In early December, Merriam-Webster named “they” the 2019 Word of the Year. Anyone who spends time on a university campus was not surprised by their choice: personal pronouns are having a moment. At my own university, one can choose to have their personal pronouns displayed in the public directory: choices include “they/them” and “ze/hir.” For students, these selected pronouns also appear on class rosters. Speakers at meetings and on panels often introduce themselves as “Jane Doe, she/her.”
In many classes, instructors insert their pronouns alongside their contact information and office hours atop their syllabus and encourage students to include pronouns when introducing themselves to the class. Email signatures contain senders’ pronouns, as do department faculty profiles. In my academic discipline, pronouns appear on attendees’ name tags at national conferences and tuned-in scholars list their pronouns in their Twitter profiles.
In short, in higher education, pronouns are everywhere.
Pronouns are, of course, just one part of the larger transgender movement, and that movement itself finds an accommodating home on college campuses. Scholars interested in transgender studies (or trans* studies, as it’s sometimes written) can publish in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly or present at the Queer and Trans Studies Conference. Students with similar interests can read The Transgender Studies Reader or take classes such as Introduction to Queer and Trans* Sports Studies or Intro to Transgender Literature.
But within this larger movement, pronouns have come to represent more than just lexical items. Rather, they’ve transformed into ideological shorthand that signals to one’s audience support for transgender rights, that one is on the “right” side of history. Their ubiquity renders them a powerful cudgel to beat down any dissenters. If stating one’s pronouns has become unquestioned dogma, then it follows the omission of these statements signals something too: perhaps a touch of heterodoxy, a public confession that one may not toe the acceptable party line.
In almost every public university setting, I keep my feelings about transgender issues to myself. This seems a wise course: at my own university I have never heard the trans agenda questioned or challenged. After all, who wants to expose oneself to the charges of being a TERF? But the trans agenda has real problems: biological males like Rachel McKinnon should not compete against female athletes, regardless of their self-identification, and the female athlete of the year should not be male.
More broadly, feminists who harped on male privilege all those years now appear conspicuously quiet: how strong could “male privilege” really be if it can be erased with lipstick, heels, and “she/her” pronouns? I have yet to hear it explained how reducing women—that is, human beings born with female reproductive organs—to the shallowest of external gender markers is not misogynistic. Do trans activists believe, for example, that women were denied the vote because they “identified” as female? These questions themselves have become transphobic; women who dare ask them be damned.
I was recently on a panel at my university in which the pernicious power of pronouns became evident to me. The first panelist introduced himself and, dutifully, stated his pronouns. The second and third did the same, as I became increasingly uncomfortable: if I stated my pronouns, I would be aligning myself with a political agenda with which I have serious disagreements. But on the other hand, if I left my pronouns out, I would be making my dissent public—a risky proposition, as Martina Navratilova and J.K. Rowling have found.
As I looked out at the crowded audience, it dawned on me that “stating one’s pronouns” has become an ideological whip cracked by activists and other enablers to keep the cis-gendered masses in check. While barely lifting a finger, it both polices language and exposes any who fail to pledge allegiance to the trans agenda. Clever, really. My panel story has a happy ending: the panelist who spoke before me left out her pronouns as well, which granted me permission to do the same.
Even in less performative settings, such as department faculty profiles, the lack of pronouns can expose one to quiet charges of transphobia, especially if all other profiles contain them. Two recent incidents at my university demonstrate this phenomenon. A colleague in another department discovered, by chance, that his pronouns had been surreptitiously added to his website faculty profile, next to his name. This had been implemented without his knowledge or permission, and he realized the addition graced every profile. He contacted the party in charge of maintaining the website, a colleague, and asked for his pronouns to be removed.
His colleague informed him that the department had been making efforts at inclusivity for queer and trans students and that the addition of pronouns seemed an inclusive gesture. In effect, all faculty members had had a certain ideology ascribed to them without their consent. (My colleague later pointed out how presumptuous it was for them to assume his gender identity—doesn’t this violate the trans ethos?) Only after a second email was his pronouns, as well as those of other faculty members, removed.
In the second instance, all members of the campus community had their pronouns added to their online directory entry. This was undertaken with a bit more consent: the pronouns that were added had been chosen by the individuals themselves, in the “personal information” section of their university accounts. (The question, fortunately, can be left blank.) But this seems to me almost as egregious as publicly posting one’s religion, also a question under the “personal information” section. The selection of pronouns represents a decided political statement, and by making this information available and searchable, one can no longer veil their dissent. Protestations, as in the case of my colleague, can be framed as indictments: who doesn’t support members of the queer and trans community? In a simple request to respect his privacy and autonomy, my friend had no choice but to reveal his ideological hand.
I do not begrudge anyone the right to choose their own name and pronouns, although in a large classroom, it can get confusing. Everyone is entitled to basic respect. And in my experience, mercurial pronominal preferences—he/him one week, she/her the next— seem mostly the purview of the younger generation, and every generation is entitled to their youthful foibles. I predict the obsession in academia with all things trans will fizzle out over the next ten years, and that many of the movement’s most strident followers will quietly disown their support.
A movement that fails to engage with serious, legitimate questions, as the Tuvel Affair exposed, surely cannot have a long shelf life. But what worries me is how something so seemingly innocuous and inconsequential as a pronoun can be employed as a tool of ideological policing. It creeps in; people adopt it in good faith. After all, as the activists tell us, stating one’s pronouns provides more inclusive spaces for transgendered people. And yet these adoptions occur without much thought of consequences and contribute to the increasing fear of dissent on university campuses. Such a little thing, a pronoun; but such a chilling impact.