Bill Jamieson: Transgender politics is a minefield

Edinburgh University's student union suggests saying you 'don't care' which pronoun is used is wrong
Edinburgh University's student union suggests saying you 'don't care' which pronoun is used is wrong
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Social introductions have become a minefield in a world that seems to need ‘pronoun badges’, writes Bill Jamieson.

Boy, don’t times change! But should that expression today not be “girl”? Or better still, to avoid offence, “Gender neutral, don’t times change”?

These days, it’s best not to assume anything, about anybody. For much about the world is now in flux – and in this instance, gender fluid.

Today there has been a surge in transgenderism – challenging the sex assigned at birth, a phenomenon virtually unremarked upon a decade or so ago. Last week, we learnt that Edinburgh University student union officials are to hand out pronoun badges to freshers so they know whether to refer to each other as “he”, “she” or “they”.

The move is intended to avoid any potential “misgendering” of non-binary or transgender students who may display the physical attributes of one gender, while associating more closely with another or none at all.

Pronoun badges are to be available throughout Welcome Week to avoid inadvertent misunderstanding or, worse still, offence and insult. The guide says making these assumptions can be “frustrating and harmful” for transgender on non-binary students, who may prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns.

Meanwhile, in the US, Ivy League Brown University has come under attack by activists over an article suggesting gender dysphoria (a state of disquiet or unhappiness with one’s biological sex or its usual gender role) was spreading among children and that teenagers who came out as transgender were more likely to have friends transitioning and were influenced by social media.

The article concluded that “social and peer contagion” was a plausible explanation for “cluster outbreaks” and a high number of cases where the majority of children in a friendship group became “transgender-identified”.

READ MORE: Edinburgh student union to hand out ‘gender badgers’ during freshers week

This was perceived as a slur on students undergoing transgendering. The university has now removed the research from its website. But academics have accused the university of bowing to pressure from activists. And it is seen as a further evidence of a retreat from free speech on campuses and a censorship of views that do not conform to the agenda of radical activists.

Caught up in this controversy has been Jordan Peterson, Canadian professor of psychology, whose book 12 Rules for Life has become an international best-seller. He spoke out against a bill in the Canadian parliament that added gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. Peterson criticised the legislation and was accused of “hate crime”.

Vancouver feminist Meghan Murphy opposed the bill from another direction, declaring that “gender is a product of patriarchy. Ideas around masculinity and femininity exist to naturalise men’s domination and women’s subordination ... Beyond misguided language there is the fact that we are very quickly pushing through legislation that conflicts with already established rights and protections for women and girls. Women’s spaces — including homeless shelters, transition houses, washrooms, and change rooms — exist to offer women protection from men ... This reality is often left unaddressed in conversations around gender identity.”

Thus, what might have seemed an innocuous area of social introduction, a matter of polite manners, has now become a minefield, with the careless wanderer liable to tread on an “inappropriate” word or phrase. The Edinburgh students’ guide advises that saying you “don’t care” which pronoun is used is offensive, as it “suggests that trans folks are silly for requesting that their pronouns be respected”.

Asking people about their “preferred” pronoun should also be avoided, as this can imply that pronouns are a mere preference rather than a necessity. Using the term “preferred” can also “isolate and alienate” transgender people, it says.

READ MORE: Vic Valentine: Why children should learn about trans people in school

The guide explains how as well as using the correct pronouns for fellow students when you meet them for the first time, so too must students ensure they are using the right pronouns for existing acquaintances.

Lest you think a comedian has wandered into Freshers Week from the Edinburgh Fringe, students are also warned that gender is “fluid” – so even if you have used a particular pronoun for someone in the past, this may not apply indefinitely. Little wonder this has given rise to all manner of ribald conjecture such as gender change for car insurance and access to women’s rest rooms for purposes other than nose-powdering.

So how should we now greet strangers – or indeed friends? The appropriate form of words on a Freshers Week introduction now is, “Hallo! I’m a ‘he’. Could you just remind me of your pronouns?” For those in a Freshers Week of yesteryear such a chat-up opening would probably have resulted in a smack in the face.

Were this only a question of changing social manners, such a development would scarcely be worthy of mention. But this is a complex field extending well beyond greeting and nomenclature.

In Canada, Washington State, and California, misgendering is punishable by law and can result in fines and/or jail time. Individual states and cities in the US have begun passing their own non-discrimination ordinances. In New York, a statute now includes transgender protections.

Estimating the number of people who describe themselves as transgender is fraught. Most do not choose surgery or undergo permanent gender change. And the narrowest definition – those whose binary gender identity is the opposite of their assigned sex – does not adequately cover the waterfront.

There are many behavioural types grouped, fairly or otherwise, under the ‘transgender’ umbrella. Other groups included in broader definitions of the term are those whose gender identities are not exclusively masculine or feminine but may, for example, be androgynous, bigender, pangender, agendar – sometimes referred to as third-gender people. The term transgender is also distinguished from intersex, a term that describes people born with physical sex characteristics “that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies”.

Thus, while recent studies suggest that the proportion of Americans who identify as transgender at 0.5 to 0.6 per cent, this still puts the estimated number of transgender Americans at approximately 1.4 million adults.

Former UK Government mental health tsar Natasha Devon has also weighed in, declaring that teachers should not refer to pupils as “girls” or “ladies” because it means they are “constantly reminded of their gender”.

Where might all this end? An intensifying war of identity politics? Regulatory and legal constraints to enforce speech and behavioural change? Once admonitions are laid down in a sphere as apparently innocuous as social introduction, to where else might obligatory correctness extend?

“Boy, have times changed” indeed. And we may be only at the beginning.