The Double Standard of Self-Identification
Sam Smith just came out as gender non-binary recently, wanting to be called “them” and “they”. If Sam were my co-worker or my student, I would not have any problem avoiding “he” or “him”, but I do not believe that I should ever be forced to call a single individual “them” or “they”. Under New Jersey law, I am only required to avoid offensive pronouns, “misgendering”, a phenomenon to which Sam Smith alluded to during his announcement his new status. I am also required under law, in employment, education, government, and housing arenas, to use the preferred name of a transgender person or in this case, gender non-binary person. I am not required under New Jersey law to use a person’s preferred pronoun, but I cannot use any other pronoun to refer to that person, at least intentionally.
This a tough standard and while I agree with it in principle and abide by it in my professional capacity, I do worry that since there are no protections for ideology in New Jersey, I can be fired simply for being uncomfortable with Sam Smith’s announcement. Yes much of my discomfort was because of the open use of the “f” word at the same time that Sam wanted everyone else to change their language for him, but also because as a celebrity, Sam has everything to gain and nothing to lose by identifying as gender non-binary, which is an impossible-to-prove identity, much more so than gender identity. Like Caitlin Jenner, there is always a possibility that a celebrity, unlike a common person, might make up an identity for notoriety and a certain level of irreproachability.
Obviously, I can never know whether Sam Smith is sincere or not, but the idea that I have no academic freedom, protected by law, to question Sam’s identity or his motives for his recent action scares me. In other words, I must change my language and ignore my own worldview about a person, not so much because the law says that I must but that I can be fired if I anger a very small, very powerful minority. The gender non-binary community is very, very small, a small part of the transgender community, which itself is a small part of the larger LGBT community.
The impact of the “Pronoun Wars” associated with the gender non-binary rights movement has pushed our grammar in big ways. Instead of using “his or her”, we use “their” much more”, even though “one’s” would make more sense grammatically, and would still be gender-neutral. The movement towards the plural for singular persons of unknown gender in a sentence did not begin with the gender non-binary or transgender rights movements, but it has accelerated in recent years as a result of these movements, especially the gender non-binary rights movements.
All of this huge power, from a tiny community is practically worrisome because in stands in stark contrast to the powerlessness of other small groups like the Italian American community in New Jersey. We are not allowed to self-identity as we wish. We are as pre-labelled as “non-Hispanic white” on the Census forms without being able to have our own statistical category or even fill in a blank. Many Italian Americans worry about what would happen if we identified as Latinos or other rather than as “non-Hispanic white”, because technically, we could be imprisoned for “lying” on the Census.
In other words, Italian Americans do not get to freely self-identity ourselves as we please, unlike Sam Smith or Caitlyn Jenner. If you look at who drives the various civil rights movements within the LGBT community, you find that it is primarily otherwise privileged persons whose only vulnerable characteristics are within the LGBT community. In other words, the leaders of predominantly white, often biologically male, and not usually of a pronounced ethnic community. So, it is easier to convince white Anglo power elites when many of the leaders of your community are also white Anglo power elites.
Italians are called “white” but we are neither Anglo or part of the power elites. So, we have a much harder job organizing politically and socially in our white Anglo-dominant society than does the LGBT community, which has a strong constituency in that community. There is nothing wrong with using the organizational power of privilege for civil rights activism, but this does explain why Italians get left behind while gender non-binary persons from the traditionally favored demographic get ahead of us in the line for civil rights acknowledgement.
Right now, Italians cannot check a box to affirm their ethnic identity on the Census, we are defined often by non-Italians in a way that would be inconceivable if we were gender non-binary persons, and even worse, the New Jersey state government does not take us seriously despite outnumbering gender non-binary persons by about 100 to 1 in New Jersey. The point here is that a double standard exists. While I have to worry about losing my job for criticizing Sam Smith’s profanity-ridden announcement of his gender identity, the New Jersey State Legislature has a cafeteria where five sandwiches are named after characters from the extremely racist, anti-Italian show, the Sopranos.
In sum, Italians and other ethnic groups deserve the same civil rights as gender non-binary persons, but right now we do not have them.