Zir, Yes, Zir

It’s not the tail wagging the dog. It’s a hair on the tail wagging the dog, but all the virtue signallers are kvelling over what good people they are.  First, it was college campuses, where every new fashion trend in hem length is born. Then, the New York City Council, fearful that some other city would beat them to the punch.  Now, Washington, D.C. has jumped on the bandwagon.

Employers and employees in Washington D.C. are legally prohibited from referring to a transgender employee or coworker by the “wrong” pronouns or asking “personal questions” about their gender identity, according to the city’s Office of Human Rights (OHR).

OHR published a best practices guide for “valuing transgender applicants and employees” earlier this month with a list of “behaviors by supervisors or coworkers [that] may be considered unlawful harassment or a hostile work environment.”

It’s not that you necessarily get to reinvent the workplace to suit your personal sense of dignity, but that’s only if you’re not transgender (or any other protected classification of employee). Your boss can tell you how to perform your job, because that’s her job. But when it comes to favored classes, she must do as the law commands. And that means the law dictates the words she’s required to utter.

It also is pressuring employers and workers to use imaginary pronouns like “ze” and “zir” to refer to transgender employees who prefer it (even though few do), and to use ungrammatical plural forms like “they” and “themselves” to refer to individual transgender employees who so desire.

If you’re so inclined to bastardize the language to the point of incomprehensibility to signal your virtue toward transgender people, that’s great. Well, not really, because words have definitions and allow us to communicate, and when words cease to be tethered to definitions, but go all Humpty Dumpty on us, the ability to communicate fails. All these millennia spent trying to create a means of communication trashed at the mention of some vague notion of dignity. But hey, using words with meanings would make people sad, and, really, what’s more important than making marginalized people happy?

But as Eugene Volokh points out, the use of law to compel speech presents a constitutional problem.

So people can basically force us — on pain of massive legal liability — to say what they want us to say, whether or not we want to endorse the political message associated with that term, and whether or not we think it’s a lie.

Compelled speech would be an outrage under pretty much any other circumstance, yet not here because . . . reasons.  At the moment, the remedies for failure to adhere to these rules, whether you’re an employer (public or private) or even a patron (since an employer’s failure to demand that patrons utter desired words similarly give rise to “harassment” in the workplace), are monetary. The creation of a crime to enforce these requirements hardly seems like much of a stretch.

But this is just the beginning, and the latest exercise is conducted by the Pentagon, as the Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, has just announced that the military will no longer discriminate against transgender people.

“We have to have access to 100 percent of America’s population for our all-volunteer force to be able to recruit from among them the most highly qualified — and to retain them,” Mr. Carter said in announcing the new policy.

That’s great, and a sign of budding maturity, since there have always been gays and transgender soldiers in the military, serving their country honorably, but hiding their less-than-normative identities in foxholes to avoid the childishness of people too foolish to recognize that they exist and that they’re just as capable of being good soldiers as anyone else. That someone is gay or transgender makes a cis-heteronormative soldier feel all weird? Too bad. Grow up. It has nothing to do with you what someone else feels about himself.

The Pentagon has tried to formulate some rules to limit the variability that might be attendant to transgender confusion. Stability and reliability are important in the military, where other people’s lives depend on your doing your job without collateral issues getting in the way.

But to be eligible to enlist, transgender individuals will have to show that they have “been stable in their preferred gender” for at least 18 months and have completed all the transition-related medical treatment they expect to have.

Already, the New York Times frets that this is “too high a bar.”

This requirement sets an extraordinarily high bar. Transgender people often make decisions about medical treatment — which can include hormone replacement therapy and surgery — over the course of years. They should not be forced to affirm that they have completed a medical transition before enlisting if they are healthy and fit for the strenuous requirements of military life.

You would think their worry would include understanding that they not only need to meet the “strenuous requirements of military life” going in, but maintain it throughout. There is a bit of a difference between soldiers getting surgery to remove a bullet or reattach a severed limb, and surgery to remove an undesired appendage.

But even the initial rules for the military raise command issues that reflect the same absurdity as New York and D.C.

Rules that are to go into effect this year will offer commanders and transgender troops clear guidance on matters ranging from medical treatment, access to restrooms, the use of pronouns and changes to a person’s name and gender marker in military records. Critically, the new rules add gender identity as a protected category in the Pentagon’s equal opportunity policy. (Emphasis added.)

But unlike the words you utter when ordering your Big Mac on K Street or Seventh Avenue, the military is the one place where you can be commanded to use certain language.  And unlike ordering a Big Mac, the military is the one place where failure to communicate with clarity can result in death on the battlefield.

That could be the cis-heteronormative soldier, the gay soldier or the transgender soldier. Is it really worth bastardizing the language because hemlines went up? If not calling a transgender person by his preferred pronouns makes you cry now, will you cry when he’s dead because someone didn’t realize that the order to act was directed at him because the commander used the wrong pronoun?


26 thoughts on “Zir, Yes, Zir

  1. JD

    It only seems like yesterday that saying “It shall rub lotion on its body” was a bad thing. Now we’re making it a crime not to refer to some people as it.

    We am so confusion that they don’t know what to do. (formerly known as I am so confused that I don’t know what to do)

  2. SamS

    “If there is a fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” Justice Jackson writing for the majority in West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette.

  3. ShelbyC


    “Wait, do you mean when ze gets past the treeline?”

    1. SHG Post author

      Why didn’t you lay down covering fire? They’re all dead.
      You said “him.” I don’t answer to “him.”

      1. frets

        Nobody answers to “him.” These are all third-person pronouns. Generally speaking, if you’re talking about someone in the third person they aren’t even part of the conversation. If I misgender a sleeping person, have a still committed a microaggression?

        When they complain about what I’m saying elsewhere in the building about them can’t I just say that my own personal preference is to use third-person pronouns that reflect sex instead of gender, because I think gender is a social construct that oppresses the female sex?

        In fact, I think making demands like this on a college campus should be investigated as a possible Title IX violation.

        1. SHG Post author

          Was there supposed to be something resembling a point in there? If you always communicate this way, it will never matter what words you use as no one will understand you anyway.

          1. frets

            Wow the service here is fast.

            Yes. I’ll try again.

            Serious attempt: Since the pronouns in question are third-person rather than second-person – I have yet to hear “zu” enter the debate – this seems to present a conundrum where the person who is complaining about how they are being addressed isn’t really being addressed at all. When you are addressing someone you don’t refer to them by a third-person pronoun. So this is an attempt to dictate how you should refer to someone in your own private conversations that the aggrieved person isn’t even a party to. This strikes me as both ludicrous and untenable.

            Hail Mary backup attempt: Why are we talking about third person pronouns as if they are ever directed at the person they are referring to? This doesn’t even make sense. And I’m the unintelligible one?

            I’m genuinely deflated that you mock the idea of using Title IX against this sort of nonsense.

            1. SHG Post author

              Well, that kinda helped, until the last sentence, since I had no clue where you were going with this. First, it’s an issue because it’s been made into an issue by laws enacted and penalties imposed. Yes, most of the time, third-person pronouns are spoken outside the hearing of the person to whom they refer, suggesting that the person to whom they refer has no say and shouldn’t give a shit.

              And yet, they do. But then, third-person pronouns are also spoken in reference to a person present and in earshot, so while that may not be the norm, it’s also not uncommon. Taking it a step further, if a third-person pronoun is said to an intermediary (“Sgt., tell him to lay down covering fire.”) and the intermediary misinterprets it because the “him” means something different to the Sgt. than to the Capt., confusion reigns.

              And I assume that your use of “mock” with “Title IX” and “this sort of nonsense” suggests that I’m supposed to know when a person, who has a grand total of two comments here, is trying to be sarcastic. And as for what strikes you as “ludicrous and untenable,” that is meaningful because everyone cares deeply about your feelings.

            2. frets

              I suppose this will just be dumped, if the absence of a “reply” option to your last response is any indication. But in the sincere interest of genuine debate over shallow jousting I’ll put it on the table anyway. And yes, obviously I kinda suck at this so I’m aware sincerity isn’t any kind of pass. Especially if it’s so inscrutable that my sincerity looks like misinterpreted attempts at snark.

              “We” should probably have been “they” in my above post. The intended target of the comment was our society and those making this an issue in it, not any discussion on this site or the larger community in response to it. No questioning the value of this current discussion – or even substantive disagreement with it – was intended.

              Of course people are occasionally within earshot of third party pronoun references to themselves. But they are still neither the sender nor the receiver of that specific communication. Clarity depends upon the sender and receiver being on the same page with each other, not with the subject. Not only are issues of “harassment” and a “hostile work environment” independent from the issue of clarity, they are generally at odds with it as a practical matter and have made the issue much worse. By tying pronouns to subjective gender preferences instead of biological sex, they’ve made it much more difficult to predict what words will mean in dynamic interactions. Now the battlefield skill set will have to include joint mind-reading.

              My Title IX comment was actually not sarcastic at all. Just probably too outside the box. It’s not only oppression judo, I think there is a legitimate argument to be made for the discriminatory impact of officially tethering pronouns to subjective gender stereotypes instead of to biology (even with flexibility allowed for transition status). With just a little reframing it’s possible to demonstrate – using their own methods and standards – how this can result in a hostile environment based on sex.

              As for the gratuitous first-person reference, he’s sorry and promises he won’t do it again.

  4. Nick L. EMT-P NYC

    I’ll just use the term that the great criminal defense attorney, Vincent LaGuardia Gambini, used when referring to his most famous clients: YouTs. He surely was referring to You Transexuals, no?

    For my first post, that’s all I got.

  5. Nigel Declan

    What is so wrong with simply using “y’all” when referring to an individual and “all y’all” when referring to multiple people? Once again, Texas had it right all along.

      1. paul

        If you insist on a z, let me suggest the Pittsburgh “yinz.” You can even say all yinz.

  6. B. McLeod

    This will be part of the freight for law offices if ABA gets its new ethics rule adopted by the state bars. However, I think it will be possible to slip the pronoun foolishness by simply addressing and referring to everyone by their full names. As long as the practice is the same for everyone.

  7. Patrick Maupin

    Let me introduce you to the crew, John. This is Dickhead, here’s Fuckup, that’s Wanker, and over here is Putz. You can call me Dipshit.

    Here’s a list of approved office names. Pick one off the list for yourself. What? Yeah, I know, they’re all pretty demeaning. Sorry about that. Putz has Tourette’s, and we don’t want to make him uncomfortable by using names that he can’t consistently say by the tenth or fifteenth try.

  8. asdf

    “all the virtue signallers are kvelling over what good people they are” It’s called being a politician

    Also Zir is stupid, isn’t that a word in German? Vir seems better, I don’t think there are many homophones.

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