The Pronoun Debacle in the California Senate Judiciary Committee

A session of the California State Senate Committee on the Judiciary. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press.)

A session of the California State Senate Committee on the Judiciary. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press.)

Everyone knows that California is one of the most liberal states in the nation. Our state leaders are evidence of this. Democrats hold 29 of the 40 seats in the State Senate and 60 of the 80 seats in the State Assembly, forming supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Both of our U.S. Senators are Democrats and 46 of our 53 U.S. Representatives are Democrats. Our liberalness is even found in the legislation that our state leaders pass. Last October, Governor Jerry Brown approved the Gender Recognition Act, which went into effect this year and allows transgender individuals to more easily obtain state identity documents that reflect their gender identity. So California residents now have the option of selecting an “option x” or “non-binary” option on drivers licenses, identification cards, birth certificates, marriage licenses, and other state-issued documents. California is the second state in the nation to offer this ease of access.

But perhaps we are too liberal. On Jan. 17, 2019, California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who is chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Judiciary, revised committee rules to ban senators from using gender-specific pronouns in committee hearings. In her own words, she revised the rules to respect “the fact that we are now a state recognizing the non-binary designation as a gender”—referring to the Gender Recognition Act.

Although Senator Jackson’s revision was a win for the transgender community, the ban surely has ramifications—it impedes the movement of speech in committee hearings. This is evident even by Senator Jackson herself. During the hearing, she failed to abide by her own rule; when referring to her past grammar teacher, she said, “My grammar teacher’s long gone. And I won’t be hearing from her.” Listeners in the gallery immediately interrupted her, and she quickly corrected herself by referring to her as “them” and “they.” But this was only the beginning. Later on, she repeatedly referred to both men and women by their respective gender-specific pronouns. Senator Jackson demonstrated that following the rule would be tremendously difficult and that, as she did, speakers in committee hearings will inevitably break the rule. What then? Will she punish others for using gender-specific pronouns as she did? Will she just let it slide and thereby fail to uphold the committee hearing rule?

Senator Jackson should also consider other consequences. There is a reason why these gender-specific pronouns exist in the English vernacular. They allow us to communicate more efficiently with each other. Replacing everyone’s pronouns with “they/them” could cause mass confusion due to the vagueness of the terms; they could be referring to a number of things: a single person, multiple people, and objects. To counter to the potential confusion, speakers would have to spend more time explaining. But why spend more time explaining a pronoun when a specific pronoun will suffice? As Thomas Jefferson said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

Allowing transgender individuals to obtain official documents that reflect their genders is progressive, but Senator Jackson has gone too far by banning the use of “he” or “she” in committee hearings. Her rule, arguably, also fails to recognize those who are a specific gender by referring to them with a gender-neutral term. To be clear, referring to people by gender-neutral terms is not problematic; but forcing everyone to be referred to with pronouns they do not necessarily identify with is. Why doesn’t the rule stop at referring to each other by the gender pronoun they wish to identify with? Senator Jackson should replace this rule with the Platinum Rule: “treat others the way they want to be treated.”