We’ve touched on this subject a few times recently, but there’s another layer to the upcoming Supreme Court case of R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that’s worth considering. It has to do with the battle over the chosen use of pronouns in court filings. The Associated Press picked up on this yesterday and the story highlights the different approaches being taken by the two sides.
As you may recall, the case revolves around Aimee Stephens, a male funeral director employed at the funeral home who came in one day and announced to the management that he would thereafter be living (and dressing) as a woman. The funeral home said that would constitute a violation of their dress code and they couldn’t allow it. Stephens took the matter to the EEOC, leading to the subsequent lawsuit and where we find ourselves today.
The specific aspect of the case being looked in the AP report is the use of gender pronouns (or lack thereof) in various court filings and briefs related to the case. Those supporting Stephens use female pronouns, while a lengthy filing from the White House refers to the employee only by name.
Dozens of legal briefs supporting fired funeral director Aimee Stephens at the Supreme Court use she and her to refer to the transgender woman.
So does the appeals court ruling in favor of Stephens that held that workplace discrimination against transgender people is illegal under federal civil rights law.
But in more than 110 pages urging the Supreme Court to reverse that decision, the Trump administration and the Michigan funeral home where Stephens worked avoid gender pronouns, repeatedly using Stephens name…
Decisions about gender pronouns may seem minor, but they appear to reflect the larger issues involved in this high-stakes battle.
First of all, I don’t know if anyone is expecting the Supreme Court to issue a ruling on pronoun usage here, but you probably shouldn’t get your hopes up. That’s not what the court is being asked to decide. They will be ruling on whether or not it was legal for the funeral home to fire Stephens and whether that was done because of the dress code or because the funeral director came out as being transgender.
Still, the choices made in the various documents they will be considering are interesting. The circuit court ruling repeatedly refers to Stephens using female pronouns, unsurprisingly, since they found in his favor. The lengthy White House briefing, however, goes the awkward route many people choose, purging all pronouns and simply using the plaintiff’s surname over and over again. You have to wonder how the Supreme Court will handle that issue when they finally issue their ruling. I’m guessing it will depend on who writes the decision(s).
As far as I’m concerned, everyone should be able to make their own choice in the matter. If you support the idea of gender being some sort of gauzy construct, feel free to call transgender individuals by the pronoun of their choice. I wrestled with the concept for a while before finally settling on something of a compromise Unless you are intersex, you were born as one of the two genders inherent to our species and I opt for the medically correct pronoun initially. But if, for example, a man is so bound and determined to prove the point that they have their private parts lopped off, I will toss them a female pronoun. Not because it makes them an actual woman, but just for the sheer bloody-mindedness of their quest.
That’s why I began referring to Chelsea Manning by feminine pronouns following her surgery. I’ve seen no indication that Aimee Stephens has made that “transition” yet, but if it turns out that he has or if he does in the future, I’ll absolutely start referring to him as her.
In any event, the pronouns that show up in the SCOTUS decision next summer shouldn’t impact the outcome of the case in question either way. It will simply provide an interesting footnote in the history of this debate.