Against Preferred Pronouns and Preferred Names – The Stream

When transgender activism began to force itself on the culture, my first hope was that, like other fads, it would just go away. That was almost ten years ago. When the issue refused to evaporate, I started wondering what I would do if I met a man calling himself a woman or a woman calling herself a man. What would I say? What words should I use?

For help, I turned to various Christian apologists. Some of what they said made a great deal of sense. Some of it, though, was confusing. Many of them condemn preferred pronouns, on the grounds that such words as he and she refer to biological sex — to objective reality. To use incorrect pronouns would be to participate in a lie. And I agree. But what about names?

By Any Other Name?

Some apologists, in spite of condemning preferred pronouns, nevertheless accept the use of preferred names. Alan Shlemon writes, “Names are a matter of convention, something that is a subjective preference. Pronouns, however, are not a matter of convention but are a reference to objective reality (biological sex). That is why they can’t be chosen. … I’m not arguing that preferred names should be used, but that they can be used.”

John Stonestreet puts it this way: “In English, names do not indicate gender. Pronouns do. Offering to call individuals by their chosen names is a way of respecting them as people without saying something that is not true about them.”

These views troubled me. They treat names as though they were not tied to one’s sex, even though they clearly are in most cases. There are male and female names. Though some names, like Blake, Ashley, and Sidney, are given to members of either sex, far more names are given to just one sex or the other. If someone wanted to introduce me to a friend named Angelica, I would expect to meet a woman. If someone wanted to introduce me to a friend named Benjamin, I would expect to meet a man.

Indeed, names often come in sex-distinguished pairs: Eric, Erica; Brian, Brianna; Stephen, Stephanie; Henry, Henrietta; Michael, Michelle; Daniel, Danielle. To assert that names have no gender — that there are no male or female names — is to deny a clear fact.

What’s in a Name?

How, then, do apologists justify their conclusion that we may use preferred names but not preferred pronouns? Alan Shlemon states that names are a matter of convention. As he explains it, “traffic light colors are also a matter of convention. Green means go and red means stop. It’s possible our society could have determined different meanings for traffic light colors — red meaning go and green meaning stop. There’s nothing inherent about green that means go.” And this is true.

It is also true, however, that there is nothing inherent about green that means green. The word does not have to refer to the color. The language could have developed so that green means red, and red means, say, cow. All words are conventions. This is true of both names and pronouns. The language could have developed so that Gabriel is a woman’s name, and Gabrielle a man’s name.

The language could also have developed so that he is a feminine pronoun, and she a masculine pronoun. Yet it did not. The language has developed as it has, and changing such long-established conventions now would be confusing. It is confusing.

More to the point, it is surrendering to a false and pernicious ideology, which makes it wrong. We must not yield on the matter of preferred names any more than we should yield on the matter of preferred pronouns.

What if a man has legally changed his name to Belinda? In our anti-Christian culture, it is easy to imagine Jack Phillips-style persecution resulting from refusing to play along. But does that change the principle? Suppose that this man has legally changed his birth certificate and driver’s license to say that he is female. Should we, because the law recognizes him as a woman, allow him in a women’s restroom or dormitory? The law may require us to accept lies, but that will never make it right.

A Simple Question

Consider this: If names are not tied to sex, as pronouns are, then why do people who want to belong to the opposite sex choose different names in the first place? They clearly think that there are male and female names, and they are right. If names had no gender, this would not be an issue at all.

Therefore, since most names are tied to just one sex or the other, how can we conscientiously use male names for women or female names for men? If using preferred pronouns is participating in a lie, then using preferred names is participating in a lie as well. Preferred names and preferred pronouns are wrong for the same reason: They deny reality.

In short, we should not call a man Tiffany, or a woman Alfred. Bruce Jenner is still Bruce Jenner. Will Thomas is still Will Thomas.

It is good that Christians want to show love to the sexually confused without giving unnecessary offense. But blessing preferred names while simultaneously condemning preferred pronouns can come across as giving people permission to burn one pinch of incense to Caesar, so long as they do not burn two. It is sacrificing a part of the truth in the hope that people will listen to what is left.

If we really love people, we must not give a single inch regarding the truth. They might not listen, but that is their choice. If they hate us, so be it. We must love people enough to do what is right, no matter how they react, as God loves us.

Mark Thomas Glenchur is a writer from Ohio. He has a B.A. in history from Taylor University and an M.A. in politics from Hillsdale College.

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