Debate on preferred pronouns reflects changing norms

It’s interesting that as Fort Saskatchewan City Council approves a universal change room for Harbour Pool, Bill C-16, or An Act to Amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, makes its way through the federal House of Commons.

There isn’t really a correlation between the two, but it’s topical, so here are my thoughts. The bill, which was passed on Nov. 22, adds gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.

Bill C-16 has raised an interesting discussion on semantics surrounding the use of gender-neutral pronouns, especially at the University of Toronto, where a professor has provoked protests and accusations of injustice from activists and students who do not identify with either traditional gender, and hence wish to be referred to as “they”.

The professor, Jordan Peterson, has drawn the ire of activists because he refuses to refer to anyone as “they”. Peterson does not claim to fundamentally reject the idea of a transexual person, but he does object to being told how he must refer to someone.

To Peterson, the concept of regulating speech that is not inherently hateful is dangerously close to controlling free speech, bordering on the Orwellian concept of regulating “thought crimes”.

But there’s a difference between referring to someone with a hateful term and refusing to call them by their preferred term. While Bill C-16 does amend the Canadian Criminal Code to protect transexual individuals against hate crimes, there is no evidence that refusing to refer to someone by a specific pronoun would fall under that umbrella.

But the law is admittedly nebulous and it’s possible an individual could face fines or mandatory anti-discrimination training for not using the right term. It’s a slippery slope that could have someone being charged for referring to someone as a gender which they appear to be, but don’t identify with.

It’s something everyone has to consider with the continuously-morphing lexicon that is considered politically correct (the once ubiquitous LGTBQ – Lesbian, Gay, Transexual, Bisexual or Queer – has been amended into LGBTQ2S, which includes two-spirited, which interestingly enough, some First Nations groups have opposed because they see it as a form of cultural appropriation).

Universal change rooms and bathrooms are a lightning rod for controversy, especially when utilized by children. It’s understandable; there are people who only believe in two genders and wouldn’t want their children changing with other children who identify as one gender but have different sexual organs.

Here in the Fort, our poll says that 70 per cent of respondents believe a universal change room at Harbour Pool for the cost of $1 million is not needed because it’s too much money. In hindsight, I wish I had given a chance for respondents to say no, we don’t need a universal change room, period. While $1 million for a change room does seem like a lot, I suspect there are some other reasons as to why some might reject the idea. It’s important to note that people needing a gender-neutral washroom is only one group that would benefit from a universal change room; there are also those who need assistance changing or for older children who need assistance from a parent or caregiver.

I am not someone who rejects the idea of transgenderism. While I do find the debate about use of preferred pronouns perplexing, I do believe public facilities should provide universal change rooms in order to ensure accessibility for all residents.  It’s common sense.

At the same time, we should hope that common sense prevails in the larger arena of political correctness when it comes to how we speak to each other. It’s a dangerous precedent to use one group’s grievance as an avenue to curb the free speech of others.

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