Free speech or misgendering?

What happens when rights conflict?

KODAK Digital Still Camera
© Dave DuBay. Flagstaff, AZ

A Virginia teacher has been fired because he chose to refer to a transgender student by the student’s preferred name while avoiding any gender pronouns. The school said Peter Vlaming must use pronouns.

While most media outlets reported the story as the teacher’s refusal to use pronouns, The Hill called it “misgendering.” But there’s no evidence that Vlaming has used feminine pronouns or the student’s “deadname” after the student came out as a transgender boy.

While Vlaming cites religious freedom, free speech is also at issue. Public schools are government run institutions and are bound by the first amendment.

It’s clear that government employees, or those employed by government funded agencies, can be prohibited from saying certain things. Harassment and verbal abuse are two examples. But whether someone can be forced to say something against their will—compelled speech—or be fired is an issue the courts must decide.

I’ve been critical of psychologist Jordan Peterson, who rose to fame alleging that Canada’s transgender rights law would result in compelled speech. And while I stand by my disdain for his absurd comparison of transgender activism to communism’s 100 million deaths in the twentieth century, social justice activists are proving Peterson’s concerns about compelled speech correct.

An essential point classical liberals make about advocacy for your equal rights is the reciprocal responsibility to respect other people’s equal rights. Vlaming’s choice to use the transgender student’s preferred name while avoiding both female and male pronouns is a reasonable compromise. But coercing people to using pronouns they don’t agree with—or lose their jobs—is an unreasonable violation of their human rights.

In other words, the equal rights of both parties are respected when we draw the line by saying that employees cannot use pronouns against a person’s request, but that person cannot force you to use pronouns that you don’t want to use.

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Refusing Service: The Latest Is a Barbershop

We all know about county clerks refusing to issue marriages licenses to gay and lesbian couples. And bakers and photographers refusing to provide their services at same sex weddings.

The latest is a barber refusing to cut a woman’s hair. But unlike discrimination against lesbians and gay men, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes gender discrimination unambiguous: he broke the law and it cost him $750.

Barbiere is a “gentleman’s barber shop.” Which is fine. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of going to the barbershop with my father or grandfather. In kindergarten, all the other boys wanted to be a policeman, a fireman, or an astronaut. I said I wanted to be a barber when I grew up. The teacher thought that was awesome.

At a barbershop, you just walk in. No appointment. Yes, there’s often a wait. But the point is men shootin’ the shit with other men. Which is nothing against women. The conversations usually revolve around sports, the news, cars, hunting, fishing, work, and gossip. Guy stuff (except for the gossip).

In college I used to go to Joe’s Barber Shop. It’s nice to walk into a place, say “Hi, Joe,” and hear, “How are you, son?” (He wasn’t my father, it’s just a manner of speaking.)

At a barbershop, instructions vary from nothing (regular customer, same haircut for the past 20 years) to, “Off the ears,” or “A little off the top,” to something more specific such as “Flatop” or “Buzz cut.” Greater detail is typically unnecessary.

You can also get a shave with a straight razor, but that’s rare. My dad told me that once in the Philippines (he was in the Navy at the time) he got a shave from a barber with a straight razor. My dad said, “He didn’t nick me even once, and did such a great job that I didn’t have to shave again for two fuckin’ days.”

My mother told me that once in the late ’60s she was in a hurry and went to a barbershop because she didn’t have time to make an appointment with the beautician. And she regretted it. Apparently, the haircut she got caused some confusion about her sexual orientation.

Who knows why a woman sought a haircut at Barbiere. Maybe she likes short dos, and cosmetologists just can’t do it right. Maybe she likes talking football while waiting for her turn in the chair. Perhaps she wanted to smash the patriarchy and thought haircuts was a good place to start.

But let’s look at this rationally. Discrimination is wrong. Besides, it’s not often that a woman will walk into a barbershop, so statistically speaking a man can expect an all male environment almost always. And some women get along better with men than they do with other women. Maybe she doesn’t mind androcentric conversation. Maybe she can talk cars and football with the best of them, and tell a few dirty jokes to boot.

But if she’s can’t deal with mantalk, guaranteed she won’t be a repeat customer.