Transgender exclusion in debating: A case for pronoun introductions

Crash Wigley
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This article is a condensed and amended version of an article that was published online in June 2014, which can be accessed at googl.com/zxUgtM. In this piece I argued that the debating circuit should establish a policy in which debaters are asked for their name, speaking position and preferred pronoun at the beginning of all rounds.

The reaction of the circuit to the policy has generally been reassuring. Since the original article’s publication, it has now become common practice in the IONA circuit to institute pronoun introductions at competitions, and most competitions in IONA have used the policy outlined in this document or variants thereof. Pronoun introductions have also been used in competitions on the US circuit, in continental European Competitions (such as the Ljubljana IV) and at EUDC 2014. I am grateful for this response – to be clear, I would not have been able to continue with debating if the situation had carried on as it was, and this was the driving force behind the original article – and as ever, welcome any questions or suggestions about the policy. In England, the National Universities Debating Council has set up a working group on the best way we can formalise pronoun introductions as a circuit (through formalising a national policy, sharing best practice etc.). Other national circuits (including Ireland and Scotland) have also formally instituted pronoun policies. In the UK, we are also developing a policy for introducing pronoun introductions at schools-level competitions, recognising the importance of supporting transgender young people and countering transphobia at school along with the unique challenges of communicating this information to teenagers.

For reference: I use the words trans and transgender interchangeably to refer to people whose gender doesn’t match up with the gender they were assigned at birth, and/or who have genders other than female or male. This includes trans men, trans women and people with non-binary identities (e.g. genderqueer people, gender neutral people etc.). I use the words cisgender and cis to refer to people who aren’t transgender.

The deal with misgendering

During debates speakers use gendered language to talk about the other people in the debate, whether that’s saying ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ when offering a POI, or using pronouns to refer to what previous speakers have said (e.g. “Speaker X said this, but what he doesn’t understand is…”). Similarly, judges refer to speakers using gendered pronouns during the deliberation, when calling speakers up to speak and when explaining the call and giving feedback.

In debates, trans people put themselves at risk of being publicly misgendered (i.e. referred to by the wrong gender) which can be upsetting. It is unpleasant if you are, for example, a transgender man and people repeatedly call you ‘she’ or ‘madam’ during a debate. It can make people feel self-conscious, or like their gender isn’t being respected. This is so prevalent that without pronoun introductions I would expect to be misgendered at every debating competition I attend. This makes debating an exclusive space that discourages trans debaters from participating.

In most cases, people would like to know how to avoid being making these mistakes. Even in the private setting of the judges’ deliberation, judges who care about respecting trans people’s genders should want to know how people would want themselves to be talked about. It therefore should become standard practice to do pronoun introductions at the start of each round in debating competitions. It is already common in many trans circles for people to say what pronoun they prefer when introducing themselves, and it is generally considered polite to ask for somebody’s pronoun preferences if you don’t know.

How pronoun introductions work

At the start of debates, chairs already have to find out which order the speakers in each team are speaking. When doing this chair judges should also ask which pronouns each speaker prefers.

This is the sort of exchange that occurs:

Chair: So can I check, who is speaking first for opening government?

Kate: Kate.

Chair: And what is your preferred pronoun?

Kate: She.

Chair: And speaking second?

Crash: Crash, and I don’t mind being called either they or she.

Everyone makes a mental note of this information, and then the chair proceeds to ask the speakers on the other teams in a similar and polite fashion.

Before or after this spiel, the chair or panel might also want to give their names and pronouns. Individuals may choose to specify a pronoun (such as she, he, they or any alternative pronouns) or to say that they don’t mind or have no preference.

If somebody says they want to be called ‘she’ or ‘he’, it is fair to assume that they are also happy to be called ‘madam or ‘sir’ or ‘Madam/Mister Speaker’ accordingly, unless they say otherwise. However, if somebody asks to be called ‘they’, it is sensible to avoid using gendered terms altogether, and finding gender-neutral replacements (e.g. saying ‘On that point’ rather than ‘sir’ to offer a point of information).

Two things are important. Firstly all speakers should introduce their names and pronouns to the entire room rather than just write them on the ballot, so that all other speakers know. Secondly, these introductions should happen in all rooms. If you’re cis (i.e. not trans) and don’t get misgendered on a regular basis you might think this is unnecessary for you, but unless this happens for all speakers in all rooms then it puts a lot of pressure on trans debaters to personally request to introduce their pronoun in each of their rooms. That can be intimidating and make people feel unwelcome. It requires trans debaters who want to be referred to in a specific way and are at risk of misgendering to effectively repeatedly identify themselves as transgender and ask for special treatment. It pushes the burden on transgender people to make themselves the odd one out, rather than recognising that in this circumstance we don’t need to make assumptions about anyone’s gender, and can create a space where everyone can self-define rather than be labelled.

All speakers and judges should listen carefully to which pronouns people prefer, and endeavour to use those in their speeches, and in life more generally. If speakers realise they’ve made a mistake, the best response is to quickly apologise, correct themself, and then move on. If a speaker doesn’t realise they have misgendered somebody during their speech, the chair’s place should be to remind speakers to use the pronouns that other speakers have asked to be referred to by at the end of the speaker’s speech. People should not be referred to the Equity Team for accidentally using the wrong pronoun provided they apologise if they make a mistake. Pronoun introductions remove the need for cisgender speakers to guess the preferences of speakers in their debate, and so make mistakes less common.

This system has the added benefit of judges and other speakers knowing each others’names during the debate, and allows judges to listen to how individuals pronounce their own names.

Competitions who want to introduce this system will need to explain it to all speakers and judges. It is important that people understand the reasons why pronoun introductions have come about, to stop it from becoming something we do ‘just to be politically correct’. That said, in many ways the system is straightforward, and it is sensible to not to make more out of it than needs be. On top of all this, in the separate judges’briefing, the system of asking at the start of the round should be explained, as well as the importance of asking in every round. If individuals make fun of or mock the system of pronoun introductions, they should be referred to the equity team – if trans debaters are to feel welcomed and not just ‘tolerated’people need to take pronoun introductions seriously.

Potential concerns and alternative policies

In discussions, many people have raised concerns about the effect of this policy on people who aren’t comfortable making public declarations about their gender for whatever reason. In this context it is important to note that pronoun introductions are not an affirmation of gender or identity – they’re an instruction about how you would prefer others to talk about you in a specific context. Pronoun introductions allow people who have a complicated relationship with gender to experiment with different pronoun use in a respectful space as they feel comfortable. Furthermore, it is perfectly legitimate for individuals to reply that they do not mind or have no preference if this is what they prefer.

In addition, fears that people would feel like they are ‘betraying themselves’ by asking to be referred to by ‘birth gender’ pronouns when they’re closeted are overstated. These people (whose situation I have been in myself) live in a world where they constantly have to make decisions where they present themselves in a way that doesn’t match with their identity to protect their own security. They are best placed to make these decisions for themselves. What this system does do is give people more control over the language that other people use to describe them, and that’s helpful for people who have a complicated relationship with gender. Finally, being closeted when trans is unpleasant full stop. To me, it is a greater priority that the circuit can be seen to be valuing, welcoming and supporting the participation of out trans debaters, and in doing so it can increase the confidence of people coming to terms with their gender identity. This policy does not ‘require disclosure’. It merely recognises the fact other speakers are going to have to refer to individuals by some pronoun, and gives them the opportunity to have a say in which one they choose.

At Zagreb EUDC 2014 Council, additional concerns were raised about the effect of this policy on ESL speakers.1 Nevertheless, while the circuit must be reactive to the needs of ESL speakers and the background of individuals from different circuits when considering how this policy should be introduced to tournaments by equity teams, and while recognising speakers’ different backgrounds in English might encourage participants to be more tolerant of mistakes made by speakers (especially if an individual has requested people to use a pronoun other than ‘he’ or ‘she’), ESL status should not be a carte blanche for speakers to ignore individuals’ preferences about their gender. That would have the effect of maintaining a debating circuit that is exclusive of trans debaters (many of whom will be ESL).

The alternative policy suggested by the Equity Team was to promote the use of gender-neutral language.2 This policy is insufficient. Firstly, it expects that speakers within debates will call other speakers ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ to avoid misgendering. Nevertheless, this is a much harder norm to enforce and to inform people about, as unless people are being very consciously listening out to the pronouns used, uses of ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ will go unnoticed. As a result, at best this policy would result in ‘calling everyone who looks like they abide by conventional sex-gender binaries he or she, and anyone who looks trans, queer or otherwise non-conventional ‘they’. Furthermore, the main concern expressed by ESL speakers during EUDC was that it was harder to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun as its use in that context in English is rare, and so it doesn’t overcome the concerns about language difficulties.

Consequently, such a policy would continue to make debating exclusive for many trans people. It would ignore people’s preferences to be referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’ and not ‘they’(which is important given that many trans people will have fought for the right to be respected as a man or as a woman). Indeed, it could single out trans people to such an extent that they end up being the only ones referred to as ‘they’, implying that trans women are not seen as ‘real women’ and trans men are not seen as ‘real men’. It would also disrespect the preferences of ‘conventional-looking’ speakers who might strongly prefer the use of a pronoun that wouldn’t be anticipated. Finally, because of the concerns about norm-enforcement, trans debaters would have little confidence that participants were even going to call them ‘they’, rather than use inappropriate gender-specific pronouns. Recognising these issues, EUDC Council implied that it would be happy for individuals with such specific preferences to announce them to the room at the start of debates, a so-called ‘don’t ask, do tell policy’.3 This was effectively the status quo when I decided to first advocate for pronoun introductions, and it was what motivated me to do so – otherwise I would not have carried on debating. That policy permanently forces additional burdens onto transgender people and makes debating exclusive, as explained previously. As a result, requiring all speakers to say at the start of the debate their name, their speaking position, and which pronoun they would like others to use when speaking about them is an undemanding solution that is needed to welcome trans debaters.

The Bigger Principle

There are many reasons to think that there are advantages to pronoun introductions in everyday life. Whenever you’re asking a group of people to tell each other their names you could ask them to give their preferred pronouns. It takes the pressure off trans people to individually tell everyone how they want to be talked about; it makes cis people aware of the potential existence of transgender people and it shows that we care about how people identify rather than just applying whatever label we decide fits best. In the same way that people often choose their own name or nickname, we care about giving people the authority to decide how they are referred to by other people, and this is an extension of that principle.

Pronoun introductions are especially useful for people who are in the process of transitioning, or have a non-binary gender or an unusual gender expression because even going on names or how people dress isn’t going to be sufficient to work out people’s preferences. They also give people who might want to experiment with, for example, being called ‘they’ the opportunity to do so without it having to be such an intimidating step. They also provide space for people to define their relationship to gender in other ways (e.g. some people like being referred to as ‘they’ for ideological feminist reasons, because it limits the extent to which we are gendered unnecessarily).

As such, I would like pronoun introductions to proliferate more generally in society and I hope that our debating circuits can be a bit pioneering in this respect. I strongly believe pronoun introductions are also a bare minimum needed for at least most trans people to feel in any way comfortable at debating competitions.

Recommendations

Competition organisers (CA teams, equity teams, convenors) should put in place pronoun introductions in their competitions, as set out here. Information about the policy should be given in a such a way that firstly, participants understand the reasons for the policy and know what is expected of them and secondly, the wellbeing of trans debaters and trans people in society is considered. (i.e. if organising teams explain the policy poorly, the policy could make debating a less rather than more welcoming place for trans debaters).

Debating societies should use pronoun introductions where appropriate at internal events (e.g. when new members will be meeting each other for the first time). This will make debating more inclusive of trans debaters from the ground-level, and will familiarise debaters with the concept before they attend competitions.

  1. Zagreb EUDC 2014 Council Minutes, p. 8.
  2. Ibid. p.7.
  3. Ibid. pp. 8-9.