, when he later said to call him P. Diddy we did. No one actually thinks there are birth certificates laying around somewhere that say Snoop Dog and Lady Gaga on them. Let us also not forget Prince who changed his name to a symbol. We called him “the artist formerly known as Prince” or “the artist.”
We change names for people all the time and very few of us care when it’s for artistic/advertising purposes. We can easily extend the same courtesy for someone who would like a change in order to reflect their identity. It’s such a small part of taking care of each other and being a compassionate, empathetic person and yet seems to be a step too far for some.
“Who won gold in the decathlon at Montreal in 1976?’, it says: ‘Caitlyn Jenner.’ Which is a lie. They’re lying about the past now.” And then “Well done! You completely erased a woman who did some very important cinematic work over the past 15 years!”
If the past were erased you couldn’t find out who did those things at all. What has happened is that the names have been changed to reflect who the person is now. It’s still the same person. It’s no different than when someone gets married. We refer to them by a current name for past actions all the time.
The names we use may change over time. People get married, they get divorced, they get nicknames, or they change their name for a variety of other reasons and we all accept it because it’s not that big of a deal. They are still the same person.
I can watch Elliot’s work in Juno as a pregnant teen and I can watch a clip of Caitlyn winning gold in a men’s event and understand that these are the same people; that one is a transman and the other a transwoman. There is no incongruity around this issue. Sure, at first it can be easy to get crossed up. Old habits are hard to break but as you sit with it longer and think of them the way they wish to be seen it becomes quite easy.
“Could it not further confuse young lesbians and make some wonder if their sexual preferences and possibly tomboyish attitude also means they are a ‘he’?”
First an aside, this argument fails in a number of ways. Unbeknownst to many, some lesbians prefer he/him pronouns as well. Where is the outrage about that? People who make this argument don’t really give two shits about lesbians. They just hate transgendered people and they’re willing to position any group against them they can. They are grasping at straws because their argument is lacking.
Another problem with this line of thought is it assumes that lesbians are simply pawns without an independent identity. It denies lesbians agency in their life. Proponents of this argument seem to think someone somewhere first decided to be trans out of a malicious desire for control and then fooled others into joining. This isn’t Scientology.
Keep in mind that sexual attraction and gender are two different things. Trans folk claim a different gender because they are that gender. Some will first wonder if they might be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or any other number of sexual orientations. It can be difficult to figure one of these things out, much less both simultaneously. We shouldn’t be surprised to see these things happen in progression.
This argument is also belittling to people who are experimenting with their gender and sexuality. If any lesbian decides that their attraction to females is a result of their desire to be a male then naysayers automatically claim they are confused. Former lesbians now trans, by their logic, don’t know what they are talking about and are victims of the trans agenda (whatever that is). It’s a page straight outta the book of misogyny to say that these people’s claims about themselves don’t matter, that they are not to be believed, and are misinformed or just plain stupid. They are feigning concern for lesbians while simultaneously calling them stupid. We are not the saviors for lesbians or trans folk, we are their allies and we need to listen to what they say about their identity and sexual orientation.
Plus, the lesbian argument seeks to impose limits not expand choices. When people are trying to figure out who they are and what they want to be, they should have all the options possible. Those who would deny them these choices really just want control. These arguments are levied by people that think being a lesbian is less objectionable than being a transperson so they try to corral people into their belief system. They are not interested in helping anyone learn about themselves or determine their own destiny.
Think about your own life, chances are if you lived it how other people thought you should you would likely be miserable. Our autonomy is important to us and we should extend that wonderful gift/right to others as much as we can as an act of compassion.
One last note, let us not forget that it’s not just “young lesbians” who are testing the waters but women of all ages come to question their sexuality and/or gender at different times throughout their lives. The choice about how to live authentically is not exclusive to the young.
“But what about us, the people who also inhabit this world? What about our recognition, springing from millennia of observation, that if you give birth you are a mother, not a father? What about our understanding that if you produce sperm and impregnate someone – as Bruce Jenner did – then you are a man, not a woman?”
Obviously, these folks have given up on disputing gender so they are looking to chip away at biology. So let’s look at a millennia of observation from which our recognition should spring.
For instance, before white folks came to this continent many indigenous cultures had members who weren’t recognized as women or men (India still does). Each tribe had its own name for its special gender. There’s ample evidence here that producing sperm and menstruating were not the only means to determine gender. Instead of anglosaxons adopting and finding merit in these cultures we, for all intents and purposes, eradicated them. It’s the same thing some folks want to do to transgendered people today by denying them recognition. They would rather trans folk not exist so their erroneous world view remains unchallenged.
In this rush to claim biology as the ultimate trump card we often forget that there are many other biological ways of being that we crush out of existence or to which we are oblivious. Virtually any child that is born as outwardly intersexed (variations in sex characteristics that aren’t what we think of as male or female) is generally surgically altered soon after birth. This is if it’s noticed, some genitalia variances don’t show up until years later. Some folks die without ever knowing. In those situations, a medical examiner finds out upon performing an autopsy.
For our purposes though, let’s say a surgeon somewhere has deleted one aspect of genitalia from a intersex individual and then let’s look at the argument from biology.
Imagine a person was born with intersex genitalia and had their female genitalia removed at birth and were left with what was present of a penis and raised as a boy. Are they male? If not then we are saying that genitals alone do not determine biological gender. If we say they are a male then we have to acknowledge that they are male because they were surgically altered just as a transman could be if they choose.
Perhaps we could stake out a middle ground to sidestep this conundrum and say they are neither male nor female. If that is the case then our rigid reliance on a gender dichotomy is superfluous.
Any option we take of the three listed above renders our idea of a gender binary moot. Some men never produce sperm, some women are incapable of having children. Men and women have varying physiologies and the difference between penis and vagina is a gradient not an either or proposition. There are all types of interesex folks who have a wonderful blend of physical traits rendering the definition of biological man or woman neither here nor there.
Additionally, only a few among us know what our chromosomes are. There are people who have lived their whole lives thinking they are male XY or female XX when the truth is something more complex and wonderful than they could have imagined. Some folks who were born as women have XY chromosomes, some males have two “female” chromosomes are XXY, folks who are intersex can have mosaic genetics which means some of their cells have XX chromosomes and some have XY chromosomes (How cool is that?).
Unless, we end up with a disease that requires our chromosomes to be checked, most of us go our whole lives thinking we are just XX or XY. There is such a thing as biology but it does not speak in the stark terms that we do.
So, as was asked initially, what about us? What do we say from a millennia of cultural and biological observations? Do we heed their lesson and honor the fact that people come in a wonderful tapestry of shapes, forms, and genders or do we keep yelling with our eyes closed and our fingers in our ears because doing otherwise makes us uncomfortable? I know what compassion would have us do.
If people like Elliot can finally live the life they feel they have been destined to live and it upsets other folks then I think that says more about those other folks than it does Elliot or his allies.
The editors article, unfortunately, reads like one big temper tantrum. Our refusal to call someone how they want to be called won’t stop them from identifying that way. It will however make us look like the assholes we are when we continually violate someone’s boundaries because of our own selfish viewpoint.