Chelsea Manning and the Problem with Pronouns

Transgender activists at a rally in Washington, D.C., in February. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Intolerance of disagreement in the debate over transgender issues begins to creep into law.

Yesterday trans Twitter got very, very angry with me. I wrote a Corner post about Chelsea Manning’s release from prison, and the focus was squarely on Manning’s misconduct. Manning betrayed fellow soldiers, put their lives in danger, and did it simply because he wanted to stimulate debate. Trans twitter was angry not with my description of Manning’s actions (though some defended him) but with my description of Manning. I used male pronouns. I identified a man as a man.

Immediately I was deluged with passionate but reasonable tweets explaining to me exactly what was wrong with my pronoun usage. No, wait. That was in a parallel universe. Here in the real world, I received a series of tweets you can’t post on a family website. In the real world, I was called a transphobe, “America’s worst person,” and many other names simply because I wouldn’t identify Manning as a woman.

Sure, that’s just Twitter, but the furious sentiments of transgender activists are making their way into law. For example, in New York City the government will punish employers, landlords, businesses, and professionals who use the “wrong” pronoun. Here’s how the New York City Human Rights Commission describes a “violation” of its human-rights law:

Refusal to use an individual’s preferred name, pronoun, or title because they do not conform to gender stereotypes. For example, calling a woman “Mr.” because her appearance is aligned with traditional gender-based stereotypes of masculinity.

Even worse, the Obama administration put the issue of pronouns front and center in every federally funded educational institution in the United States. It issued guidance (since repealed, though the issue is far from resolved) containing clear language mandates:

Under Title IX, a school must treat students consistent with their gender identity even if their education records or identification documents indicate a different sex. The Departments have resolved Title IX investigations with agreements committing that school staff and contractors will use pronouns and names consistent with a transgender student’s gender identity.

This is, to put it bluntly, compelled speech. It’s a violation of the rights of conscience of the speaker. It’s an effort by the government to coerce verbal agreement with a contested and contentious personal, religious, cultural, and scientific debate. It violates the fundamental constitutional principle outlined in West Virginia v. Barnette:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

When I use a male pronoun to describe Chelsea Manning, I’m not trolling. I’m not being a jerk. I’m not trying to make anyone angry. I’m simply telling the truth. I’m reflecting biological reality, and I’m referring to the created order as outlined in Genesis 1 — “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Nor is this a matter of “manners.” I’ve encountered many well-meaning people who’ve told me that I should acquiesce to new pronouns because it’s the polite thing to do. I want to avoid hurting feelings, don’t I? I want to treat someone the way I’d like to be treated, right? What’s the harm in a little white lie?

But when your definition of manners requires that I verbally consent to a fundamentally false and important premise, then I dissent. You cannot use my manners to win your culture war. I will speak respectfully, I will never use a pronoun with the intent of causing harm, and if I encounter a person in obvious emotional distress I will choose my words very carefully. But I will not say what I do not believe.

I am very happy to have a conversation with anyone about pronoun usage, gender identity, and the reasons why a transgender person believes that deeply felt identity trumps biology in defining male and female, but those conversations are increasingly hard to find. Instead, dissent from this issue is seen as a “tell” for underlying bigotry. Other issues can be debated, but not this one. This is beyond reasonable disagreement.

For example, look at these tweets from prominent transgender activist Parker Molloy:

It takes an interesting bit of gymnastics to argue that the “crux” of an article about Manning’s crimes is really about Manning’s sex, and it’s also interesting that a dispute about Manning’s sex isn’t considered the kind of “point of view” that reasonable people can hold. The issue is settled. A man can get pregnant. A man can breastfeed. Women can have penises. This is as true as saying the sky is blue or water is wet. Anyone who disagrees is a bigot.

In the secular faith of the illiberal Left, pronoun mandates have become the equivalent of blasphemy codes. On this most contentious of issues, one must use approved language and protect the most delicate of sensibilities. It’s bad enough to see this mindset work itself through Twitter or in shouted arguments on the quad. When it makes its way into law, then intolerance moves from irritation into censorship. It’s identity politics as oppression, and it’s infecting American debate. May it not corrupt American law.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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