He/She/They/Ze

By Jonathan Suarez

Robin Dembroff and Daniel Wodak wrote a seminal article on the ethics of utilizing gender specific pronouns. Their article titled “He/She/They/Ze” discusses two claims. The first they term the “Moderate Claim”. The Moderate Claim can be stated as follows, “We have a duty not to use binary gender-specific pronouns to refer to genderqueer individuals” (372). The second claim, which they term the “Radical Claim”, is stated as follows “We have a moral duty not to use gender-specific pronouns to render to anyone, regardless of their gender identity” (372).

The Moderate Claim

The authors seek to defend the Moderate Claim by way of analogy. We can formulate the argument as follows. (I) If we have a duty not to misgender transgender individuals by using an incorrect pronoun, then we have a duty not use binary gender-specific pronouns on genderqueer individuals; (II) we have a duty not to misgender transgender individuals by using an incorrect pronoun; Thus, (C1) we have a duty not use binary gender-specific pronouns on genderqueer individuals. The authors defend this argument by presenting reasons for believing (II) and demonstrating that they apply similarly in cases were the individual being misgender identifies as genderqueer.

There are some preliminary details we need to establish before diving into the argument itself. First, the term genderqueer maybe unclear to some. Genderqueer is utilized as an umbrella term for individuals who’s gender identity does not conform to conventional gender distinctions but identifies with both, neither, or some combinations of male and female genders. Some genderqueer individuals, such as people who identify as bi-gender, would not necessarily be misgendered if someone referred to them using a binary gender specific pronoun. In the arguments the authors are discussing genderqueer individuals who would be misgendered by such pronouns. Furthermore, the term transgender here refers to an individual who identifies as a gender that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.

 

One of the reasons considered is disrespect. To refer to a transgender individual by an incorrect pronoun is disrespectful. If one refers to a transgender woman as “he”, then one is implying that their gender identity is male. Though not discussed in depth by the authors, one might consider the reason as follows. First, we must suppose that individuals have a right to choose their gender identity. This is fairly uncontroversial depending on the level of exposure individuals have to gender theory. For individuals who have chosen a gender identity that exist beyond the hetero-normative expectation placed on them, there is a specific lived-experience attached to this choice. Not always, but typically these individuals have experienced repeated instances of being denied their identity. This means each instance of being denied their identity constitutes a greater harm to them as opposed to someone who is only mistakenly denied their identity on an irregular basis. Furthermore, if someone knowingly misgenders them, then this seems to constitute a conscious denial of their right to choose their gender. 

The authors consider other reasons in defense of the Moderate Claim such as access to resources, intelligibility, and others. But an exploration of these themes is beyond the scope of this format.

The Radical Claim

One of the reasoning behind why someone may support the Moderate Claim but deny the Radical Claim is what the authors term the Affirmation Duty. Essentially, we typically believe that we have a moral duty to affirm people’s gender identities. This would support the moderate Moderate Claim but poses a problem for the Radical Claim. Since the Radical Claim requires the utilization of non gender-specific pronouns, we would be unable to affirm the gender identity of individuals who identify with male or female genders, which may pose a specific problem for individuals who are transgender. By prohibiting the use of pronouns like “she” or “he” we are in turn eliminating a way in which such individuals might have their identities affirmed. 

Since the Radical Claim requires the utilization of non gender-specific pronouns, we would be unable to affirm the gender identity of individuals who identify with male or female genders, which may pose a specific problem for individuals who are transgender.

The authors distinguish between Affirmation and Denial. Rather than perceiving our duty to others as an affirmation of their identity, we may reformulate the relevant moral norm as a negative duty to not deny their identity. The distinction between Affirmation and Denial seems small but it does pose an interesting question to the duty we owe to each other. The authors defend the Denial claim and, thus, are able to maintain the compatibility of the Moderate claim with the Radical claim.

Conclusion

This article poses a series of interesting questions that we should deliberate on as we try to delineate the duties we have to each other. The scope of the arguments posed in this piece are impressive to say the least and far exceed the attention this post has afforded them. The nature of this format in some way prohibits an in depth discussion on the topic. However, I hope to have illustrated a minuscule representation of the interesting themes presented by the authors and will hopefully serve as an incentive to read the original piece. 

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