When I started high school in 1983, the phys ed teacher addressed students by last name only. My last name at that time was “Frank.” Not only was it a boy’s name (and I was a girl), but it was also the name of my biological father, a domestic abuser who my mother had divorced almost a decade earlier.

At the time, I told the teacher that I preferred to be called by my first name, “Kelley.” He refused to call me “Kelley,” and it became a power struggle between us; he called me “Frank,” and I refused to reply. His argument was that he called everyone by their last name and it would not be fair to treat me differently.

One time, I called him by his own (embarrassing) last name – without the “Mr.” – and it caused a collective titter from the rest of the class. It was disrespectful of me to address him that way, and I knew that. As a matter of fact, that targeted disrespect was the reason that I did it. I tried to justify my meanness using his “When in Rome” argument: “In gym class we are all called by our last names, right? That’s just how we do it here.” But the truth is that I did it simply to make him feel the way that he made me feel when he called me “Frank”: embarrassed and disrespected.

That teacher may not have known on my first day in his class that calling me “Frank” was deeply (and publicly) embarrassing to me – until I told him that I preferred to be called by my first name, “Kelley.” However, every subsequent time that he called me “Frank” over the years, he was making a conscious choice to address me in a way that made me feel disrespected.

What I learned from that phys ed teacher was hate: I learned to hate him and his class. And my classmates learned a new way to bully me and got his tacit permission to do so.

When I became an adult, I went to court to have my name legally changed and it was a relief in so many ways to bury my old name. If someone addressed me as “Kelley Frank” today, they would be mistaken and I would correct them. If they continued to do so, I would know that they were choosing to either because they didn’t care or because they were doing it wrong on purpose.

When I hear politicians speaking in their official capacity and they refer to people incorrectly – even after being corrected – I am reminded of my high school phys ed teacher. For example, politicians including Sen. Joseph McCarthy, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump called the Democratic Party the “Democrat Party.” Trump was refreshingly honest about why he chose to use the political epithet: “You know I always say ‘Democrat.’ You know why? Because it sounds worse.

The official, legal and correct name is the Democratic Party. Calling the party and its members by an incorrect name is a choice, a choice to be disrespectful.

How we address and refer to each other is at the heart of civil discourse. Once you have been corrected, it is disrespectful to continue to call a person by the wrong name, to continue to mispronounce a person’s name, or to continue to refer to a person by the wrong gender. In other words, the speaker is making a conscious choice to be disrespectful.

Every time I see or hear a current elected official speaking in their official capacity – especially when they are speaking on the floor of the U.S. House or Senate – and they refer to the “Democrat Party,” or continue to mispronounce a person’s name, or continue to misgender a person after being corrected, I am struck by the choice that they are making to speak to and about people with deliberate disrespect. From my perspective, it dishonors the so-called “world’s greatest deliberative body” to see and hear politicians behave like the bullies in my old high school gym class.


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