Gregory Coles is on the Collaborative Team for The Center. His academic research on rhetorics of marginality (how language works in society for disadvantaged groups) has appeared in or is forthcoming from College English, Rhetorica, and Cambridge University Press. You can read his whole bio by clicking here.
I’ll argue in this paper that the most biblical response to transgender people’s pronouns is a posture of unequivocal pronoun hospitality. That is, I believe that all Christians can and should use pronouns that reflect the expressed gender identities of transgender people, regardless of our views about gender identity ethics. If a person identifies herself to you as “she,” I hope you will consider it an act of Christ-like love to call her “she” out of respect, whether or not you believe that the way she expresses her gender identity is honoring to God.
This idea of pronoun hospitality will probably already feel obvious to Christians who are fully affirming of transgender identities—that is, Christians who believe that followers of Jesus may ethically identify with and express a gender other than the one commonly aligned with their sex assigned at birth. (I use the phrase “sex assigned at birth” in this paragraph because it is the phrase commonly used by those who hold this theological position.) After all, if we fully agree with the biblical ethics of a transgender person’s self-identification as “he,” “she,” “them,” or “ze,” the only remaining impediment to shifting our pronouns accordingly is sheer laziness.
For other Christians, however, the question of pronoun use has another layer of complexity. What if we believe, in accordance with the stance of the Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender, that “God desires all males and females to express their gender in accordance with their biological sex”? (I use the phrases “biological sex” and “birth sex” in this paragraph because they are the phrases commonly used by those who hold this theological position.) Some proponents of this view of gender ethics still agree that Christians should show respect to transgender people by using the pronouns with which they identify themselves. Others have argued that because God intended gender and biological sex to be inextricable, Christians can only speak truthfully if they use pronouns which match a person’s birth sex. Thus, we cannot in good conscience use pronouns that match the self-understanding of transgender people, because doing so would be lying.
The goal of this paper is not to weigh in one way or another on the Christian ethics of gender identity. My intention is to set aside questions of gender identity ethics in order to focus exclusively on language ethics. What does it look like for people who think differently about gender identity ethics to speak truthfully and effectively about one another? This paper considers the common reasons given by Christian conservatives for rejecting the idea of pronoun hospitality, then challenges two assumptions about the nature of language that such arguments make and lays out an affirmative case for pronoun hospitality based in a robust understanding of how language works.