Barack Obama went through an evolution on the subject of same-sex marriage. Hillary Clinton experienced a similar transition, though perhaps in her case, artificial rather than natural selection appears to be the cause. I am pleased with myself to say that I beat them by almost two decades, but welcome to the party. We’re cleaning up, but there may be some beer left in the cooler on the back porch.
I say this because I’m having to deal with a separate subject that gets tied up in the same general discussion about sexuality in this country: transgender people.
From the start, I will say that regardless of the science and politics, we all should offer a basic respect for each other’s rights and an initial measure of decency to each other. One example of this would be a reconsideration of the clownish outrage over who is using which stall in the bathrooms of the state where I was born. I’m all for increasing the privacy of public facilities. But that can be made a lot easier if we don’t insist on peering through the gaps in the panels to do a genital check on who’s next door.
But as someone who cares about language and science, along with human rights, I have some concerns.
For one thing, the pronoun confusion. The proliferation of substitutionary words is asking a lot of English and it’s users. Pronouns are stable elements of language, and they’re based on the evidence of our senses.
The excuse offered all too often is that Shakespeare used “they” as a singular pronoun, which makes me respond that anyone who writes on his level is forgiven a host of sins. If that’s not quite within your reach, follow the rules. But there’s a world of difference between a generic pronoun for an unknown person and one used to describe a human being standing in front of me.
Language is by its nature reductive. If a refer to a chair, you know what I’m talking about, even though there is a world of chairs to choose from. We wouldn’t have time to do anything else if every object had to have its own individual term that we were expected to remember.
And this leads to the making of ontological demands. I have my own conception of my being, but that doesn’t suspend your right to draw your own conclusions. And this is something that is a key distinction between LGB and T. Recognizing a person’s right to making personal choices is not the same as having to understand things in the way that someone wants me to.
In terms of society, I’m also troubled by the idea that a person would need to make radical anatomical and biochemical alterations to identify with a different sex. Is this not a withdrawing of the gains the world has made with feminism? We’ve spent millennia bringing ourselves to the belief that men and women are equal. Now that shouldn’t mean that every man and every woman are identical, but I’d like to think that we’ve reached the point at which we understand that the a person’s worth isn’t decided by the person’s chromosomes, and we should accept a lot broader range of behavior from people than tradition has allowed. Men do not have to be John Wayne, and women do not have to be the many examples of wilting scenery.
Doesn’t that mean that I should accept people who feel themselves to be born in the wrong body? Perhaps, but again, part of acceptance is a recognition that each person has the right to reach an ontological understanding that he/she/it/we/they finds reasonable.
If Chelsea Manning and Caitlin Jenner want me to call them — when they’re together — she, out of common courtesy, I suppose that’s not asking too much. Pronouns like xyrs and (f)aers are asking too much.
My prediction is that things will stabilize eventually. Until then, leave me free to exercise my own sense, and I’ll support your right to pee in whichever bathroom feels appropriate. When I was in high school, I had a job as a janitor for a while, and I can say that the women’s facilities were cleaner and better smelling soap. But for most things, who you are is your business, and we’ll get along fine in most of the aspects of life.
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