The University of Sussex Students’ Union made headlines this week when the Daily Mail got a hold of its Gender Inclusive Language Policy. According to the policy, all societies, campaign materials and student media outlets must use gender-neutral language, and all students must state their preferred pronouns at the beginning of meetings. The SU advises that no assumptions on gender should be made, and encourages the use of ‘them’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘she’ when addressing a person whose gender identity has not been stated.
An SU officer told the Independent that the policy was introduced in a bid to ‘make the students’ union a more inclusive and comfortable environment for trans and non-binary students’. Many transgender activists argue that the enforcement of these new rules is crucial to the health and mental wellbeing of trans and non-binary students, linking so-called misgendering with suicide rates within the transgender community.
But though they are presented as compassionate, these policies have sinister implications. It is wrong to lay the blame for suicide in the transgender community on non-trans people making perfectly rational assumptions about people’s gender. When people ‘misgender’ a trans person it is not ill-intentioned – it is based in accepted biological fact. The issue at hand isn’t one of ‘bullying’, but of non-trans people making ‘mistakes’, by, for example, addressing as male an individual who looks male, and is biologically male, but who may not actually identify as male. It’s a rational assumption, based on what we know and understand. These policies effectively tell people that facts don’t matter, and that people’s imagined fantasies and preferences must become accepted reality.
What’s more, these policies promote the notion that transgender people are too weak and vulnerable to be addressed incorrectly, even by accident; that they need to be accommodated by everyone and every institution in society, lest they are driven to kill themselves. Suicide rates among certain groups should of course be taken seriously. But they shouldn’t be used to blackmail people into accepting a view on gender – or a particular person’s self-image – that they may not share. It speaks to the narcissistic undertone of the trans movement: it demands not simply rights, but recognition, even if that means disregarding accepted scientific and social categories.
Worst of all, pronoun policies place restrictions on freedom of speech – they allow the language of the majority to be dictated by the perceived emotional needs of a tiny minority. In a truly liberal society, no one should have control over how people express themselves. Transgender people should be free to identify however they please, but the rest of us should also be free to take a different view. Rather than opening people up to issues within the transgender community, these policies do quite the opposite: they shut down debate and further alienate individuals from one another.