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How Preferred Pronouns Threaten Free Speech

‘Preferred pronouns’ may sound harmless, but they can have vast implications for free speech.
Neal Hardin
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Preferred pronouns written out with letter blocks

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Fellowship of the Ring, Boromir says concerning the one ring, “Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing? So small a thing!” In some ways, this encapsulates what some feel about the debate over so-called “preferred pronouns.” Are pronouns such a big deal? The answer is yes!

Pronouns are small words with big implications. When signifying persons, pronouns often carry other characteristics of the people they refer to like number and gender. And until recently, most people understood gender to be binary (male or female). But now, an ever-growing list of pronouns have become expressions of one’s self-proclaimed identity, a claim that proponents insist that everyone must affirm—or else.

Some people have lost their jobs or been threatened with termination because they decline to use “preferred pronouns” due to the message about human nature that those terms inherently and unavoidably communicate. In other cases, people have been banned from common or public spaces—all because they believe what has been obvious to all human civilization for thousands of years: that a man is a man, and a woman is a woman.

Let’s look at how pronouns are becoming a battleground for the radical gender ideology inundating our culture.

 

What is a pronoun?

To review a little grammar, according to Merriam-Webster, a pronoun is “a word that is used instead of a noun or noun phrase. Pronouns refer to either a noun that has already been mentioned or to a noun that does not need to be named specifically.” For example, instead of using someone’s name repeatedly (e.g., “Dave did this. Then, Dave did that.”), we can just say, “Dave did this. Then, he did that.” Or, a noun phrase like “the kids in orange shirts who dashed across the yard” can be replaced with “they” if you wanted to refer to the same kids multiple times. These are simple examples, but they show how often we use pronouns in English.

 

Pronouns and gender

In English, third-person singular pronouns can carry the implied gender of the noun they are referring to. In my example above, Dave, a man, was referred to with the pronoun “he.” A woman would be referred to with a “she” pronoun. A rock would be called “it,” which doesn’t have an implied gender. First-person pronouns (I/we), second-person pronouns (you), and third-person plural pronouns (they) do not carry an implied gender.

For an individual whose gender is not known or isn’t necessary to determine, there is now debate over which third-person singular pronoun to use. Historically, we have used the pronoun “he” in a generic sense. In the past several decades, some have suggested replacing the generic “he” with “he or she,” “s/he,” “she,” or even the plural “they” in a singular sense. (In recent years, using “they” in this manner has taken on a far different connotation for those claiming to be “non-binary.”) A generic statement might also use the pronoun “one” (e.g., “In such situations, one might like to do this.”). However, in any of these cases, whenever a particular person is in mind (Dave, Taylor, Molly, Bernice, Joey, etc.), the pronouns “he” or “she” have traditionally been used to refer back to that individual, reflecting the sex of the person being discussed.

But now, two major cultural trends have converged to question the foundational principles about gender and pronouns.

The first trend is that basic facts about sex, gender, and the gender binary are being denied. According to activists, no longer is gender determined by body and biology, but by “gender identity,” which the World Health Organization defines as “a person’s deeply felt, internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond to the person’s physiology or designated sex at birth.” If an “internal and individual experience” is accepted as the source of one’s gender, then “gender” can come to mean whatever the individual claims, even without making reference to male or female categories.

Another part of this first trend is a misrepresentation of disorders of sexual development (DSDs), also called intersex conditions. DSDs are an extremely rare “group of congenital conditions associated with atypical development of internal and external genital structures,” but activists will claim that the existence of DSDs disproves the gender binary. But this is not the case. As Ryan Anderson notes, human bodies and sex organs are geared towards sexual reproduction, and defects or distortions of the male and female genitalia should be recognized as inhibiting that proper order and function of the body, not as evidence of a third sex.

The second trend, as theologian and historian Carl Trueman has noted, is that a new “modern self” has emerged. This modern self is defined by expressive individualism, where “authenticity is achieved by acting outwardly in accordance with one’s inward feelings.” It also demands that “society at large will recognize and affirm this behavior,” such that “any attempt to express disapproval is therefore a blow not simply against particular ways of behaving but against the right of that person to be whoever they wish to be.”

As you might imagine, such logic can move (and usually intends to move) well beyond the gender binary. For many in our modern culture, “gender” is no longer correlated to an empirical reality like the body but has become a mere expression of one’s own self-perception or self-declaration. It has become, like so many other things, a mode of expressive individualism.

This shift in thinking has changed how our culture demands that pronouns be used and has even sparked the invention of new “pronouns.” Instead of referring to the biological sex of an individual, pronouns are now demanded to reflect a person’s asserted gender identity. And with the growing—indeed, infinite—number of asserted gender identities, the number of preferred pronouns has grown at an even faster rate, as each gender identity can create its own set of pronouns.

 

Transgender flag showing support for preferred pronouns
The use of preferred pronouns has been one consequence of the rise of gender identity ideology.

 

What are preferred pronouns?

Preferred pronouns (also called “preferred gender pronouns,” “personal pronouns,” and “personal gender pronouns”) are the pronouns by which someone wants (or prefers) to be referred to by others. These pronouns could be ones that most people are familiar with like “he” or “she.” Some people who identify as “non-binary” (claiming to be neither male nor female) use “they” as a preferred pronoun.

Some people will use a combination of different pronouns. They may even adopt multiple sets of pronouns that can change from moment to moment, over time, or depending on the setting. Some pronouns are even designed to communicate non-human identities.

Conceiving of pronouns as something to be specified by the individual (with a potentially infinite array of choices), rather than as words that are proper or improper to use depending on who or what is being referenced, is the first step in the activists’ attempt to redefine the relationship between sex and human identity. And that’s before you even get to which pronouns to use. All of this illustrates the message that viewing pronouns as “preferred” instead of proper is designed to communicate that every reality about human identity is rooted in will rather than nature.

 

What are neopronouns? What are noun-self pronouns?

A relatively recent but entirely predictable phenomenon in the world of pronouns is the invention of neopronouns. According to The New York Times, a neopronoun “can be a word created to serve as a pronoun without expressing gender.” Examples are ‘xe/xir/xirs,’ ‘ze/zir/zirs,’ ‘ey/em/eir,’ etc. (as opposed to ‘he/him/his’ or ‘she/her/hers’). With neopronouns, a person’s pronouns don’t need to reflect the gender binary. Gender becomes a creation of the individual and loses almost any connection to the physical world.

A subset of neopronouns is noun-self pronouns. The Times explains that noun-self pronouns are “a pre-existing word … drafted into use as a pronoun. Noun-self pronouns can refer to animals — so your pronouns can be ‘bun/bunself’ and ‘kitten/kittenself.’ Others refer to fantasy characters — ‘vamp/vampself,’ ‘prin/cess/princesself,’ ‘fae/faer/faeself’ — or even just common slang, like ‘Innit/Innits/Innitself.’” In other words, a noun-self pronoun doesn’t even need to reflect the fact that you are a human being.

While most people would consider neopronouns and noun-self pronouns outlandish, they reflect the culture’s expressive individualism that tries to root one’s identity in purely internal and psychological phenomena. If our sexual and gender identities are no longer expressions of our biological sex and our bodies, then there’s no stopping a person from identifying as the opposite sex, no sex, both sexes, or nonhuman things like animals, objects, fictional characters, or abstract concepts. Without the human body as the source of one’s identity, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” becomes just as plausible as “I am a wolf trapped in a human body.” One’s identity is limited only by one’s imagination.

 

Preferred pronouns and free speech

Words—including pronouns—have meaning. They carry a message with them. And this isn’t just the opinion of those who insist that pronouns reflect biological reality:

  • A communications officer for GLAAD says that using a person’s preferred pronouns is a “really simple way to affirm their identity.”
  • The Human Rights Campaign says that “using a person’s chosen name and pronouns is essential to affirming their identity and showing basic respect.”
  • A resource page at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee says that using a person’s preferred pronouns is a way “to show your respect for their gender identity.”
  • One non-binary activist and performer says that by using a person’s correct pronouns, “we're validating, ‘Yes. You are right in your identity and you're important and we're respecting you.’”
  • The National Child Traumatic Stress Network says that “using and validating the names, pronouns, and identities that youth share with you” is a part of parents’ and caregivers’ responsibility to “communicate” and actively affirm those identities.

Thus, even proponents of preferred pronouns and LGBT activists agree that pronouns are important because they carry a message when they are used.

Some might read all this and wonder, “So what? How is this going to affect me? If I don’t want to use a person’s preferred pronouns, then I won’t use them.”

Unfortunately, this radical gender ideology and its accompanying pronouns aren’t giving people that freedom. Many corporations and government officials label it offensive, discriminatory, and harmful not to use a person’s preferred pronouns. And, in the name of diversity and inclusion, this leads them to fire or “cancel” those who don’t toe the line. Ultimately, activists’ goals are to change the way you think, to punish any dissent, and to render it difficult (if not impossible) to communicate the truth that God created each of us either male or female.

Several Alliance Defending Freedom clients have already been punished because they declined to use pronouns about a person that are untrue, don’t reflect reality, and would reinforce ideas that are harmful to that individual. The fact is, if you believe that being a man matters, that being a woman matters, that even being human matters, you might be next in the crosshairs.

 

Dr. Nicholas Meriwether was targeted for declining to use preferred pronouns
Dr. Nicholas Meriwether was formally charged by his university after he respectfully declined to use a student's "preferred" pronouns.

 

Preferred pronouns in education

Teachers and professors have been frequent targets of government pronoun policies. Public school districts and universities are adopting policies requiring staff to use students’ preferred pronouns or face punishment. Some policies even require teachers to lie to parents by actively hiding if their child is using a different set of pronouns at school than they are at home. In addition to teachers, parents who are expressing concerns about such policies are being vilified and denied their rights to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children.

As the litany of ADF cases below shows, these policies have become widespread throughout the public education establishment.

 

Meriwether v. The Trustees of Shawnee State University

Dr. Nicolas Meriwether has served as a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio for over 20 years with an unblemished record.

One day, a male student approached Dr. Meriwether after class, informing him that he identified as transgender and demanded that the professor refer to him as a woman with feminine titles and pronouns. For Dr. Meriwether, doing so would endorse an ideology that conflicts with his beliefs, would be untrue, and would force him to contradict his religious convictions. He tried to reach a compromise by using the student’s preferred first or last name, but this wasn’t enough.

Eventually, the university formally charged Dr. Meriwether and placed a written warning in his personnel file that threatened “further corrective actions” if he did not use the student’s preferred pronouns or stop using pronouns altogether (an impossible demand).

ADF filed suit on Dr. Meriwether’s behalf, and in 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled in his favor, saying that the university had violated his right to free speech. This led to a settlement, where the university agreed that it cannot force Dr. Meriwether to use pronouns and titles that differ from someone’s sex and agreed to remove the discipline from Dr. Meriwether’s files.

 

Cross v. Loudoun County School Board

Tanner Cross, Monica Gill, and Kim Wright are teachers in Loudoun County, Virginia. In 2021, Tanner spoke out against a policy that would have required teachers to participate in students’ social “gender transitions” by referring to them using pronouns inconsistent with their biological sex.

Less than 48 hours after voicing his opinion at a local school board meeting, Tanner was suspended. After ADF filed suit, a Virginia court ruled in his favor and halted the school board’s retaliatory action against him. Despite all this, the school board still instituted the policy, which led Monica and Kim to join Tanner in the fight against it.

All three teachers believe that there are two biological sexes, which can’t be changed. They also believe, consistent with scientific evidence, that it would be harmful to their students to convey an ideology that says otherwise. Teachers should be free to advocate for the good of their students, and the government cannot force them to endorse an ideology that violates their beliefs.

 

Vlaming v. West Point School Board

Peter Vlaming was a French teacher for almost seven years at West Point High School in Virginia. In 2018, one of Peter’s female students began to identify as male. Peter went out of his way to accommodate this student. He agreed to use the student’s preferred male-sounding name and to avoid using pronouns to refer to the student. But Peter simply could not use male pronouns for a female student because it would communicate messages that contradict his core beliefs. This wasn’t good enough for the school district, and it ultimately punished and fired Peter, not for what he said, but for what he could not say.

That’s why ADF filed a lawsuit to protect Peter’s constitutional right to not speak. And thankfully, the Virginia Supreme Court heard Peter’s case in November 2022.

 

Doe v. Madison Metropolitan School District

In 2018, Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) adopted a policy for all its schools with a stated intention to “disrupt the gender binary.”

The policy requires teachers to assist and encourage children of any age in the adoption of transgender identities without parental notice or consent. In addition, it requires teachers to actively deceive parents about their child’s gender identity disorder by using the child’s “transgender” name at school but using the child’s true name in front of his or her parents. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) and ADF are representing a group of parents against MMSD.

 

B.F. v. Kettle Moraine School District

Kettle Moraine School District, also in Wisconsin, has a policy that instructs teachers and other adults at school to actively “socially transition” children by addressing them with transgender names and pronouns immediately upon the child’s request, without parental consent and even over their parents’ express objections and request for a different therapeutic path.

The school district and officials are substituting their own radical ideology for basic biological reality—a harm that goes far beyond simple pronoun usage. Schools cannot even give students aspirin or basic medication without parental consent. Yet, in this case, officials are overruling the express desire of parents regarding the health of their children. WILL and ADF are representing two sets of parents against the school district.

 

Figliola v. Harrisonburg City Public School Board

Prior to the 2021-2022 school year, Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) in Virginia modified its nondiscrimination policy to add “gender identity” to its list of protected classes. It then developed and issued guidance that detailed new requirements concerning the treatment of students with gender dysphoria.

HCPS’s policy and practice is that staff must affirm a student’s asserted gender identity by using any name and pronoun the student requests, while hiding such requests from the child’s parents, unless HCPS employees determine the child’s parents are sufficiently “supportive” of their child’s “transition.”

Policies such as these are blatant violations of the First Amendment rights to free speech and religious freedom, as well as parents’ rights to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children.

No one should be compelled to use pronouns (and thus, speak messages) that go against their most deeply held beliefs. And no policy should keep loving parents in the dark about the well-being of their own children.

 

Conclusion

It is indeed a strange fate that small words like pronouns have become one of the biggest battlegrounds of identity politics today.

We can be sure that the logic of expressive individualism will not stop with attempts to enforce the use of opposite-sex pronouns, non-binary pronouns, and neopronouns. It will continue into noun-self pronouns or whatever may come after that. Already, schools are debating how to handle students who are identifying as animals. Will such identities be accommodated in public schools? Will teachers be forced to recognize the adopted animal identities of these students?

Our human nature, and the pronouns we use to reflect it, needs to be grounded in the empirical reality of one’s biological sex and the body. Only then can the disastrous “logic” of expressive individualism be brought to a halt.

Neal Hardin
Digital Writer
Neal Hardin serves as Digital Writer for Alliance Defending Freedom