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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Identity and Setting Boundaries

There are few things that can send people through the roof more than a perceived attack on their identity. I’ve long observed that my atheism can upset Christians who take my disbelief personally.

Recently, George Takei (Lt. Sulu from the original Star Trek) ruffled feathers when he referred to African-American (and arch-conservative) Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as “a clown in black face.” Takei is a gay rights activist, and Thomas dissented from the court’s pro-gay marriage ruling. Implying that Thomas isn’t really black has angered many African-Americans, even if they strongly disagree with Thomas’s politics.

People have reason to feel angry when their identity is attacked. But their anger is misplaced when their insecurities are triggered by someone who is asserting a different identity or viewpoint, but who is not attacking their identity (like Christians who are upset by my open atheism).

A group that has long been marginalized is particularly vulnerable to people failing to respect their boundaries. For example, it’s not surprising that many people don’t think Caitlyn Jenner (née Bruce Jenner) is a real woman.

And it’s not just conservatives. Feminist Elinor Burkett ran a piece in the New York Times asking “what makes a woman?” She doesn’t include transgender women in her identity as a woman.

I think it’s every individual’s right to assert her or his identity, and good boundaries dictate that I have no place questioning others. Jenner identifies as a woman and prefers feminine pronouns, so that’s how I’ll speak of her.

Herein lies the dilemma. I don’t feel like I can tell Ms. Burkett that her identity as a woman has to be more inclusive. But I can say that I would not refer to Jenner as “he” or publicly dispute Jenner’s identity.

However, Burkett brings up a grievance that goes the other way: some transgender activists want to ban the word vagina because not all transgender women have vaginas. Indeed, Mount Holyoke College canceled the Vagina Monologues recently due to such concerns.

Perhaps only a minority of transgender women want to ban the word vagina. Such censorship crosses the line, however, for the same reason that Burkett’s use of “he” when referring to Jenner crosses the line. If a cisgender woman wants to call her body part a vagina then that’s her right we should all respect. It’s not exclusionary toward transgender women, it’s just a cisgender woman referring to her own body as she chooses.

But what to do about Rachel Dolezal, the self-identified African-American who was born a blonde white woman?

It’s been amply noted that race and gender are different. Jenner says she doesn’t want to be the opposite sex—she says she was born female with a male body. But Dolezal admits she is white but wants to be black.

The problem is that she wasn’t above board. There may be cases where a person wants to identify with a certain group. And Dolezal, with adopted African-American siblings, a black ex-husband, and a biracial child, has reasons to identify with the African-American community. I must wonder: if she had been open about this, would she have found greater acceptance?

Final example. Peter Moskowitz wrote an op-ed asking heterosexuals to stop overlaying the rainbow flag onto their Facebook profile pics. He feels that he earned the right to wave the rainbow flag after all the homophobia he’s encountered over the years, the social rejections from coming out, not to mention the real danger of physical assault for being gay. Moskowitz asks, “If they were true allies to me or the LGBT community, where were they before Friday?”

It’s a valid question. Of course, no one is trying to co-opt anyone’s identity, nor is Moskowitz saying they are. But he’s concerned that people jumping on the bandwagon after the fact don’t really support his identity as a gay man.

I didn’t change my Facebook profile pic because I’m not one to jump on the bandwagon. Though I have marched in gay pride parades as a social worker as far back as 1996, and voted in favor of LGBT civil rights and marriage equality in Maine.

I’m well aware, however, that I haven’t been through what Moskowitz has. Still, I don’t think rainbow-ifying your Facebook pic is necessarily an infringement, especially for heterosexuals who have supported LGBT rights all along.