People’s preferred pronouns don’t require a debate

A letter from a Quebec school advising parents that a nonbinary teacher is using the pronoun Mx. ended up online last week, resulting in hateful threats, disparaging comments and the usual chorus of attention-hungry politicians and pundits decrying “wokeism.”

The controversy that erupted in Quebec last week after a letter that was meant for parents about a nonbinary teacher’s preferred honorific was shared widely online — resulting in hateful threats and disparaging comments — left me troubled. 

It all started when the school that hired the teacher issued a simple letter to parents saying that Martine, the part-time instructor, uses the Mx. honorific (pronounced Miks) because they are gender neutral.

In the letter the principal also noted that the Mx. honorific for people who don’t identify as male or female is used in English and is widely recognized, including by the Canadian government. It should have been a simple request, easily forgotten in the hullaballoo of back-to-school stress and far more concerning news about teacher shortages, but when the letter was leaked and the teacher’s name doxed, the threats (and the pronoun panic) soon followed. 

‘Wokeism’ at our doors

Always looking to latch on to the latest headline-grabbing controversy, Conservative Party leader Eric Duhaime insisted the teacher’s hiring demonstrates that “wokeism has now entered our daycares and schools,” and he deplored the CAQ’s inaction in restoring “common sense,” whatever that means. 

Every time I see accusations of “wokeism,” my eyes glaze over. The term has been weaponized by the right so ruthlessly and so repeatedly (like “social justice warrior” and “politically correct” once were) that it now means absolutely nothing, other than to indicate an attention to something the person using it does not approve of or like. It shuts down any attempt at a genuine conversation.

In a disappointing response, PQ leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon felt it necessary to declare that he wouldn’t use the Mx. title because it doesn’t exist in the French language. “I’ve never used the term ‘Mx.’, I don’t intend to use it,” he said when asked. 

Nonbinary people and terms describing them aren’t new

Despite the moral panic, Mx. is not new. It was developed as an alternative to gendered honorifics (like Mr. and Ms.) in the late 1970s and is the most common gender-neutral title among nonbinary people. It has slowly been making its way into our common vernacular and Canadians have been allowed to choose “X'” as a gender identity on their passports since 2019.

Just because you’ve never heard of a word does not mean it was just introduced. Also, to those claiming that it’s a “made-up word,” I have some very disturbing news for you; all words are made up. It’s how language works. There’s a reason dictionaries add new words every single year, because language grows and changes, which means new words and definitions must continually be added. 

I can understand people’s apprehension, confusion and awkwardness at being confronted by change. Most people don’t like it. It requires work for our brain to add new, foreign-sounding vocabulary and learn to use it naturally and effortlessly in a sentence, the same way one struggles learning a new language. The first time I interviewed and then quoted a nonbinary person in an article, I made the mistake of misgendering them. When they politely corrected me, I simply changed the pronouns. It took two minutes, far less time than Jordan Peterson has allocated to the topic, who’s probably busy recording his 20th video defiantly vowing not to use nonbinary pronouns with the same stubbornness and shaky dramatic flare a four-year-old uses to inform you they’ll never eat the broccoli that’s on their plate. 

It’s okay if life and language evolve and change 

New pronouns and words are not impositions, they are additions and options added to our linguistic arsenal. I’ve never questioned someone’s request to be addressed as they/them, despite the fact that my pronouns remain she/her. I take the same care to use their desired pronouns as I would not to misspell or mispronounce their chosen name. It’s common courtesy, and one of the most basic acts of civility and kindness. I suspect none of this perturbs me because I fully expect language to evolve and change as society around us transforms into something new. 

I simply don’t view change as an attack on what came before or the results of some malicious and targeted ploy to destabilize me and my comfort level. It’s not about me! The sooner people stop making their privilege and their ability to move around this world unbothered by change a value worth defending, the better they will be able to enjoy it and the sooner they will embrace the inevitable transformation of all things living.   

As society and language evolve, we adapt. With the French language, efforts have been made to make the language, which relies on masculine and feminine genders, more inclusive. In 2021, French dictionary Le Robert added the nonbinary pronoun “iel” to its online edition, a contraction of the masculine personal pronoun “il” and the feminine “elle”, il + elle = iel. 

I understand it’s easier with some languages than with others, but all languages are capable of introducing new words, new pronouns and gender-neutral and inclusive words. If the French language can somehow convince me that the word for vagina en français is masculine but la masculinité is feminine, we’re all capable of learning a few new words or navigating a new pronoun policy.

Cultural conservatism reigns here, too

In Quebec, we like to pretend that we’re far more progressive than other parts of the country, but we’re not. I see the same debates take place here that I see in the rest of Canada and certainly south of the border. The CAQ’s stronghold has demonstrated that centre-right ideas are quite popular here, and I fear that Legault has emboldened a certain cultural conservatism (and the terminology that comes with it) to emerge. What I find peculiar is that so much of his support continues to come from voters who don’t necessarily see themselves as conservative, when, in fact, they are. 

South of the border, people who claim that imposed gender terms are a “forced gender ideology” are almost always members of right-wing parties, conservatives and Christian and evangelical fundamentalists. They believe traditional family and gender roles are under attack and that children in classrooms are vulnerable to “indoctrination.” They are convinced kids are actively being recruited in classrooms by nonbinary or trans people to become something they are not. Their fears are often reminiscent of the same unfounded fears expressed by homophobic people who equated homosexuality with pedophilia back when gay couples were fighting for the right to marry or adopt children. 

Unsurprisingly, the anti-trans and anti-gender movements are deeply rooted in Catholic theology and religion and often go hand in hand with opposition to sex education, gender studies and abortion rights. More than a few times, I’ve seen Quebecers use “ideology” when discussing nonbinary or trans individuals, as if they’re imaginary arguments and not real people with real requests for respect. The OQLF also doesn’t make it easy when it chooses not to recognize the use of iel as a gender-neutral pronoun. This resistance to the modernization of the language is counterproductive for both the language itself and the people seeking to be seen in the words they love and speak. Ultimately, being able to better describe our world helps us understand it better.

Gender non-conformity and gender fluidity are not new. They’re as old as time. The notion of a third gender is a fundamental part of many non-western cultures, and two-spirit people have always been held in high respect among Indigenous communities. Just because you’re unaware of something does not make nonbinary people a “new” phenomenon or a sudden “trend” pushed by some. They may certainly be more visible these days, but that’s not the consequence of “indoctrination” but of a world that allows for more visibility and recognition of others. That’s a good thing. 

Disappointing reactions 

Last week, Plamondon took part in an LGBTQ+ parade and walked alongside his candidate for the Jean-Talon riding, Pascal Paradis, who was quick to tweet that he’s “long fought against discrimination and for the rights of people of sexual and gender diversity.” 

Why was there a need for the leader of a political party to declare openly that they will never address someone as Mx? How can he call for respect for nonbinary people while in the same breath ignoring the most basic of requests from them? How do you march in a parade for their rights while denying them their visibility and the right to be seen and addressed as they want to? This incongruous, have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too strategy needs to be seen for what it is: a disappointing attempt at pleasing everyone and alienating no one; typical of politicians focused on votes. 

While Education Minister Bernard Drainville was quick to condemn the hateful comments, and I applaud him for that, I vehemently disagree with his statement that we need to collectively reflect on Martine’s desired title. No, we absolutely don’t. How someone wants to be addressed — their basic dignity, identity and humanity — should not be up for debate. 

If we need a collective reflection on anything, we should be addressing why thousands of teachers are missing from our system and why thousands leave each year. We don’t need any time at all spent on the imaginary threat of nonbinary pronouns when the very real threats of a chronically underperforming education system, a healthcare system held together by duct tape and Quebecers stressing over rising costs of living and crippling affordability struggles are at our door. Those issues deserve a collective reflection — not that one word someone uses to identify you in a conversation. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.