Hospitality Is a Two-Way Street: Gender Pronouns and Welcome of the Other
In her article "I am the parent of a non-binary child," Susan Knoppow describes how her child Miriam decided in high school that she was non-binary (qua gender). In other words, "she" was no longer conforming to the male/female he/she gender binary. At this point, Miriam requested that when people refer to Miriam with third-person pronouns, they employ "they/their/them" rather than "she/her/her's".
In other words, rather than say "Miriam is nice. I like her" a person should now say "Miriam is nice. I like them."
Knoppow readily adapted to this grammatically awkward (if not tortuous) request and in the article, she criticizes those who decline to do so:
"The pronouns we use reflect our level of respect for the person we are speaking with or about. When someone tells me, "I'll just call Miriam 'she' because that's what I'm used to," they are passing judgment on my child. They are saying, "My comfort is more important than your child's comfort." Whether or not they intend to be dismissive they are telling me, "Miriam's identity is not valid because I don't understand it." Being mis-gendered – or mistaken for the wrong gender – stings. Hearing "she/her/hers" instead of "they/them/theirs" causes my child pain."
Hospitality in One Direction
I'm sympathetic with Knoppow's desire that others respect her daughter's child's wishes. To my mind, this brings us to the question of hospitality. The essence of hospitality is to meet people where they are at, to make space for them, to accommodate. For example, if I enter the home of a Japanese family who expects me to remove my shoes and put on slippers, I will remove my shoes and put on slippers. If I'm having Ingrid Newkirk (founder of PETA) for dinner, I won't serve beef brisket. And if my Muslim friend is suffering through the rigors of Ramadan, I'll be discrete when I enjoy a cold iced tea and a delicious lunch.
It also means that if I meet Caitlyn Jenner, I'm going to use her chosen appellation. And that means not saying "Hi Bruce! Great to meet you! You're an awesome guy!"
From the perspective of hospitality, I may not agree with the taboos of Japanese culture, the rigors of animal rights vegans, or the Muslim fast, but I shall try to accommodate to each of these folks as I am able. So why wouldn't I likewise accommodate to Caitlyn Jenner and Miriam Knoppow?
Hospitality in the Other Direction
That's a significant amount of agreement. And it provides the context in which I can now turn to the point of equally significant disagreement. My concern is that Knoppow fails to understand those who would not be as hospitable as I am. As she characterizes it, those who fail to meet her request are saying "My comfort is more important than your child's comfort" or "Miriam's identity is not valid because I don't understand it."
This is not true. The fact is that it is quite unfair to insist that those who decline to accede to Miriam's request are either elevating their comfort over Miriam's or denouncing Miriam's identity because they don't understand it.
On the contrary, people may believe for a variety of reasons — philosophical, cultural, religious, psychological — that Miriam's rejection of female-gendered identity is unhealthy and that their accommodation to her request would merely perpetuate that unhealthy fixation. Whether they are right or wrong in their assessment is not my concern here. My point is simply that this could be the careful and principled conclusion of an individual who finds that they must decline to accommodate to Miriam's request.
That brings me to my final point: if hospitality requires folks to accommodate Knoppow's request to the extent that they are able, it also requires Knoppow and Miriam to accommodate those who refuse to accede to their request to the extent that they are able. To put it another way, hospitality is a two-way street. And that street must accommodate the conservatives as much as the progressives.