Right-wing media pundits are mocking efforts by schools and employers to ensure that transgender students and staff aren’t repeatedly and intentionally misgendered, calling it “political correctness” gone “wild.” But using someone’s appropriate pronoun is not only a journalistic best practice -- it’s also a vital step in ensuring the health and safety of transgender people, especially youth, who are at extremely high risk for encountering bullying and violence and engaging in suicidal ideation.
As the nationwide fight for transgender equality becomes increasingly visible, conservative outlets continue to attack basic efforts to protect transgender people from discrimination. Right-wing mockery and fearmongering has targeted, in particular, school administrators and local governments seeking to protect transgender people from repeated and intentional misgendering by peers or supervisors.
The latest round of right-wing attacks came in response to the University of Michigan announcing that students would be able to designate personal pronouns on class rosters. The media attention began when the conservative blog The College Fix reported that University of Michigan student Grant Strobel “decided to change his preferred pronoun to ‘His Majesty’ - in an attempt to make the point that this policy has no basis in reality.”
After making its way through web-based conservative outlets, the story popped up on the September 29 edition of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, where host Bill O’Reilly declared that “political correctness [is] running wild on college campuses.” Fox’s Greg Gutfeld, who appeared as a guest, openly mocked the initiative by calling himself “Ms. Ann Arbor.” Bernard McGuirk, another guest on the show, went a step further and said that using a transgender person's appropriate pronouns is “madness” and causing society to turn into “bed-wetting losers”:
BERNARD MCGUIRK: It started in the University of Wisconsin, University of Oregon and of course, as you might imagine, it’s not just political correctness -- it’s lunacy, it’s madness is what it is. And the college campuses used to be fun places, right? They used to be joyful places. Now they are like indoctrination camps. With these angry, thumb-sucking cry bullies looking to be victims, looking to be offended by somebody, and they're turning into language cops shoving all of this down people's throats and it often bleeds into the society at large is what happens.
Right-wing media have long written off using appropriate pronouns for transgender people as another “political correctness” attack on free speech. But journalistic guidelines established by The Associated Press, The New York Times, GLAAD, and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association all instruct journalists to refer to transgender people by their chosen names and pronouns, making it basic good practice for the media.
More importantly, when others repeatedly and intentionally use the wrong pronoun for transgender people, it can have devastating effects on their mental health. The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported that transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents who had been repeatedly referred to by the wrong pronouns had a substantially higher frequency of lifetime suicide attempts than respondents overall (56 percent versus 41 percent).
It’s no surprise that well-respected medical organizations also emphasize the importance of using correct pronouns, especially for transgender youth. A new guide from the Human Rights Campaign in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Osteopathic Pediatricians -- which together represent more than 66,000 pediatricians and pediatric specialists across the country -- stresses the need to affirm children’s gender identity through measures like affirming their appropriate pronouns. When families fail to affirm their child’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, youth are “at significantly increased risk of depression, substance abuse and suicide attempts.”
The Washington Post recently highlighted the “wrenching” story of Kyler Prescott, a 14-year-old transgender boy from San Diego, CA, who killed himself after being repeatedly harassed and bullied about his gender identity. His mom is filing a lawsuit against the hospital that treated him a month before his suicide, claiming that the staff repeatedly addressed Kyler as a girl despite explicitly being informed otherwise, which added to his distress.
When the media mock and condemn the importance of using the appropriate pronouns for transgender people, they set an irresponsible and harmful example for viewers to do the same.