“Misgendering” and Harassment

It seems to me that the issue of pronoun usage for transgender people hinges on the definition of “harassment.” Advocates for requiring the use of preferred pronouns assert that to “misgender” people (i.e. use pronouns other than their preferred ones) is to harass them. This line of argument isn’t entirely devoid of merit. I can imagine someone attempting to belittle or annoy a transgender person by loudly and obnoxiously using his non-preferred pronouns as often as possible. But not all instances of “misgendering” are of this deliberate, intentionally provocative sort. In many, if not most, instances, those using the non-preferred pronouns are merely using the words that they think are correct. There is no ill intent.

So, then, what is harassment? Does it require ill intent? Or does it depend solely on the feelings of the person who claims to be harassed?

Harassment certainly requires something more than hurt feelings on the part of the offended party. There’s no reason for us to give more power to the overly sensitive, which is what we would accomplish by making harassment all about the victim’s feelings. If I’m a neurotic crybaby who gets mortally offended whenever someone speaks to me in what I deem to be an unfriendly tone, that’s my problem, not yours. Something more is required. Intent sounds like it might be that something.

But I can think of examples of harassment in which there is no ill intent. Some cases of sexual harassment are like this. If a man makes repeated unwanted advances toward a woman, and she tells him to stop, he might not intend to make her uncomfortable or intimidate her, but he is still ignoring her wishes. The man can reasonably be expected to stop making advances after being told to do so. If he’s too clueless to figure out that’s what he should do, then that’s his problem; he has only himself to blame if he’s fired. We can call this negligence.

Is this example analogous to someone who wants others to use his preferred pronouns? Coworkers might repeatedly use the non-preferred pronouns to describe him, and he might tell them to stop. Can those coworkers reasonably be expected to comply in the same way as the man in the above example?

I don’t think they can.

Whereas it’s pretty straightforward to stop making sexual advances towards someone, pronoun use is not. If you want to avoid using a person’s non-preferred pronouns, then you must either use their preferred pronouns or refrain from using pronouns to describe them at all. Constant use of a person’s name instead of pronouns is somewhat awkward (try it for a little while). And people have reasonable objections to the use of preferred pronouns. Some hold that to refer to a transgender woman as “she” would be to tacitly affirm that that person is a woman, which they do not wish to do.

The fact is that this is a problem without a simple solution. I feel sorry for transgender people who feel bad when people use their non-preferred pronouns. I’d like it if they didn’t have to feel bad. But requiring other people either to violate their consciences or to awkwardly modify their speech is not a good solution to the problem. All it does is create more problems.

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