Opinion | Stop only asking people to respect pronouns

By Thomas Riley, Staff Columnist

The dominant rhetoric in so-called progressive circles when discussing trans identities is one of courtesy and tolerance. A quick search on Twitter will reveal hundreds of users imploring their peers to respect the pronouns of trans people. These online circles litter the site with overused platitudes such as “You don’t have to understand, just respect them!”

This is not a bad form of activism in the short term — it is of course far better to push for respect than to submit to intolerance — but asking only for respect will cause far greater harm in the long term. By allowing this incomplete rhetoric to continue, the trans rights movement will find its place in a graveyard among doomed past efforts toward social justice killed by liberalism’s unrelenting fetishism of civility and courtesy.

Asking only that people respect someone’s pronouns or identity immediately fails to advance a nuanced awareness of gender and how it operates on both a personal and political level. Anyone can respect an identity with the same degree of effort as memorizing a nickname, but understanding an identity and recognizing it as an inseparable part of a person demands more.

Nobody simply respects the identity of a cisgender person. A cis, gender-conforming boy is a boy, and nobody asks questions about it. There is no need to “respect” their gender identity because it is simply understood as fact and intrinsic to their person. 

Transgender identities are often not seen in this same way because liberal progressives have made little effort to push for a more radical acceptance. The problem with respect is that people can take it away on a whim, especially when a trans person doesn’t behave in a socially acceptable way.

Actor Ezra Miller, arrested several times in the past few years on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to grooming, became a subject of interest in the question of respecting people’s pronouns if they are not a respectable person. Last week, Amber McLaughlin, the first openly transgender person sentenced to death in the U.S., also generated discourse online about respecting her identity. Each incident led to some claiming it is okay to misgender transgender criminals.

Neither of these individuals deserve any defense for their actions, but the discourse around them shows that gender is only ever used as a weapon against transgender people. No matter how abhorrent the crime or disrespectful the behavior, a cisgender person will never be misgendered as a result of their actions because it is inherent to them and not something external to be respected.

Transgender people’s identities, on the other hand, are often seen as a cloak merely covering the real person underneath. When people choose to simply respect someone’s identity without truly understanding it, it makes it far easier for them to rip off the cloak whenever they see fit. They never saw trans people as their actual gender — they were just acting nice to someone in weird clothing.

This is the crucial issue that liberal advocates cannot adequately address. Genuine trans acceptance is radical, and modern liberalism is entirely non-radical. Gender queerness is a political identity — one that rejects the upheld cis binary — while Democratic progressives form a political entity that refuses to challenge the status quo. 

Respect is the language of the moderate who values compromise over change, who allows for a conservative social order masked by a liberal politeness, and who will place civility in politics above everything else.

Language is a powerful tool, and we can use it radically. Part of the solution to radical trans acceptance is to push that gender identity is a fact and unquestionable, not just something to be respected. If we accept wholeheartedly that transgender people are the gender with which they identify, why should we still phrase it as something to respect? 

We believe wholeheartedly that the world is round — I hope — but would you ask a flat-earther to respect that the earth is round? Surely not! You might call them an idiot and wonder incredulously how anyone could believe such a thing.

Claiming the earth is round is no longer a radical suggestion, but at one point it was. Flat-earthers are now a fringe laughing stock as a result of both a plethora of scientific investigation proving them wrong and the language used in discussions of the shape of the earth.

This is the key to radical language. Never ask for respect — demand understanding and change. Anyone who genuinely believes in the validity of genderqueer identity would not seek merely for the begrudging tolerance of bigots. The marketplace of ideas fails the transgender community every day — it is time for a hostile takeover.

Of course, patience and kindness are always important virtues when discussing topics of gender and acceptance. The most important thing is to never let the advocacy end at respect — if you can understand it, so can they.

It’s time to be more radical about accepting trans identities. Don’t let political civility get in the way of pursuing meaningful change. Trans people deserve more than just respect — they deserve a world that understands gender beyond a cis binary. 

Thomas Riley primarily writes social satire and stories about politics and philosophy. Write to them at [email protected]