Noah Lewis is a staff attorney at Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, a national New York City-based organization committed to achieving equality for transgender people.
When my dad came out to his co-workers about having a transgender son, he showed them a picture of me on my first day at law school. “You may remember that I had a daughter who went to Harvard Law School,” he began. Switching to a picture of me and my parents taken in the same spot three year later, he added, “And I have a son who graduated.”
Despite being the first transgender person to transition at Harvard Law School, I was met — more than a decade ago — with the utmost respect from my classmates and professors. It was disheartening, then, to read recent columns by law professors Josh Blackman and Eugene Volokh arguing in support of referring to transgender people by incorrect pronouns.
If I were a fellow professor at one of their law schools, they would defend the ability of themselves or students to refer to me as “Ms. Lewis” and “she” to express the belief — however inaccurate — that I am not male. While those who would intentionally misgender me would look silly, it would convey a more insidious message: transgender people are not welcome at their schools.
The normal practice in polite society is to honor the title and pronouns of an individual. Mr. Blackman, for example, prefers male titles and pronouns. If his colleagues and students took to referring to him as “her” or “Ms. Blackman,” he might consider it nonsensical at first, and if it persisted, disrespectful or even harassing.
We know that potentially benign words such as “sweetheart,” “cripple” or “boy” — I wince just writing them — are not permitted in the workplace when their purpose is to harass and demean. We have collectively decided that in order to have a society enriched by the contributions of a diverse group of people, everyone deserves to be respected in the workplace. While people may still harbor prejudices, they cannot express those views in a way that infringes on another’s right to work in a safe and equitable environment.
What such an environment looks like for transgender people has catapulted into the nation’s consciousness in recent months. North Carolina continues to defend its anti-transgender law, while the federal government has moved to protect transgender people nationwide from discrimination.
New York City, meanwhile, is building upon its rich history of respect for the diversity of its residents. In December, the NYC Commission on Human Rights issued legal guidance regarding existing gender identity protections under the New York City Human Rights Law. This directive clarifies protections and provides examples of potential violations, such as denying appropriate bathroom use or the “intentional or repeated refusal to use an individual’s preferred name, pronoun or title” in the workplace. The commission had issued similar guidelines on this subject in 2006 under the Bloomberg administration.
The commission made clear that accidentally using the wrong pronoun is not harassment, while deliberate misuse is. My mom still calls me “she” on occasion. She also accidentally calls me by my brother’s name, so I don’t let a neural lapse bother me. My parents were not able to switch pronouns overnight, but because they love and respect me and eventually came to see me for who I am, they did. Calling me “he” has in no way interfered with some of their favorite forms of free expression — namely watching Fox News and voting Republican.
Contrary to those who would paint the guidance as suppressing free speech, no one is being forced to use certain pronouns for transgender people. Those who are strongly opposed to using correct pronouns can make their beliefs known by avoiding pronouns altogether.
Language is constantly evolving. The policemen, firemen and stewardesses I grew up with have given way to police officers, firefighters and flight attendants. Newspapers are also adopting gender-neutral language. In an article, the New York Times recently used Mx. instead of Mr. or Ms. — a title with its own hard-fought history. The Post changed its editorial guidelines to accept “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun. Its copy editor Bill Walsh called it “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”
For transgender people, it’s about more than grammatical correctness. It’s about being able to work and attend school safely, free from discrimination. Until recently, most transgender people were simply shut out of the workplace or were afraid to let their co-workers and classmates know that they are trans. That’s all changing now. Knowing openly transgender friends, family members and colleagues is rapidly becoming the norm.
Does it take a little bit of effort to break out of old habits and refer to someone by a new pronoun? Sure. But given the stark realities facing transgender people who are excluded from jobs and education, it’s the very least we can do. The simple act of calling me “Mr. Lewis” and “he” adds up to nothing less than creating a society in which transgender people don’t merely survive, but thrive.