Problems with Preferred Pronouns

Alan Shlemon

All we’re being asked to do is change one word. It’s a simple request. Just use a different pronoun. It might seem like a no-brainer for a believer to comply. Why cause unnecessary tension by refusing a request to be courteous?

Even some Christians encourage the church to practice “pronoun hospitality” and use the preferred pronouns of a person who identifies as transgender. They believe it’s a simple act of kindness that engenders relationship and avoids unnecessary distress in a transgender person’s mental health.

But it’s not that simple. It’s not that we don’t want to be kind or are indifferent about their well-being. Rather, it’s because we care about truth, fidelity to God, and their well-being that many believers abstain from this social ritual. Here are some things to consider.

First, it’s important to distinguish between using preferred pronouns and using preferred names. Here’s why. 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’s why they can’t be chosen.

To say that names are a matter of convention means that names can be chosen because they are not inherent to who a person is. For example, 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. It was simply a matter of preference (a convention) that green was chosen for go, but it could have been otherwise.

In the same way, names are a matter of convention. My wife and I considered naming our daughter Anya, but we ended up choosing Sarah. Either one would have worked. There’s nothing inherent about the name Sarah that refers to our daughter. Furthermore, our daughter could one day change her name to Shelly if she desired. That’s because names are a matter determined by preference and can be chosen.

For this reason, I can abide by a person’s preferred name. In many cases, I don’t have any other option since they decide what name to share with me. I understand some parents insist on using their child’s given name because of the uniqueness of the relationship. I’m not arguing that preferred names should be used, but that they can be used.

I don’t use a person’s preferred pronouns, however, since pronouns refer to an objective reality—one’s biological sex. Whether you are male or female isn’t a matter determined by preference and, therefore, can’t be chosen.

For example, age is also a biological reality and not chosen. Dutch positivity guru and television personality Emile Ratelband decided to identify as a 49-year-old when he was in his late sixties. No one should be obligated to refer to him as the younger age because age is a biological reality that can’t be changed and is therefore not a matter of preference. In the same way, sex is a biological reality that also can’t be changed and also is not a matter of preference. Using a pronoun that refers to a person’s chosen sexual identity is like using a number to refer to person’s chosen age. Both are illegitimate because neither age nor sex is a matter determined by choice.

Some people, however, claim that language evolves and pronouns can now refer not only to biology but also to “gender identity” (a person’s internal sense of what “gender” they believe themselves to be). Though that might be believed by a segment of society, there is also another large portion of the population that doesn’t accept that shift in language. In fact, they believe words matter and allowing/collaborating with the change in what a pronoun refers to is a problem. They don’t see the attempt to change language to embrace transgender ideology as benign.

Second, when talking to a person, you don’t use their pronouns. You just use their name (“Kaitlyn, can you meet for coffee?”) or “you” (“You did an amazing job”) to refer to them. In other words, declining to go along with a person’s preferred pronouns will not likely upset that person since they’re not usually present when you use their pronouns.

Pronouns are most often used when you’re talking about someone with another person. It’s possible the person you’re talking to might get upset or remind you that the transgender person you referred to prefers a different pronoun than the one you used. Perhaps they might even report your “misgendering” of them to the transgender person. In other words, they’ll require you to use preferred pronouns even when you’re not around the transgender person. This raises another problem.

Third, preferred pronouns entail compelled speech. You’re expected to use an approved set of words when speaking about a person, even when you’re not around them. This is odd. If I’m in a different building, do they dictate how I speak? What if I’m in a different city, state, or country? Do they control what I can say? There’s no precedent for such a demand.

Muslims don’t have the right to demand I say “Prophet Mohammed” every time I refer to the founder of Islam. Nor do I demand they refer to Christ as “Lord Jesus.”

Still, some Christians say you’re not required to use a person’s preferred pronouns, but it’s courteous to do so if you’re asked. It’s simply a matter of being a kind Christian. Whether it’s courteous or kind to comply, however, depends on the nature of what is being asked of you, which leads to the next problem.

Fourth, using preferred pronouns entails adopting a foreign worldview. Complying with a transgender person’s request might seem like a minor change in your behavior, but it’s not. They’re not merely asking you to speak different words. You’re being asked to abandon your worldview position on this topic and adopt their worldview. The belief that pronouns can refer to gender identity or that a biological man can be a woman is not a minor matter. It’s embedded in a worldview that bifurcates biology and gender identity. If that’s not part of your belief system, why are you expected to participate in someone else’s worldview?

Fifth, using preferred pronouns ignores the principle of reciprocity. For decades, I’ve heard non-Christians tell Christians, “You can believe whatever you want. You can believe the Bible is God’s Word. You can believe sex outside of marriage is sin. You can believe anything you want. Just don’t expect the rest of us to live according to your beliefs.” Fair enough. If that principle is legitimate, then we should be permitted to respond in a similar fashion to a transgender person’s request: “You can believe whatever you want. You can believe you’re a woman when you’re biologically a man. Just don’t expect the rest of us to live according to your beliefs.” That’s fair. As the previous point suggests, why is it that only Christians are expected to abandon their worldview position on sex and gender and adopt a secular view that is unbiblical?

Sixth, using preferred pronouns participates in social transitioning, a first step in a process that can lead to self-harm. Christians who promote “pronoun hospitality” are concerned that “misgendering” a person can cause emotional distress and potentially lead to depression and/or self-harm. It’s legitimate to be concerned about not hurting others. Obviously, we don’t want to harm anyone, so we should be mindful about what kind of impact our decisions have on others.

However, given the concern of harm, the question of what kind of harm we ought to protect the transgender person from is precisely what the debate is about. “Pronoun hospitality” advocates assume the harm comes from “misgendering” someone. But those who refrain from using preferred pronouns are concerned about the self-harm that comes from psychological, hormonal, and surgical procedures that are euphemistically called “gender-affirming care.”

A person who has declared a new name with new pronouns has already taken the first step by socially “transitioning.” If they continue, the next step includes pumping their body with puberty-blocking or cross-sex hormones. Finally, surgical “transition” often entails amputation of healthy sex organs and/or the mutilation of body parts. In these surgeries, doctors harvest tissue from the person’s forearm, thighs, or back to fabricate an artificial (and nonfunctioning) penis. To create an artificial (and nonfunctioning) vagina, doctors will either invert a penis or harvest part of the man’s intestine. This is genital and bodily mutilation.

Many people who refuse to use preferred pronouns do so out of a genuine concern that their friend or family member will engage in self-harm. They don’t want to participate in the first step of social “transitioning” because they fear their collaboration could lead to hormonal and/or surgical procedures that are barbaric.

Seventh, practicing “pronoun hospitality” is not hospitable but insincere. If you don’t believe a biological man can be a woman, but you use a female pronoun to refer to him, you’re being disingenuous. You’re saying something with your words (referring to him as a woman) that you don’t believe with your mind. Would a transgender person appreciate your pretending to affirm their chosen identity when you don’t believe it in your heart?

If I invited a friend to my son’s baptism, but they weren’t a Christian and didn’t agree with the ritual, I wouldn’t want them to say “congratulations” if they didn’t mean it. There’s no point to their paying lip service to a theological truth they don’t believe. In the same way, using preferred pronouns when you reject the transgender identity is two-faced.

Given these numerous concerns, using preferred pronouns is anything but simple. It’s not that Christians are “transphobic” or unwilling to be courteous. There are principled reasons that justify holding off on this cultural trend.

If you decline to use preferred pronouns, though, some Christians will claim your decision might jeopardize your relationship with a transgender person. They’ll tell you that if you want to maintain the relationship, you need to use preferred pronouns. Although I agree that we should lean into relationships with friends and family who identify as transgender, I think there are limits. If what you’re being asked to do violates your conscience (because of one or more of the reasons listed above), it’s reasonable to refuse.

Too often, the goal of “maintaining the relationship” is elevated to an unreasonably high priority. There’s no principle that requires you to violate your conscience to maintain a relationship. If the relationship suffers as a result, so be it. There’s only so much you’re responsible to do. Your efforts to maintain a relationship should not trump your fidelity to biblical values, truth, and what you think is right.

Preferred pronouns are not the first cultural trend that Christians should reject. It won’t be the last. Like Daniel, you are an exile living in Babylon. Just like he was pressured to yield to the land’s laws, you’ll be pressured to succumb to society’s social rituals. Therefore, like Daniel, make fidelity to God a priority. You might feel like you’re standing alone, but you’ll never be alone.