Monday, December 27, 2021

Hayashi’s Wager on Trans Pronouns (Not Pascal’s Wager)

Stuart K. Hayashi


For many people who revile the idea of respecting the pronouns of trans- and non-binary people, I have a wager. It is not like Pascal’s Wager. I do not claim that if you do as I ask, and it turns out later that I was wrong, you will have lost nothing anyway. However, I do ask the following. First, look at the results of doing as I ask, only for it to turn out I was wrong. Then look at the results of not doing as I ask, only for it to turn out that it was those who disrespect trans people’s pronouns who turned out to be wrong. Then compare the bad consequences of the first outcome against the second.

People are trans if, psychologically, they find themselves identifying as a gender opposite from the sex that they were assigned at birth. The term trans is used because that prefix means “across from.” That is, their gender is one that is across from the sex that they were assigned. By contrast, I am a cisgendered male — “cis” for short. The cis- prefix means “on the same side of.” You are cis- if the gender with which you identify is the very same as the sex that you were assigned at birth. Non-binary people are not technically trans; they do not identify their gender as either male or female.

For now, let’s leave aside issues about any series of gender reassignment surgeries and any issues about trans women competing in athletics against cis women. For the moment, let’s look at pronouns.

What I ask you is that you respect the pronouns that a trans person specifies. If you happen upon a trans woman who asks to be called “she” and “her,” please do so.

No, I often hear in response. The retort is that transgenderism is, at best, a delusion. According to this insistence, a trans woman is necessarily male in every pertinent context. The problem, it is said, is that this trans woman possesses some sort of mental illness or delusion that “he” is a woman. This is comparable, it is often said, to able-bodied people who feel that it is “wrong” to have all their limbs and who have the desire to have a perfectly healthy limb surgically amputated (this is a real mental illness).

According to that interpretation, it is not just annoying to comply with calling a trans woman by her requested pronouns; it is wrong. It is wrong, we are told, because to call this “delusional man” a “she” is to reinforce and enable “his” “delusion.” After all, aren’t genitalia the deciding factor in determining whether someone is male or female?

My response is as follows. There is indeed scientific evidence for a physiological basis in transgenderism. Other parts of the anatomy can be overridden by brain structure and brain chemistry. Since the 1990s, neurologists have found, from data collected in autopsies, that a trans woman’s brain has greater physiological similarity to a cis woman’s brain than a cis man’s. The greater similarity is in the structure in the brain called the BSTc — the Central subdivision of the Bed nucleus of the Stria Terminalis.

Now let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that it turns out that I am wrong. And let’s say that you have indeed done as I asked, and called trans people by their preferred pronouns. What is the worst that could happen? The worst that would happen was that for some brief moment, yes, you did provide some trivial and fleeting reinforcement to someone’s “delusion.” And then you went on with your day. And maybe this subtle change in the culture might contribute to larger changes, such as there being more trans women competing against cis female athletes.

But let’s imagine that I’m correct, and you don’t do as I asked. What’s the worst that could happen from that? It’s already a fact that, their entire lives, trans people have been continually invalidated, often even by members of their own families, sometimes their own parents. These people are frequently told that they don’t know their own minds and don’t understand their own thoughts. To be hit on the head with this, over and over, for decades, leaves scars. And if I’m right, and you disrespect trans people’s pronouns, you will have made a contribution to this lifetime of invalidation, denial, ridicule, and abuse.

Again, I’m not Blaise Pascal. I’m not claiming that if you do as I ask, and it turns out I’m wrong, that you’ve lost nothing anyway. But I am asking you to weigh the cost of me being wrong versus the cost of it being wrong to disrespect trans people’s pronouns.