What’s in a Pronoun?

David French wrote this yesterday in National Review Online:

When I use a male pronoun to describe Chelsea Manning, I’m not trolling. I’m not being a jerk. I’m not trying to make anyone angry. I’m simply telling the truth. I’m reflecting biological reality, and I’m referring to the created order as outlined in Genesis 1 — “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

I usually agree with French, and I agree with his main point, which is that people should not be forced to use words in ways they do not agree with. But I disagree with him on the particular case of whether masculine or feminine pronouns should be used to describe Chelsea Manning.

French’s insistence on using masculine pronouns to describe Manning is based on his belief that using feminine pronouns would be equivalent to affirming that Manning is, in fact, a woman. While I think he is correct in saying that Chelsea Manning is not truly a woman, I do not have a problem with using feminine pronouns to describe her. We use pronouns for the sake of convenience, rather than for the sake of precision. If I were in a room with a trans woman who looks and talks like a woman, then it would be odd for me to refer to her as “he” or “him.”

What do I express when I refer to a transgender woman by the feminine pronoun? As far as I’m concerned, all I’m expressing is that “she” is more intuitively descriptive of the person than is “he.” What I am not expressing is that the person in question has two X chromosomes and a vagina.

Chelsea Manning

One difference you may notice between my terminology and French’s is that I use “masculine” and “feminine” pronouns, rather than “male” or “female” pronouns. This is because I do not think that gendered pronouns necessarily indicate the biological sex of their antecedents. Rather, they indicate masculinity or femininity. Chelsea Manning is feminine enough that it seems reasonable to describe her with feminine pronouns.

This does not extend to people who claim to be neither male nor female, so-called non-binary folks who wish to be addressed by singular “they” or a made-up word (like ze, hir, per, etc.). Using a term like “they” in abnormal ways violates the purpose of pronouns, which are supposed to be convenient. Singular “they” raises a whole host of grammatical issues that I don’t know how to resolve (e.g. “they is” or “they are”?). And adding artificial pronouns into the language doesn’t seem to be working either, since there’s no consensus on which pronoun should be the gender-neutral pronoun, and it doesn’t seem like most people are quick to pick up any of the proposed pronouns.

Nor does it extend to trans people who don’t “present” as the gender with which they identify. For instance, Riley Dennis is a YouTuber who is male, but claims to be a woman (and a lesbian, for that matter). Here is a picture:

Riley Dennis

Basically all Dennis has done to “present” as a woman is put on eyeliner and grow his hair. He has undergone no hormone treatment. Note the prominent Adam’s apple. As such, I would probably not refer to him as “she.” Contrast this with another transgender YouTuber, Blaire White:

blaire white
Blaire White

I would use feminine pronouns for White without a problem, because most of the features of her appearance are characteristic of women.

As I see it, there are two distinct moral claims people make relating to transgender people. The first is that we should try to accommodate people with gender dysphoria, the psychological disorder with which transgender people struggle. The second is that gender is either entirely socially constructed or entirely subjective, and that you must therefore treat people in accordance with their claimed identity, no questions asked. The first claim is reasonable. And I think using pronouns that roughly correspond to the way people appear is one way we can accommodate people with gender dysphoria who have decided to transition, especially since we often will not be able to tell if a person is transgender. The second claim, however, is less concerned with the well-being of trans people than with undermining our longstanding beliefs about sex and gender. This is why I am willing to use feminine pronouns for White and Manning, but would probably not do so for Dennis.


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