The Issue with Misgendering

“Trans rights are the civil rights issues of our time” -Joe Biden (qtd Puar, 2015)

The Trans PULSE Project is a research study of social determinants of health among trans people in Peterson’s province of Ontario. According to this study, trans people face various forms of transphobia, such as “hate crimes, structural barriers to inclusion in institutional settings, to interpersonal discrimination” (Bauer and Scheim, 2015, p. 2).

One example of this lack of inclusion or recognition is that 58% of trans people were unable to get academic transcripts with their correct name or pronouns, while 31% of those who changed legal names and lived genders have not changes sex designations on any legal ID (Bauer and Scheim, 2015, p. 3). Trans people thus experience widespread stigma, limited access to opportunities, and face challenges with their overall acceptance in society (McLemore, 2015).

“Trans people put themselves at risk just for existing in the world as themselves… The very least people can do is use the correct pronoun.” (Paquette, 2016).

Jordan Peterson insists that “at most, [gender neutral/nonbinary gender identities are] a politically motivated and ill-informed opinion” (Peterson, 27 September 2016). As an act of defiance against this ‘opinion’, he has misgendered his colleague, non-binary physics professor AW Peet who goes by the pronoun ‘they’, on several occasions: “The mere fact that professor Peet would like to be addressed by a particular pronoun does not mean that I am required to address him by that pronoun. That doesn’t mean that I deny his existence…I reserve the right to use my own language.” (Off, 2016)

Recognition is intimately tied to identity, and the understanding and validation of one’s self (Taylor, 1992), that helps signify meaningful membership and participation in social life. Non- or mis-recognition through can have intimately harmful physiological and psychological effects.

Misgendering includes, but is not limited to, the misclassification of one’s gender identity through the use of an incorrect gender pronoun to refer to someone (McLemore, 2015), that does not correctly reflect the gender with which they identify (Oxford Dictionary). Changing one’s pronouns are “not a personal decision… [they are] a reflection of one’s gender identity” (Koranne and Kay, 2016).

A psychological study exploring the affective and psychologically disruptive effects of misgendering on trans- and non-binary folk found that the highest proportion (32.8%) of participants reported experiencing misgendering, and feeling very stigmatized when this occurred (McLemore, 2015). Misgendering produces negative cognitive dissonance effects that are especially pronounced for oppressed groups (Bunch, 2013), that has profound negative effects on mental health (McLemore, 2015).

Many transgender individuals continue to be misgendered even after their tragic passing, as in the case of Chelsea Manning (Stryker and Currah, 2014). Even more so, when it is enacted on purpose, (as in Peterson’s quote above), it is an act of symbolic and discursive violence against an already- marginalized population.

The reason why so many people have gotten worked up around this issue, both for and against the simple request to be referred to by the pronoun “they”, boils down to power differentials (Paquette, 2016). Peterson’s ridicule of and refusal to recognize gender-neutral pronouns implicitly asserts the following: “I don’t respect you, I know better than you, you do not exist, you only exist on my terms, I tell you who you are.” (Paquette, 2016).

While the understanding of the importance of gender-neutral pronouns is on the rise, people like Peterson still continue to insist against it as a form of inclusion. If the University of Tennessee can provide a guide to gender-neutral pronouns on their website (Holloway, 2016) with the aim to “be a diverse and inclusive campus and to ensure that everyone feels welcome, accepted, and respected”, similarly positioned academics like Peterson can surely learn to adapt to changing social norms.

Adopting people’s stated pronouns is ultimately a social justice issue, and a powerful act of respect and inclusion (Paquette, 2016) that reinstates the political agency of trans and non-binary people, allowing for critique and radical transformation of our social order (Bunch, 2013). It is “not the place of cis people [like Peterson] to tell gender non-conforming folks” (Koranne and Kay, 2016) how they should identify.

In the next section, we will highlight how the issue with Peterson’s comments are not just what he is saying, but the privilege and authoritative power from which he is saying them. Read more to find out how Peterson’s positionality affects his views. 

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Sources

Bauer GR, Scheim AI, for the Trans PULSE Project Team. Transgender People in Ontario, Canada: Statistics to Inform Human Rights Policy. London, ON. 1 June 2015.

Holloway, K. (2016, February 10). “He” or “she” doesn’t work for everyone: Why “misgendering” matters. Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2016/02/10/gender_neutral_pronouns_partner/

Koranne, S. & Kay, M. (2016, October 18). Peterson’s Transphobia—It’s Not Just Words: Free speech is not the same as hate speech. The Strand. Retrieved from http://thestrand.ca/petersons-transphobia-its-not-just-words-free-speech-is-not-the-same-as-hate-speech/

McLemore, K. A. (2015). Experiences with misgendering: Identity misclassification of transgender spectrum individuals. Self and Identity, 14(1), 51-74.

Paquette, J. (2016, November 28). Why ‘they’ matters. CBC news. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/opinion/gender-pronouns-1.3866722

Puar, J. K. (2015). Bodies with new organs: Becoming trans, becoming disabled. Social Text, 33(3 124), 45-73.

Stryker, S., & Currah, P. (2014). Introduction. TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1(1-2), 1-18.

Taylor, C. (1992) The Politics of Recognition. Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, A. Gutmann (ed.), Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 25–73.

Image credit: http://alphabonesoup.tumblr.com/post/47701756403

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