Column: Pronoun hysteria is pure MAGA politics, with a side of devastation for vulnerable trans kids

Protesters with a sign and waving a pink, blue and white flag
A transgender rights rally in Alabama in 2021. Three days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can prohibit abortion, Alabama argued that the state should also be able to ban gender-affirming medical treatments for transgender youth.
(Jake Crandall / Associated Press)

When the current pronoun movement was first taking shape — or at least, when I first became aware of it several years ago — I was slightly irritated. Growing up in a family where precision of language was cherished, then spending decades in a career where subject and verb agreement is not optional, being asked to use the pronouns “they” and “them” for a single individual grated on me. It could lead to confusion, the very opposite of the clarity we strive for in our profession.

I am so over that now.

It took me a while to get here, but maybe the way people actually use language is how language ought to be used. Also, maybe how people choose to be identified is how we should identify them. In the newsroom, we used to call this the Muhammad Ali rule: If Cassius Clay wishes to be called Muhammad Ali, then that is what we will call him.

Opinion Columnist

Robin Abcarian

Likewise, if a human being identifies with a gender that is different from what is on their birth certificate, then that is the gender we should use for them. If a person decides they are nonbinary — that is, they identify as neither male nor female — then that’s how we should identify them too.

The question of why anyone makes these decisions is really none of our business. Certainly, it is not the business of the state to tell people what their pronouns should be.

In Kentucky, however, Republican legislators beg to differ.

Last week, they advanced a bill that would protect teachers and other school staff who deliberately misgender transgender students. The bill would prohibit policies that compel school staff to use pronouns that do not conform to a student’s birth certificate gender. It would also prohibit school policies that allow students’ information — including gender identity — to be kept confidential from their parents.

Are these really burning issues in Kentucky?

“School administrators and faculty are being unnecessarily pressured to conform to an agenda that has no place within our public schools,” said the bill’s sponsor. “It’s time to remove these unnecessary distractions from our classrooms.”


Why is it so hard to show respect for a child or teenager by using their chosen name or pronoun? Why not focus on more pressing issues?

Kentucky, after all, ranks among the bottom 10 American states in U.S.News and WalletHub assessments that compare states’ economies, education systems, residents’ health and quality of life. About 20% of Kentuckians live in poverty, the fifth-highest poverty rate in the nation. Does demonizing trans kids really improve the lives of Kentuckians?

The state’s popular Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear told the Associated Press that he was “struck by the callousness” of the bill, coming as it did only months after the transgender son of a Democratic state senator died by suicide. Beshear also worried that it would lead to increased bullying in schools.

But lawmakers who favor such a law cannot possibly care about whether transgender children are being bullied, or they wouldn’t single them out.

What they really care about, it seems to me, is whether such a bill can whip up enough hysteria to keep conservative voters engaged and get them to the polls come election time.


It wasn’t that long ago that hysteria about same-sex marriage served the same purpose, and not just in red states. Recall California’s Proposition 8, in 2008, which banned gay marriage until it was overturned by the courts in 2010.

In any case, the U.S. Supreme Court neutralized the issue of gay marriage once and for all when it legalized the practice in its landmark 2015 decision Obergefell vs. Hodges. This was, maybe not so coincidentally, the same year Drag Queen Story Hour was launched in San Francisco and the same year that right-wing activists in Houston began claiming that the city’s proposed equal rights law allowed men to prey on girls in public restrooms. (It went down to defeat.)

With gay marriage off the table, was there any question that conservative attacks on transgender rights would ramp up?

According to the LGBTQ+ site Them, last year 36 states passed or introduced at least 300 bills targeting trans and queer rights. And now, less than two months into 2023, more than 90 anti-LGBTQ bills are working their way through state legislatures.

Experts say children are at risk from a surge in anti-LGBTQ legislation.

March 29, 2022

Four states — Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and Arizona — have criminalized gender-affirming care for trans youth, according to the healthcare site KFF.

Eighteen, including Kentucky, have banned trans kids from playing on the sports teams of the gender they identify as.


And some states are entertaining bills that would restrict gender-affirming care that adults already receive, which has raised fears that trans adults would be forced to detransition.

The ugly battle against transgender Americans is just finding its feet.

Legislating chosen pronouns out of existence might seem like a small thing, but it’s part of the larger strategy of denying trans people the right to their own identities.

And, of course, to get out the MAGA Republican vote.