Why Jon Caldara Is Wrong about Transgender Pronouns
Jon Caldara should recognize the reality of transgenderism and use people’s preferred pronouns.
Let’s start with some background. As is obvious to anyone paying attention, conservatives have been completely freaking out about schools daring to deal with LGBTQ issues. This stance comes out of religious conservatism that regards homosexuality and transgenderism as immoral and against their religion, plus a general cultural conservatism.
My position is that this stuff is (usually) not a big deal but that schools ought to worry more about teaching kids how to read and do math. Colorado schools are failing to adequately educate most students, and the outcomes especially for minority students are, on the whole, terrible.
Still, my wife and I have managed to have useful discussions with our young child about LGBTQ issues, and I don’t see why schools can’t also do some of that.
Anyway, back in 2019, conservatives hyperventilated about a Boulder Valley school presenting LGBTQ materials to young children.
I should mention here that I write a column for Complete Colorado, published by the Independence Institute, which Caldara leads.
Here is part of what Caldara wrote:
Democrats . . . certainly don’t want education transparency when it comes to their mandate to convince your kid that there are more than two sexes, even if it’s against your wishes.
Among the most controversial laws that passed last year was the comprehensive human sexuality education mandate which ripped local control away from your neighborhood school board. Now if your school district wants to teach even basic sex ed, the teacher must also teach the “health needs” of LGBT individuals.
And in the anti-free-speech style that the left now embraces, the new law bans discussions that “employ gender stereotypes,” or any language the state’s new oversight board of LGBT activists consider “stigmatizing.” In case you hadn’t noticed, just about everything is stigmatizing to the easily triggered, perpetually offended.
In a follow-up article, Caldara adds:
What seemed to be the last straw for my column was my insistence that there are only two sexes. . . . I don’t care who uses whose bathroom, what you wear, or how you identify. People from this community have rights which we must protect.
But to force us to use inaccurate pronouns, to force us to teach our kids that there are more than two sexes, to call what is plainly a man in a dress, well, not a man in a dress violates our right of speech.
Caldara’s position, then, is that, while transgender people should be free to identify themselves however they want, he’s not going to use people’s preferred pronouns or recognize the legitimacy of gender expression that varies from biological sex.
Recently Caldara reiterated this position:
Though I strongly support gay and lesbian rights, including the U.S. Senate’s passage of the gay marriage bill, I do not support the forced speech mandated by many in the transgender movement.
Forced speech is the opposite of free speech. Forcing someone to tell a lie or lose a job is evil.
I support anyone identifying as anything they want. I don’t care what bathroom anyone uses, but no one has a right to dictate that I must call a person who is clearly a man, a woman. I don’t want to be forced to lie. . . .
Just as no one has a right to tell the shooter he can’t identify as nonbinary, no one has the right to force me to refer to an individual as a plural, “them.” . . .
But many in the trans movement are intolerant. They command if you don’t use their language you are hateful. They say if you do not accept them as what they want to be accepted as, you are a bigot. Call them by the wrong pronouns, they’ll cancel you.
Caldara denies that transgenderism is real. People might say they’re transgender, but they’re really not. Someone who claims to be transgender is delusional, in this view.
Caldara is hardly the only Colorado conservative who fails to recognize the reality of transgenderism. For example, as I’ve mentioned, Jeff Hunt Tweeted, “There is one God, two genders, and only women can get pregnant.” The Archdiocese of Denver holds that transgenderism is a denial of the reality of “male or female sexual identity.”
Caldara is wrong. Transgenderism is a real phenomenon. To understand this—and I realize this is a big ask—he needs to be willing and able to keep two thoughts in his head at the same time. First, biological sex is a real thing, and it involves things like chromosomes and genitalia. There are some unusual cases, but by and large humans are dimorphic. Second, expressed gender is a real thing, and it is primarily a psychological phenomenon. Usually, but not always, biological sex relates to a particular sort of gender expression. The exceptions can manifest in transgenderism.
Discerning conservatives will notice that defenders of transgenderism actually often are making the conservative point that gender is a real thing, rather than just a social construct. Granting that much about gender is culturally specific (pants versus dresses), aspects of it are more deeply rooted in an individual’s identity. All that transgenderism says is that gender need not follow inexorably from a given biological sex. In other words, someone born biologically female can have a gender more typical of biological males, and someone born biologically male can have a gender more typical of biological females.
All that said, we should embrace the enormous range of gender expression in individuals. For example, my son has enjoyed learning about Mary Walker, a Civil War hero and surgeon once arrested for dressing like a “man.”
Those who pretend to be stupid by taking the question, “What is a woman?,” as precluding transgenderism ignore the fact that “woman” can refer either to biological sex or to expressed gender. When we refer to a “trans woman,” we are not denying that the person was born with a penis and probably still has one (and is therefore biologically male in that sense); we are saying that the person is a woman with respect to gender expression. This is not actually hard to understand except for people who wish not to understand it.
What really matters, Caldara imagines, is that transgender people and their supporters are “intolerant” toward people who refuse to refer to transgender people by their preferred pronouns. Is it not obvious that disrespecting transgender people is the true intolerance?
The paradox of intolerance is well-known. If we want people not to be racist assholes, we have to call them out for being racist assholes. In other words, to achieve tolerance toward people of different skin tones and ethnicities, we have to be intolerant toward racist assholes. There is nothing surprising or strange about this. The same goes for tolerance regarding transgender people. To achieve tolerance toward transgender people, we have to be (appropriately) intolerant toward anti-trans bigots.
Let’s say I throw a party, and someone there keeps using the “n-word” to refer to black people. Am I going to be intolerant toward that racist asshole by asking him to leave? Yes! That’s the only way to maintain tolerance toward guests who happen to be black and to everyone else who is offended by such racism. The same goes if I throw a party and someone there keeps heckling a transgender guest about pronouns or the like. If you go out of your way to insist that a trans woman is a “he” you’re just being an asshole. You have every right to go be an asshole somewhere else with all your asshole friends, but you don’t get to be an asshole at my party.
As for Caldara’s cries of being cancelled. . . sure, the Denver Post fired him. And he remains one of the most widely read voices in Colorado. He runs a major think tank (which, incidentally, would refuse to publish an extremely wide range of content), and he remains a columnist at another major Colorado newspaper. He’s not being super oppressed here.
Transgender people really have been severely oppressed and often still are. In some countries (sometimes even in this one) being trans can get you killed. In this country transgender people often face open bigotry, demonization, harassment, and even violent assault.
I do want to emphasize that Caldara at least maintains a “live and let live” attitude toward transgender people. So he’s just being a bit of an asshole toward transgender people, as opposed to truly horrible, as some religious conservatives are. So we should recognize that Caldara is being largely but not entirely cool about this issue.
Let me offer an analogy to try to draw out more of the relevant distinctions. Lots of people identify themselves as psychics, which I think is complete bullshit. There is no such thing as psychic powers, so I’m just not going to pretend that someone is a real psychic. Yes, we all have the regular human psychological abilities, and some magicians are “psychics” by playing tricks on people, but there is no special supernatural power that some have of telepathy or telling the future or the like. If someone wants to go by “Psychic Joe” or whatever, maybe I’ll use that name, but I won’t use it in a context that implies that I think Joe has real psychic powers.
Caldara wants to treat the claim to be transgender as something like the claim to be psychic. It’s just total bullshit, by this view. Someone can claim to be transgender, just as someone can claim to be psychic, but they really aren’t. (And there I go with the “they” singular.)
I’m saying that Caldara is obviously wrong. There’s something real about transgenderism but not about psychic powers. So I’m not being an asshole by saying that someone who claims to be a psychic is full of shit—because they really are full of shit—but Caldara is being an asshole by saying something similar about transgender people, because transgenderism is a real phenomenon.
Now, if someone wants to be identified as a cat or a turnip or whatever, I’m going to side with Caldara in not pretending that the person really is a cat or a turnip. (I’m also not going to freak out about it.) But that’s just not what we’re talking about here.
All that said, I dislike gendered pronouns. I think we should all try to adopt gender-neutral pronouns. One problem is that “they” as a singular pronoun really is confusing in some context. Not long ago I had a discussion for several minutes in which I thought we were talking about a group of friends, but it turned out the subject of conversation was a single person. I would be fine, for example, if we all settled on using “she/her” for all single people and “they” for groups of people. But I know nothing like this is likely to happen. So the best we can do is use the existing pronouns respectfully and as clearly as we can.
I like Caldara (and I’m not just saying that because he’s kinda-sorta sometimes my boss). I think he’s generally a caring and respectful person. I appreciate that I can say that he’s wrong, and even call him an asshole, and we can still be friends and enjoy a beer together. But I do hope he’ll learn to be more respectful toward transgender people. Using people’s preferred pronouns is the least we can do.
Image: Ted Eytan