The other day, a fair-minded friend shared an observation he’d recently heard from a right-wing pundit I won’t name but whose name rhymes with “Shen Bapiro.” The pundit’s observation was that his objection to transgender individuals demanding the use of their preferred pronouns was because, in effect, it was asking him to lie. That is, the pundit opined, when an individual is obviously a male, asking him to refer to that individual as a female is asking him to lie. My fair-minded friend shared this with me to see if I thought this was a valid point.
I didn’t. And it’s not just because I’m not overly impressed with Shen Bapiro’s purported intellect. It’s because the objection rests on a fundamentally flawed presumption that biological sex and gender have anything to do with each other.
Now, before you object that they must have something to do with one another, let me say that the reason you likely leapt to that conclusion is a function of English grammar—and not some immutable law.
Some of the confusion we have about the concept of “gender” is because sometime in the mid-1980s, forms and official documents began to substitute the word gender for sex, likely out of some latter-day bureaucratic prudishness. As a result, people were more likely to confuse the two concepts.
Gender comes from the Latin word genus, which means “birth, race, kind, or class” and is related to the English word kin. One of the original senses of the word in English was “kind” or “sort.” And it is in this sense that the word functions in language.
See, this is harder for native English speakers to appreciate because, with rare exception, the only things that have gender in English also have biological sex. Unless we’re talking about ships or countries, we use she to refer to females and he to refer to males. Because of this, we might easily conclude that gender and sex are inextricably linked—but it’s not so.
Naive speakers of other languages know full well that something’s gender does not always suggest biological sex characteristics. For example, I doubt there are any speakers of Arabic who think that because الباب al-baab (“the door”) is masculine, it has a Y-chromosome or male genitalia. It’s masculine because that’s its kind. In the same way, speakers of French do not imagine that la porte (“the door”) is somehow in possession of the corresponding female features because its gender is feminine.
In addition, there are words in gendered languages that do not correspond to biological sex: in German, for example, both das Mädchen (“the girl”) and das Kind (“the child”) are neuter and can be used with the pronoun es (“it”). Indeed, languages like Persian, Turkish, Finnish, and have no gender and refer to males, females, and rocks with the same pronouns.
This means that despite our English language convention, there is nothing that requires grammatical gender to track with biological sex. As we’ve seen from the examples above from gendered languages, tracking would often be impossible.
Gender, Pronouns, and Truth
So, when someone born with male sex characteristics asks you to refer to her as she, she’s not asking you to lie—she is not asking you to deny that she possesses the biology she was born with. She’s asking you to affirm the gender—the kind, the group—that she now identifies with.
Once we understand that gender and biological sex are not the same thing, we can see that what we’re being asked to do is not to deny the truth of biology but to affirm the truth of the identity someone has claimed.
Gender is a function of grammar. Because the grammar of English does not have gender for inanimate nouns, we don’t understand that gender is not an immutable category. We don’t have any masculine tables or feminine doors to remind us of that fact.
But if we can get past this presumption, we can open ourselves to new possibilities and opportunities to affirm those whose chosen identities and pronouns fit them better than any biological trait ever could.
When we can get to a place where we’re affirming people’s sense of self, irrespective of biology, that’s not lying—that’s telling the truth.