Pronouns came up in conversation recently.

Through circumstances largely beyond my control, I was at dinner a few nights ago with six or seven strangers. It wasn’t hard to read the room. They were all upper middle class, all white and all “seasoned,” which is a euphemism for “senior,” which is a euphemism for “old.” I fit right in.

And their conservative values revealed themselves quickly. One woman said she was from Northern California, emphasizing “Northern,” carefully – if dubiously – distinguishing it from Southern California, which is filled with “aliens.”

And “What did you do for a living?” someone asked me. “Oh, I’m just a retired English teacher.” Which got us around to the subject of pronouns. What about those people who aren’t satisfied with traditional pronouns such as “I,” “me” and “my” and prefer “they” and “their” to refer to themselves or even “ze,” “hir” or “per”?

“That’s B.S.!” exclaimed Ms. Northern California, dispensing with the acronym.

But is it?


I’m not sure if tinkering with pronouns is the best way to respond to the prejudices that we impose on our fellow LGBTQ+ citizens, but there’s no question that grammar – including our use of pronouns – has ideology and politics embedded within it. And if some LGBTQ+ citizens wish to push back against our prejudices by taking control of their pronouns, who are I and my fellow diners to tell them they shouldn’t?

In fact, to deride and ridicule the choices that LGBTQ+ citizens make is to misunderstand the most essential principle of Americanism: Within the law and according to the reasonable responsibilities of a civilized society, people have the right to do what they want, and decency implies an obligation to respect the choices of others.

In other words, Americanism requires tolerance.

Of course, pronouns are only a minor skirmish in a larger struggle between LGBTQ+ Americans who wish to assert their citizenship and conservatives who wish to conserve the norms that affirm the values that they grew up with.

In fact, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is on the rise. Last year, conservative legislatures introduced more than 400 bills that target trans and nonbinary citizens.

These efforts reflect several failures. The first is an unwillingness to face reality. We like for things to be simple. Most of us grew up with the comforting assurance that there are two genders: girls and boys.


But real life is more complicated. For some reason, either the vagaries of evolution or the whims of an all-powerful God have produced fellow citizens who are attracted to members of their own gender or who were born with the body of one gender and the psychology of the other. Other combinations and variations complicate the picture.

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that only 0.7% of teens ages 13 to 17 identify as transgender, but that small figure translates into a lot of struggling young people, who are much more likely to consider or attempt suicide than the general population. This is a medical and psychological challenge, best left to parents and doctors rather than moralizing politicians.

Unfortunately, in our country LGBTQ+ has become primarily a political and ideological issue. LGBTQ+ citizens make an easy target. Emotions connected to LGBTQ+ are easy to churn up, and right-wing legislators see a fertile field for agitation and the acquisition of political power.

But in order to carry out attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, we have to numb our compassion, our empathy and, worst of all, our tolerance.

If a gay or nonbinary or transgender American wishes to change his or her or their pronouns, we don’t have to approve of it. In fact, we don’t have to use their pronouns or talk to them at all. But if we can’t bring ourselves to respect the choices that our fellow citizens make, basic Americanism at least calls for us to treat them with more tolerance.

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