By Saswat Pattanayak
Houghton University has fired two employees (Raegan Zelaya and Shua Wilmot) because they included their pronouns in emails.
This should not come as surprising and yet it does, enough to merit a New York Times headline. For the longest time, one unresolved and deeply unsettling crisis relating to LGBTQ peoples is the alacrity with which Trans community has been rendered disposable. The university above has drawn special flak possibly because of its overt religious overtones – it is pronouncedly a Christian college. But it would be erroneous to suggest the controversy over pronouns has scant presence elsewhere. Indeed, quite the contrary.
Objections to pronouns align with the larger goal for nurturing of an environment which aims to exclude trans people, and one that certainly objects to any trans-visibility, let alone celebration. At the same time, the contrary – a culture of pronouns – does not by itself mean a safe space for Trans people. It is complicated by a flawed assumption that pronouns lend themselves to fostering a tolerant climate. The reality lies somewhere between the extremes.
What, then are the extreme positions?
On the face of it, rightwing TV journalists have focused so much on CRT and pronouns and on the “who is a woman” debate that it automatically follows that the mere presence or even acceptance of a gender-fluid identity, critical race discussions, and diverse pronouns usage becomes symbolic of a radical departure from the traditions. This extreme position leads to celebration of any and every affirming symbolisms as above. Come June and New York City will be celebrating Pride Month with extraordinary enthusiasm by citing how it embraces pronouns.
On the other extreme of the debate, the vociferous demands to obliterate trans players from competitive sports. This is one area where even many liberal feminists, celebrities and sports superstars agree – their casual reference is towards an occasional winner who turns out to be a Trans person, but that reference is almost always laced with an obvious transphobia which to make matters worse, they refuse to even acknowledge.
Transphobia is an absolutely unique political phenomenon, one that unites rabid reactionaries with progressive feminists. Like Islamophobia or xenophobia, here too, the ones who harbor it refuse to take cognizance of their complicity in spreading the same. For instance what would possibly be common between Tucker Carlson and Martina Navratilova – both espousing otherwise radically opposite political views?
Navratilova says “I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her.” It is a considered point but as a gay rights campaigner who has herself faced numerous obstacles along her journey to greatness, Martina also knows well that struggles involving socio-personal identities in face of a hostile status quo usually involve a vulnerability that is not measured or quantifiable. A Trans person does not ask for only their pronouns to be respected. They ask for their entire existence as a being – social, cultural, sexual – to be recognized. Most Trans people are not competing in the Olympics. Indeed, most of them are not even athletes. But those who are athletes wish to be treated as fully as those among them who are artists or scientists. Not long ago (or even now), powerful entities within major universities used to consider women as unfit to become scientists, after all. The need for full recognition is intrinsic to personal aspirations and recognition of Trans persons cannot simply be reduced to acceptance of their pronouns.
Indeed, many liberals (famously JK Rowling) are absolutely comfortable with pronouns in a virtual space, but absolutely uncomfortable with full manifestations of personhoods of Trans people in real life. “If someone has been biologically male for many years….” they don’t automatically earn rights in certain domains, goes the argument. But who is to decide what those domains are going to be? And while the debate is ongoing, why even pretend that we have created a safe space for Trans people merely because we have accepted the climate of pronouns? This is a question for the liberal thinkers to think about.
For the conservatives of course, the dilemma is nonexistent. Their views have been largely regressive not just towards the Trans people, or towards the LGBTQIA, but even towards women at large (thanks to timely reminders from the reproductive justice movements). Resolving or even addressing Transphobia at this juncture is mostly a liberal concern given that they seem to equate its absence with their embracing of pronouns culture. That is a dangerous misgiving, and a clear position on part of liberals is far more consequential for Trans people’s struggle for visibility. They have no illusions regarding those who oppose pronouns; it is those who consider pronouns as be-all and end-all, that they continue to remain wary of.