One of the most vexed questions for all of us writing about the sex’n’gender mess is that of “preferred pronouns”. Media guides from trans lobby groups and official regulators like IPSO—and also, unfortunately, the internal style guides of most mainstream media organisations—insist that journalists must refer to people as whichever sex they claim membership of, or even as they/them if those people deny having a sex or regard themselves as in some sense between the two. The earliest such style guides were written before the lunacy of catgender and emojiself, and their authors were quite clearly thinking of two specific situations: trans-identified people who pass pretty well as their “target” sex, meaning that references to them as their actual sex would feel jarring and might even endanger them; and people who passed less well but were clearly trying, meaning that any reference to their sex would seem unnecessarily “mean”.
Such concerns have motivated legal rulings, too. The European Court of Human Rights decided in 2002 that Christine Goodwin, a retired bus driver who had undergone genital surgery in 1990, should not have to be “outed” as a man on production of a birth certificate—in other words, that in certain rare circumstances a person’s sex should count as private information. That ruling led directly to the Gender Recognition Act, which went far further than required to satisfy the European court, becoming the first national law to permit people to change legal sex without any sort of surgery. Suddenly it was possible for someone who was legally a woman to have a penis, and for someone who was legally a man to give birth—and for information about those people’s actual sex to be treated as tantamount to a state secret.
Almost two decades later, in 2019, Judge Tayler decided in the first Forstater judgment that believing sex is binary, immutable and consequential is so bigoted as to be “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”. Tayler was heavily influenced by Maya Forstater’s accidental “misgendering” in a tweet of Gregor Murray, a bearded, suit-wearing Scottish councillor who identifies as “non-binary” and “uses they/them pronouns”. By this point, the bare mention of the sex of any person who did not want their sex mentioned seemed to have evolved into a heinous act, inexcusable no matter who the person was, or what the circumstances. Like Maya, Murray was a Scout leader; his complaint to the Scouts about her misgendering was finally accepted in December as having been vexatious. (Do click on that link to see a picture of Murray, and ask yourself whether, if your professional life had briefly crossed his, you would have remembered that he didn’t identify as a man—and note that even the Daily Mail bows down and calls him “they”.)
The fact is that information about people’s sex isn’t usually private—evolution has endowed us with the ability to see people’s sex almost instantaneously, even involuntarily (read more here, here, here, here, here, here and here—sorry for the long list, but the endless insistence that we cannot tell what sex people are without “genital inspections” seems to justify overkill). The only complications come when someone has taken a lot of cross-sex hormones and had a lot of facial surgery, and even then it’s not usually hard. An interesting wrinkle is that women seem to be on average better at spotting other people’s sex than men are. I wonder if this plays a (small) part in the way some men seem so impatient with women who say they don’t see transwomen as women—maybe some of those men are unusually bad at perceiving sex? There are, of course, plenty of other reasons for men’s refusal to understand women’s concerns on this issue, not least that many men prefer to exclude highly gender non-conforming men from the “man” category, and regard womanhood as “other”, the dumping ground for the not-fully-human.
Many people, including some who’ve read my book and say they agree with me about pretty much everything, have told me that they can’t see the harm in using preferred pronouns. They regard doing so as “polite” or “kind”, without thinking through what follows. Once you decide that you are willing to refer to a man as “woman”, “she” and “her” on demand, it becomes extremely difficult to explain why he shouldn’t be treated as a woman in every respect—permitted into women’s changing rooms, allowed to compete as a woman in sports and acknowledged as a lesbian if he is sexually attracted to women. You may have thought you were merely being courteous, but all of a sudden you find you’ve lost an argument you didn’t even know had started.
To see how this plays out, imagine that your work colleague, Paul, announces one day that he is coming out as a woman. An email goes round from HR telling everyone that Paul is now Pauline and goes by she/her. The precise legal status of this edict has not been tested in court. But there’s no doubt that employers can limit their employees’ free speech in various ways—they can tell you how to start and end phone-calls, give you a template for your email signature, insist that you use honorifics like Sir and Madam for customers, ban swearing in the workplace and so on. They can insist that you lie in certain circumstances, too (a restaurant could sack you for telling customers the food was awful, even if that was true).
The law on harassment doesn’t have much to do with whether something is objectively true, either. If you made repeated, unwanted remarks about a colleague’s veganism or obesity, say, factual accuracy would not be a defence. But what counts as harassment is highly context-specific, and a speech code that is much more onerous for one group than another might well be found unlawful, if tested in court. A general injunction against misgendering might be just such a speech code: harder to obey for, say, traditionalist Christians who believe that “male and female He created them”; radical feminists who regard gender identity as a product of the patriarchy; or people on the autistic spectrum, for whom a demand to refer to some people who are obviously members of one sex as members of the other might be impossible to understand, let alone comply with.
You can read an interesting analysis by barrister Naomi Cunningham of Legal Feminist and Sex Matters here. But until higher courts have heard enough cases to delineate the boundaries—or new laws are passed—the precise legal status of workplace injunctions against misgendering or demands to state your preferred pronouns will remain unclear.
Back to Paul. You decide you don’t want to make a fuss, or indeed that you don’t mind being polite, and start to refer to him as Pauline and she/her. But a couple of weeks later you go for an early-morning run, and start the work-day in the women’s shower room. (I’m assuming here you’re a woman; if not, imagine this scenario for one of your female colleagues.) And there’s Pauline. How are you going to complain to HR?
Perhaps you think you could avoid calling Pauline a man or “he”, while pointing out that “she” is male. But you’ll quickly find that anyone who objects to you calling Pauline a man will object to the word “male”, too. You’ll be left trying to make your point with some ridiculous formulation like “Pauline is a woman with a trans history”, which misstates the problem—your objection isn’t to Pauline’s transness, or history, it’s to Pauline’s sex—or having to say something that is, objectively speaking, far ruder than any reference to Pauline’s sex—something like “Pauline has male genitalia”.
One way you’ll sound “transphobic”; the other way you risk being dismissed as a pervert obsessed with what’s in other people’s pants. This despite the fact that you’re only mentioning transness or penises because the polite, ordinary words that name the half of humanity to which Pauline belongs have been taken away from you.
This is a specific example of a general problem: “preferred pronouns” automatically, and quickly, evolve into a general injunction against mentioning sex at all. It then becomes impossible to argue for sex-based rights in any way that cannot be dismissed as transphobic or prurient. Here’s another example. Nicola Williams of Fair Play For Women has been advocating to protect the female sports category for some years now. By force of personality and extreme persistence, she has managed to get invited to policy meetings with senior people in many sporting bodies. But when she starts to talk about “male sporting advantage”, she says, she’s generally told not to use the word “male” because it’s “offensive to trans people”.
But how can she explain why male people shouldn’t be in female sports without saying that they are male? It’s not because they are trans that they are excluded—a female trans person (“transman”) is welcome to compete as a woman unless she has taken testosterone. Banning all mention of maleness from the argument to exclude transwomen from women’s sport is like insisting that people who think adults should be excluded from under-18 events explain why without mentioning anyone’s age—or even age as a concept.
And once you’re not allowed to say “male”, the difference between Lia Thomas, say, or Emily Bridges, and the “other women” in the pool or on the track can be presented as just another physiological advantage, like Michael Phelps’s impressive wingspan or enormous feet. Being male is, of course, a physiological advantage—the one that the female category exists to exclude, just as the flyweight category in boxing exists to exclude heavyweights, and the under-18s category exists to exclude adults. The difference is that nobody is insisting that it is “polite” or “kind” to refer to heavy people as light ones, or to adults as minors, or that it is bigoted to refuse to do so.
If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that I sometimes used female pronouns for transwomen. The fact was that no mainstream publisher would even have considered a book that referred to people like Lili Elbe, April Ashley or Jan Morris as men. Frankly, managing to mention people’s pre-transition names and pronouns, and writing an entire section about Jonathan/Jessica Yaniv without using pronouns at all, were significant achievements.
But I didn’t use preferred pronouns out of mere pragmatism. I knew my words would be entering a public discourse that has already gone very wrong, and I wanted to be read by people outside my epistemic bubble. The fact is that those people mostly believe anyone who calls a man a man, when that man doesn’t want to be called a man, must be a bigot. I have really hated gender ideologues telling me what I’m allowed to think and say; I doubt anyone else likes it any better. As a writer it’s your job to convince people, not your right.
So calling the occasional transwoman “she” was a compromise, and one I’d make again if necessary. But accepting its necessity leaves me with only unpalatable options. The first is to rightly name people’s sex in my mind and in private conversation, but to be careful what I write and say in forums with rules against misgendering (a big part of why I wanted to write like this, directly for readers). The second option is to try to teach myself to use preferred pronouns in the privacy of my own head so as to make it less likely that I trip up in public. Both increase cognitive load: the first because of having to police my speech; the second because of having to check whether my arguments are correct even though I’m misdescribing people.
Many readers will know that Grace Lavery, a British transwoman who holds an associate professorship in the English department at UC Berkeley—demanded to debate me (and Julie Bindel) during a recent book-promotion trip, and then backed out. Before Lavery turned tail I had got agreement on a few ground rules from the planned moderator, Freddie Sayers—that I would avoid saying that “transwomen are men”, but also refuse to say that “transwomen are women”; and that I reserved the right to say that transwomen—and Lavery in particular—are male. I’m sure that these compromises would not have saved me from claims of unkindness, but they would at least have left me with the vocabulary I needed to say why transwomen don’t belong in female-only spaces.
All the same, I wasn’t relishing the prospect of a debate in which it might prove necessary to state to another person’s face the fact that he’s male when that is a fact he seems to expect everyone to lie about. That would have been perceived by many people as hurtful, and there are strong taboos against being hurtful—especially if you’re a woman. Worse, looking at a man and avoiding naming what you see, while continuing to speak fluently, imposes similar difficulties to the “Stroop colour and word test”, in which subjects are presented with words that name one colour but are printed in a different one (the word “red” printed in blue, for instance, as in the image below). Test subjects are supposed to say the printed colour out loud as quickly as they can, ignoring the meaning of the word—blue, in the previous example, not red. But the meaning of the word dominates the print colour, requiring a conscious override of automatic information-processing by the brain and causing a delay that is known as the “Stroop effect”.
Arguing for the continued protection of rights that are recognised under UK law, such as the right to provide single-sex changing rooms and showers, shouldn’t require such a degree of self-censoring, or the ability to use bizarre speech codes invented half a second ago in queer-studies departments. All the same, it seemed worth trying to have the conversation with Lavery, because we who think it’s important to be able to describe reality in situations where reality is material are currently on the back foot. Lavery got invited onto “Woman’s Hour” to talk about his book, after all, and I didn’t—even though he’s a man and I’m a woman, his book bombed and mine is a bestseller, and he is a relentless troll and I’m relentlessly reasonable.
(For the avoidance of doubt, of course I think Lavery is a man. The reason I think it is because it’s true, and that truth is self-evident if you look at him, or listen to him, or read what he writes. The fancy attempts to construct philosophical or quasi-philosophical arguments for why transwomen are women—a subject for a future newsletter—generally come down to claiming that they are in some sense “like” women. Well, then, can we please at least be allowed to say they’re not women when they’re not being at all like women—when for example they’re going on and on about their penises, as Lavery does?)
Of course it’s better to make good arguments in your head and then take care about the way they are worded than to make bad arguments in the first place because you’re trying not to even think the truth. For an example of the latter, consider this editorial from the LA Times about the Wi Spa affair, in which a “transwoman” (a man, in other words) stripped naked and went into the women’s section of a Korean spa, where many women and young girls were also entirely naked. According to eyewitness accounts, his penis was semi-erect as he lounged on the edge of a hot tub (he’s since been charged with indecent exposure). A woman complained to the reception staff, calling the man a man—which, incredibly, was regarded as a serious infraction.
This editorial doesn’t make a sensible argument, albeit couched in confusing language; it simply makes no sense. That’s clear when you edit it to replace gender-based pronouns by sex-based ones, and have the guts to state the consequences of what you’re advocating for. For example,
“The rights of transgender people to act in accordance with their gender identity is fortunately gaining acceptance in many corners—including at the U.S. Supreme Court, which just last week handed a major victory to transgender students seeking to use the schools bathrooms of their choice,”
“The rights of trans-identified people to force everyone else to pretend they are the sex they are not are being imposed by many authorities—including the U.S. Supreme Court, which just last week enabled students of one sex to force themselves into school bathrooms supposedly reserved for students of the other.”
“There is no doubt that Wi Spa did the right thing in defending the right of a transgender customer to be nude in the women’s area, even though the sight of male-appearing genitalia discomfited at least one female customer, who complained at the front desk,”
“This paper applauds Wi Spa for siding with a man who committed indecent exposure in front of naked women and girls in a space supposedly reserved for women and girls, even though the sight of a man’s genitalia discomfited at least one of the women who had just been victimised by him.”
Even when someone manages to write an excellent article with strong arguments, having to tweak to satisfy the pronoun police blunts its force. Take, for example, this by Julie Bindel about a new book called “Manhunt” by transwoman Gretchen Felker-Martin. I’m not sure what Julie’s personal policy on pronouns is (and I wouldn’t argue with anyone else’s personal policy anyway). But it’s irrelevant, because every mainstream publication mandates the use of preferred pronouns.
The article mostly avoids pronouns altogether, using “she” just once. But that still means that a feminist author who has spent her life campaigning on behalf of female victims of male violence is unable to put the full force of her words behind her description of what is going on here. This is a book written by a man who fantasises about rape and murder. A book with one scene in which a black woman’s uterus is cut from her while she still lives, and another in which J.K. Rowling is hunted down and burnt alive. Or, as Felker-Martin himself says: “Try my novel Manhunt. Trans dykes fall in love and f*** and murder TERFs, feral men maraud in the wilderness, JK Rowling dies, etc.”
Compare the impact of Julie’s article with another about a book by a transwoman, this time Lavery’s “Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis”. By Brendan O’Neill in spiked, it is far harder-hitting because the author is permitted to use the words necessary to describe the hatred and envy of women some men feel—not the fancy words, like misogyny, but the basic ones: he, him, man. “If male privilege means anything,” writes O’Neill, “surely it is the fact that a dude can publish a book whose front cover features a photo of him with a five o’clock shadow and an iffy wig and still demand that everyone refer to him as ‘Miss Lavery’.” Indeed.