Lee Airton teaches at the Master of Teaching Program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Florence Ashley is an LL.M. Candidate and O'Brien Fellow in the Faculty of Law at McGill University
Bill C-16, An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (gender identity or expression), has cleared the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee and will shortly come to a vote. Along the way, opponents have argued that including pronoun protections is a threat to "free speech." Recently, professor Bruce Pardy suggested to the Senate that the Bill be amended to exclude any protection for gender pronouns.
Pronouns might seem like a small price to pay for greater consensus. They aren't. The removal of pronoun protection will kneecap the Bill. Here's why.
The anti-pronoun outcry centres on gender-neutral pronouns, used by the few transgender people who do not identify as men or women. Accommodating a gender-neutral pronoun user commonly means saying "they" instead of she or he. Very rarely does this mean saying a "neo-pronoun" like ze/hir. In their lifetime, the average Canadian will encounter no one who uses a neo-pronoun. However, the ludicrous spectre of every transgender person using a different pronoun has been wielded like a baseball bat by many C-16 opponents.
Learning to say "they" for one person undeniably takes some extra effort. But it's rather like learning to pronounce and use someone else's culturally unfamiliar (to you) name in everyday speech. This takes repetition, trial and error. A note to self, a bit of practice, a few gentle reminders, and, voila: You're on your way. Saying "they" is no big deal, really, but it feels like being compelled because you have to try.
C-16's opponents object to the extra effort that gender-neutral pronouns entail. Crucially, this means they also object to any extra effort to use any pronoun, even she or he. Without the effort of thought, we infer pronouns from our own ideas about what gender looks like. If someone fits our own image of a woman, we say "she" without noticing. If you willfully refer to that woman with a male pronoun, this is seen as an act of aggression.
In fact, current provincial workplace harassment laws conceivably protect all people – whether transgender or not – from being repeatedly referred to with the wrong pronoun, as this can create a toxic work environment. Right now, an employee may leave such a workplace and sue for wrongful dismissal, but would then have legal fees and no job. Finding stable employment is much harder for transgender people, who research shows are plagued by unemployment, underemployment and homelessness.
Unamended, Bill C-16 will change the game in favour of people who actually need protection: if a co-worker doesn't fit one's own ideas about gender, one still may not call them the wrong pronoun. The co-worker wouldn't need to risk becoming homeless in order to have their gender respected. A 2014 study found that transgender and gender non-conforming people who were repeatedly and intentionally misgendered at work were 37 per cent more likely to have attempted suicide.
Should someone be allowed to refuse a transgender woman's "she" pronoun because they don't think she is "feminine enough" (think long hair, dresses, makeup, etc.) for it to be effortless? Should she have to be feminine at all? Today, non-transgender men and women are increasingly free to express masculinity and femininity in different ways, yet still expect their correct pronouns to be used. Why should transgender people have to restrict our gender expression to access the same right?
This minimal standard is already an entrenched and well-accepted legal mandate for people who are not transgender. Bill C-16 will, at long last, extend pronoun protections to transgender people, too. Because federal jurisdiction covers large and ubiquitous organisations like banks, telecommunication companies and airlines, the Bill will add greatly to the inclusion of transgender people in public life.
That is, as long as it doesn't exclude pronouns.
Excluding pronouns from Bill C-16 protects those who think they shouldn't have to make an effort to accommodate someone who jars with their expectations. That is not a model of active citizenship to be defended by the Senate of Canada over the rights of some of the most vulnerable people in Canada. We agree with the Canadian Bar Association and many other experts, and urge the Senate to pass Bill C-16, as is.