On June 19th Canadian Bill C-16 received royal assent, which is equivalent to the President’s signature in the United States. The bill amends the Canadian Human Rights Act, and the Canadian Criminal Code, to include “gender identity or expression” under the list of classifications protected from discrimination.
While most of the debate around extending nondiscrimination laws to include gender identity and gender expression focuses on privacy and safety, the recent controversy in Canada brings a new source of concern to the discussion: compelled speech in the form of preferred gender pronouns.
Related: Department of Education Takes Aim at Use of Preferred Gender Pronouns in Schools
The new Canadian law has highlighted the hot-button concept of ‘misgendering’. ‘Misgendering is violence’ has become a rallying cry of the trans community in recent years. People who decide to be referred to as a particular gender, or even with nonstandard genderless pronouns such as ‘xe’ or ‘zir’, consider the ‘wrong’ pronoun hate speech.
The most concerning precedent this law sets is that the Canadian government is now mandating compelled speech. Abruptly, it is now a hate crime in Canada to refer to someone by any pronoun other than what they prefer. Now, Canadians can be jailed for up to two years (or fined, or even forfeit their property) for nothing more significant than using one pronoun instead of another.
While the law also includes provisions requiring proof of motivation based on “bias, prejudice or hate” it is deliberately vague. How this will be interpreted is left up to the inevitable lawsuits that will follow. The reality of this has been highlighted by Jordan B. Peterson, a Canadian professor who has objected to using preferred gender pronouns and has come under scrutiny and potential disciplinary action for his position on this issue.
The United States is not immune to these types of policies. At the University of Michigan students may now designate their pronouns on class rosters and professors are expected to use the pronouns students request. In response, one student designated himself “His Majesty.” More seriously, the New York City Commission on Human Rights can fine employers and landlords in New York City up to $250,000 for refusing to use an employee or tenant’s preferred gender pronouns. Just recently, the Department of Education issued a memo directing that civil rights investigations be launched against schools that don’t enforce the use of “preferred pronouns” of transgender students.
When a government forces its citizens to use specific words in specific circumstances to refer to specific people, it has stopped protecting free speech and started restricting it.