Debate: Are pronoun badges a step in the right direction?

For: Support our trans peers

By Varshini Vijayakumar

What’s more controversial than a badge with a pronoun on it? Literally anything.

Think back to your first week at university. It’s exciting to move away from home and live independently, but it can also be overwhelming. Will you make friends? Are you going to have to live off toast for the next six months after blowing your student loan? Do you even want to get a degree?  In addition to these worries, trans students may also be anxious about harassment or being misgendered.

Using the correct pronouns to address someone is a simple courtesy, whether you’re cis or trans. However, cis people can generally assume we will be addressed with the correct pronouns. This is an example of cis privilege. For trans people, being misgendered is awkward at best. At worst, it’s scary or dangerous. Pronoun badges would hopefully help avoid these situations by removing any ambiguity. Vice President Welfare, Kai O’Doherty stated “I wanted to make these pronoun badges available to any students who were interested, as a cute, small way that people could normalise the sharing of pronouns”.

Let it be clear: no one is going be forced to wear a pronoun badge. According to Kai, the Students’ Association has only ordered 600 badges. It would be impossible to give them to the thousands of new students joining Edinburgh this week, let alone the larger student body. Like free slices of Domino’s pizza, the badges are totally optional; the only difference is you won’t be silently judged for taking two at once.

Last week, The Tab Edinburgh started a poll on whether pronoun badges were ‘a good idea’. Consider again our beloved Domino’s – would a poll on the ‘controversies’ of free pizza attract so much attention? Since then over 5000 people – the majority of whom aren’t even in Edinburgh –  have voted overwhelmingly against badges. The comments section is a mess, with comments comparing the idea to a totalitarian regime, calling for ‘a new plague’ and openly mocking trans people. The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Independent and a number of other smaller publications have also reported on pronoun badges, with similar transphobic reactions in the comments.

Pronoun badges fundamentally put the comfort of the trans people first. Many cis people aren’t used to discussing gender identity and pronouns.  By kicking up a massive fuss about pronoun badges, we’re derailing the real conversation about how campus can be trans-exclusionary. Kai says, “there is so much other work I’ve been doing to make university more trans-inclusive, from getting more gender-neutral toilets to improving administrative process to changing your name or gender, and [pronoun badges were] but a small symbolic gesture that I spent about 15 minutes on!” Shouldn’t these publications report on these works instead?

No. Because poking fun at student politics is low-effort content guaranteed to generate traffic. Stirring up controversy for clickbait gives people the liberty to air their transphobic opinions. The Daily Mail even calls the Students’ Association the ‘pronoun posse’ in its article, implying a militant gang of student reps enforcing the use of pronoun badges. The Tab has since acknowledged the ‘aggressive’ nature of the commentary on the poll and asked for respectful discussion – of course ignoring that they started the fire.

How can cis people be better allies? Firstly, don’t be so fragile about initiatives which benefit trans people and ultimately, aren’t about us. Two, maybe pick up a badge yourself and understand why normalising sharing your pronouns is important. The Students’ Association has an excellent document on this. Three, reply to the Equalities Office consultation on the Gender Recognition Act. Under current legislation, having your gender legally recognised on documents like birth certificates and passport is often expensive, time-consuming and invasive for trans people.

Ultimately, pronoun badges are not worth reporting on. Hopefully the new semester will see more recognition of the Sabbatical Officers’ hard work to make campus more welcoming and inclusive. To everyone starting university, welcome to Edinburgh! Enjoy Welcome Week and lean in to free stuff, whether it’s a pizza slice or a pronoun badge.

 

Against: Say no to labels

By Madeleine Mankey

Edinburgh University Students’ Association’s proposed policy on distributing pronoun pins to students for Fresher’s Week has caused no end of argument in the press. The pronoun badges have thrown one of the modern day’s most sensitive issues into the light – recognition of trans rights. But are pronoun badges, denoting the way an individual refers to themselves, a real step forward?

The badges are planned to be distributed to new students with the intention of creating a safer, more inclusive environment. According to the Students’ Association guide to sharing pronouns, “giving them the opportunity to [share gender identity] without having to single themselves out is part of being a good ally to trans people.” Obviously, being a good ally to trans people is something we should all aspire to. However, the framing of this guide makes it sound like this is the only way to be a good trans ally. This all or nothing stance can lead to ramped up tensions and conversations that can get a little ugly.

Personally, and I do believe this matter has to come down to personal opinion rather than universal right or wrong, I believe the pronoun badges will do more harm than good. Creating labels from the offset in an otherwise united group of freshers will surely only lead to greater division. And greater division has only ever led to lesser understanding.

Transphobia is a huge problem currently. It is seen as ‘acceptable’ in a way that no other prejudice is – this is down to lack of understanding, lack of communication, division and distrust on both sides. Like any prejudice, it comes from a place of deep discomfort and confusion.

Transphobia at its most pervasive is not an angry mob of pitchfork-wielding villains. It is the little voice in everyone’s head that says, “I don’t understand this. I don’t want to understand this. I’m not going to understand this.” And that is all too easy to get away with.

A badge marking someone out as trans or non-binary will only make this easier. Those most likely to make transphobic comments and lack understanding will not have a single transgender friend. Freshers’ Week is a unique opportunity for meeting new friends and forging new connections – especially with people you never thought you’d be friends with.

Instead of giving transphobes an excuse to stay away, let’s make conversations happen. Let’s start talking properly, person to person, about who we are and how we like to be addressed. Let’s get to know each other as people first and categories second. Let’s root out transphobia from a place of understanding rather than division.

The Tab published an article in defence of the pronoun badges, which has been generally well received. However, there was one line of the feature which was highly troubling: “those making transphobic comments have always held their views, and likely always will.” This acceptance of transphobes and the implication they are unreachable is chilling. Are we to simply wait 50 to 60 years for those harbouring prejudice to die out, hoping they don’t reproduce? Or should we be having these debates, difficult as they may be, and attempt to change attitudes for as long as it takes?

I know which route I would rather take. Badges highlighting divisions from the offset will not challenge transphobia where it needs to be targeted. We can only do that ourselves, by recognising each other as human beings first and labels second.

 

Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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