When Pronouns Become the…Enemy? Analyzing Anti-Transgender Rhetoric
Okay, so it’s been quite a few years now since the far-right started demonizing trans people. It’s only been recently, however, as of this writing, since right-wing pundits in the US started ridiculing the use of pronouns—as though one could demonize an entire part of speech, one asks? Of course it’s not the use of a part of speech that everyone uses that is the target of course—it’s transgender people themselves, and more broadly anyone who affirms and supports nonbinary, transgender, and other LGBTQ+ folks. In this blog post I hope to unwrap a few layers of this attempted demonization and discuss the roots of it in toxic masculinity and moral and political disgusts as well as fascistic rhetoric.
My Background and Standpoint
As always, I’m coming at this from the perspective of a pastor’s kid from a right-leaning moderate white Evangelical denomination who went on to become a communication scholar focusing on stress, trauma, and conflict communication.
Ah, Those Moral Disgusts!
As I’ve written about before, part of my upbringing socialized me to see involvement in politics outside of the “culture wars” issues of abortion and against LGBTQ+ rights as tinged with moral disgust (I talked about this here, here, here, here, and here).
Because of that, it’s not surprising that I used to feel moral and political disgust about people on the left as well as the vulnerable populations Democrats tended to be allies for. After all, though my people claimed to be “moderate,” the felt distastes I was raised with were extremely right-leaning. (When I started to analyze these things, that was the best tell that we weren’t actually “independent” or “moderate” as some of the people I grew up with claimed.)
Quickly Defining Moral Disgusts
Let me unwrap this moral disgust thing briefly, in case you haven’t read my previous articles on moral and political disgusts that start here.
In short, neurobiological researchers have come to recognize that our senses of morality are held in the same part of the brain where the taste senses are. Which means that at a basic knee-jerk level, no matter what we say our ideas of morality are, the people and behaviors we find distasteful on a visceral level are those that we associate with immorality.
If you think you support a group but have a general distaste for supporting them, then, it’s likely your neurobiological senses of morality are different from what your words are claiming for you.
It Gets Extra-Complicated when Wrapped Up with Religious Language Around Morality…
The consequence of this on a basic level is that the religio-political teachings that I grew up with hijacked this natural association of morality with distaste to make it so that I would wrinkle my nose especially when people who didn’t fit the gender binary or heterosexual narratives came near, as well as those that supported them.
As I’ve discussed before, it took me way more years than I’d like to admit until I got to the point where I managed to retrain my neurobiology to see LGBTQ+ people as moral folks worthy of human rights and equality.
Which I can now see was simply getting to the point where I could truly love my LGBTQ+ neighbor as myself on a basic level.
How Research on Gender and Shame Can Help Unwrap the Knot
Here’s one of the big research findings that helped change my mind: it was one from Brene Brown’s research on shame and gender, as recorded in her book Daring Greatly. After a dozen years of interviews with people who identified as men and women, she identified a huge theme in the interviews from men that showed that the shame message for men related to being told they were like the slang term for the female genital organs.
Yup, that’s the same term a certain former president of the United States once said he liked to grab women by.
Oh Wait, Maybe It’s Not about God, but About…Male Shame??? Ooops.
So yeahhhh, reflecting on this research helped me realize that all of this furor over LGBTQ+ folks, and especially people who didn’t fit with the usual gender binaries, had nothing to do with some sort of healthy interpretation of anything.
What it was rooted in was the masculine shame message that transgressing any kind of perceived gender binary was to admit some sort of perceived weakness.
Which is incredibly ironic, considering how female genital organs manage to be strong enough to push out entire babies into the world on a regular basis.
(Male) Gender Shame as “God’s Will”? Nope, I Don’t Think So. Try Again
So yeah, looking at this more closely, I can see how the fear of transgender folks and non-binary folks and their allies is really based really really far from biblical views on gender, or healthy sorts of anything really.
On the contrary, it’s based in shame.
As Brown notes, shame isn’t a healthy, productive emotion. It’s the kind of emotion that keeps us beating up on ourselves and others in extremely unhealthy ways. As I discussed before, it’s very different from how she defines guilt and humiliation, both of which actually can be healthy emotions.
Ah, the Transgender Athletes Question!
It was reflecting on this research that helped me realize how unhealthy this culture wars logic was. This especially came home to me when combined with a discussion that my students had about whether transgender athletes should compete in male sports in one of my classrooms that helped me realize how very much this issue was rooted in masculine shame.
The discussion was raised by a student group mostly of young men who were trying to facilitate a reasonable discussion on the subject. It was a few years back, before the current spate of policies demonizing transgender folks had reached its current fever pitch, but I still I cautioned the students that it was their responsibility to keep it evidence-based before they started.
Hmmm, the Women in the Room Didn’t Actually Care
What became clear by the end of the rather heated discussion is that it was only male-identified folks in the room who really had an opinion on whether transgender women should be allowed to compete in women’s sports.
The men in the room were very passionately against this. But the women in the room really didn’t care.
The Men Very Much Did. Even Though They Normally Wouldn’t.
That was such an illuminating moment for me. It drove home to me that most of the people I knew who were really adamant about this particular transgender athletes issue were men.
Specifically, they were also usually men who weren’t really invested in women’s sports.
On to Bathroom Bill Rhetoric…
I also realized that the right-leaning women I knew who were concerned about trans issues were more concerned about the bathroom bill issue.
If you don’t know about bathroom bills, this was one of the first kinds of anti-trans legislation that right-leaning folks started to support. The right-wing rhetoric around this issue was based in the idea of men pretending to be transgender specifically to assault women in restrooms.
You know, much like the same rhetoric these days that argues that it’s LGBTQ+ folks who are “grooming” young people to be gay.
Ohhhh So the Common Thread Makes It Really Super Obvious that This is Shame-Based
So yeah, the common theme here is this: both of these kinds of anti-transgender legislation are based in rhetoric around men who become feminine (or who purportedly pretend to be) being threats. (Insert all the eyeroll emojis here)
Negative Projection, Too!
As though it weren’t predominantly white males-identifying-as-males who weren’t out there committing the most domestic violence and mass shootings and the rest of it. As though there weren’t plenty of statistics to show that.
Jumping Forward to Today’s Anti-Transgender Rhetoric
Considering all of this and fast forwarding to the present day, it’s not surprising that right-wing folks are demonizing the adoption of the practice of asking for and presenting your pronouns to others.
When Scapegoating Is the Basis of Policies….Inclusion and Caring (And, Oops, Also Love of Neighbor) Is Seen as a Threat
After all, from the shame-based systemically toxically masculine perspective, those who “transgress the gender binary”—and those who support folks who do—are unsafe.
And the practice of asking for and offering gender pronouns is an act of inclusion to those who might not fit the normal gender binary.
From this perspective, allowing transgender people to have the right to determine their gender is a strike against masculine identity and hierarchy.
Connecting the Dots Back to Fascistic Rhetoric
If you’ve studied fascism at all, you shouldn’t be surprised at any of this, or the fact that the rhetoric goes back to the identity of keeping bloodlines and sexuality “pure” in some way. These are, after all, themes of fascistic rhetoric, as Jason Stanley notes in his excellent book How Fascism Works.
Should Be Ringing a Bell Back to Other Unhealthy Rhetoric Around Racial Issues
As Stanley notes, fascistic rhetoric in the US often goes back to white supremacy, and so it oughtn’t be surprising that the same kind of rhetoric accompanied the topic of “race-mixing” throughout American history as well.
That is, that even while white slaveowners were regularly raping enslaved women and claiming their children as literal property (see The 1619 Project for more details—I’ve previously talked about this and how it founded the basis for current abortion rhetoric here and here), black men were scapegoated as a sexual threat toward white women.
In retrospect, looking at the way both of these issues are framed side by side, it’s not surprising to me that this fascistic racial rhetoric is remarkably similar to the rhetoric surrounding these particular transgender policy issues.
Oh, so It’s THAT Kind of Purity Culture War? Ugh.
And when you put these things together, maybe it ought not not be remotely surprising that in both libraries and educational systems, books telling the truth about racial history and representing LGBTQ+ people are being seen as threats.
After all, in both cases, questions around “purity of identity” are rooted in scapegoating others—specifically those lower on the social hierarchy—for seeming to be threats.
Soooo yeah, looking back at this to understand my right-leaning white Evangelical concerns about culture wars “morality” starts to take on a whole new light looking at the issue from this rhetorical perspective.
Tying It Back to the Unhealthy Theologies
The issue has nothing to do with whether being transgender is “transgressing God’s law.” If that was so, then why would there be such a variety of strange creatures in the world that reproduce in all sorts of interesting ways? I can’t imagine that ALL of them were the “result of the Fall,” as the theobros who make these sorts of arguments claim.
But Wait, Patriarchy Is Stated as the Result of the Fall
On the contrary, speaking of the biblical Fall, if you look back at Genesis 3, it’s pretty d*mned clear that the condition of patriarchy—that is, where men dominated women—was actually a post-fall condition as stated in the text.
So yeah, in that awareness, it seems pretty incredibly clear that those who have been spreading these culture war messages as questions of “morality” are really spreading fascistic moral disgusts that aren’t remotely reasonable or healthy.
Supporting and Affirming Transgender and Nonbinary Folks Makes a Positive Difference
On the contrary, tons of statistics show that supporting transgender and nonbinary folks by using their chosen names and making space for sharing and using chosen gender pronouns greatly reduces deaths by suicide for LGBTQ+ folks.
Jesus=Against Oppression of Vulnerable Folks
It’s also really clear that Jesus fought unhealthy societal hierarchies, looking out for the vulnerable and oppressed.
Which makes me believe that he would have been on the other side of the culture wars than the side I was raised on.
Bringing It Back Around
I could go on, but I hope by now it’s clear that it’s not remotely healthy, this right-wing rhetoric that’s seeking to demonize LGBTQ+ folks and those evidence-based practices involved with trying to affirm and support them.
What We Can Do to Make Things Healthier!
In light of all this, I hope we’ll all work hard to oppose this kind of unhealthy rhetoric and the policies that right-wing politicians have been trying to push through on all levels.
And for those of us who were socialized into these kinds of moral disgusts, or dealing with other emotions around helping support transgender and non-binary folks please know that it’s entirely possible to shift our words, behaviors, neurobiological responses, and voting patterns on this issue. It’s been a long slog for me, but I’m living proof that change is possible.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to work against the toxic crap, wherever we find it, toward a healthier, more inclusive and equitable world for us all. We can do this thing.
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2 thoughts on “When Pronouns Become the…Enemy? Analyzing Anti-Transgender Rhetoric”
I’m all for it. I have zero ideas against LBGQTG or pronouns. The only thing that weirds me out is why do I have to know your position and beliefs and habits regarding your genitalia before I know you? I have never introduced myself as Hi, I’m Kari and I prefer boy parts in my girl parts. Or Girl parts. Because it once was considered inappropriate to discuss such intimate details with or about a person you do not know. And because your sexual preferences probably have little to do with our interactions.
On the other hand, I might have told a child to speak to me by my married name as Mrs. B___, but only because sometimes children need to be courteous. But if they are courteous and respectful, I would allow them to call me by my first name, as an indication of a closer familiarity in a relationship than coach, troop leader, PTA volunteer, etc.
But I am little interested in who or what a person’s sexual identity is when the situation has nothing to do with sex. But as far as names go, whatever you tell me your name and/or title or identity is , that is what I will use out of a sense of common respect and courtesy.
I admit, it is much harder when someone you know for 25 years or more, suddenly changes those pronouns, though, and I make honest tries and practice to address them as they’ve asked. Again out of courtesy. I am no longer Mrs. anyone. I am just Kari Bunch, single, divorced and widowed. I like being sexy with both sexes, but I suppose I am too old to be truly bisexual now. (58). I have no idea what pronoun would be appropriate for me other than she/her no matter what I liked privately, otherwise. So I also understand entirely that I cannot internalize that feeling of misplaced gender identity and the need to call it out, but it does not make it any less valid for someone else. I respect people’s choices, no matter what they are. But I think the movement (if you can call it that) should be for those of us who have grown up in a binary only world, will be to insist we ask first, for politeness. Not have it crammed down our throats out of context for the situation, maybe? Some of these folks can be a little assertive, even when it’s not necessary for me to know, like while paying at a drive-through. Especially in simple situations when I’m paying for purchases or such, in which I may never know the person’s name. But I take no offense at whatever they have on their name tag. You are who you are. I am happy to meet you. I guess I am pretty unassuming most of the time. I don’t judge books by their covers, or people by their nametags.
So, am I wrong to feel a little overinformed by all the labeling?
I mean, respectfully, the fact that we use he and she already technically suggests genitalia before we talk to someone. What this shift does is potentially remove that, actually, for some people, which is what is seeming to make a lot of people uncomfortable with the shift–removing the confidence that one has had in the past system about whether pronouns refer to genitalia. You mentioned Mrs.–that, too, is a title that refers to marital status, but only exists for women. These titles and pronouns have long been more comfortable for many people not because they weren’t awkward or because they didn’t refer to private things but because we forgot that they did. The discomfort seems to me to be because they allow for more ambiguous choices that don’t necessarily correspond with genitalia or relational status. I agree with you that it should have always been a matter of politeness–I believe the freakout has been by those who don’t wish to have to be civil or polite to populations they don’t want to see as equal to themselves or worthy of choice. Hope that clarifies. DS Leiter