At Tuesday’s Memphis City Council meeting, city council member Edmund Ford Sr. marked Transgender Awareness Week by berating Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris’s special assistant, Alex Hensley.
What prompted his ire? Hensley’s inclusion of their pronouns –she/they – in a letter calling for a ban on oil pipelines being located close to schools, churches and parks.
“This is so irrelevant,” Ford said, as he drew attention to it on the record in a public city council meeting, mocking the inclusion and calling it “gender mess.”
Ford’s words were an assault not only against an individual public servant but against an entire marginalized group of people. While everyone uses pronouns, the push for normalizing open identification of your pronouns recognizes the diversity of gender identity. By sharing our pronouns, we indicate how we would like others to refer to us without making assumptions about our gender identity.
A person’s gender identity may or may not align with the sex they were assigned at birth and may not neatly align with common understandings of masculinity or femininity. While language cannot fully capture the wide spectrum of gender identity and expression, many who fall outside of male and female categories or don’t conform to gendered expectations often use pronouns other than she or he, such as they.
To hear an elected representative use his platform as an anti-trans weapon invokes a long history of government and power using their might to oppress and erase queer people. From sodomy laws to President Ronald Reagan’s inaction on AIDS when it was prevalent in the gay community to more recent legal assaults such as the Tennessee legislature’s harmful Slate of Hate, including five anti-trans laws passed this year the queer community has historically seen more harm at the hands of government than protection.
OutMemphis – local organization that empowers, connects, educates, and advocates for the LGBT community of the Mid-South
Out Memphis Metamorphosis Project – program for 18- to 24-year-olds facing homelessness and instability
Memphis Area Gay Youth – a youth-run, adult advised multicultural support group for all gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth ages 13 to 20
Tennessee Equality Project – advocates for the equal rights of LGBTQ people in Tennessee
TransLifeline – nonprofit offering direct emotional and financial support to trans people in crisis
Trevor Project – suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth
Ford was right about one thing he said Tuesday: “We work for the people of the city of Memphis.” Council members such as Ford are charged by the electorate to act in our best interest and on our behalf. They are in a position of power, power that comes with a responsibility to be thoughtful about how they wield that power. It is an abuse of power to target a marginalized and vulnerable group.
Mockery of pronoun transparency is a common weapon in the arsenal of culture war politics. The issues that face queer and trans people include high rates of violence, a high prevalence of adolescent suicide, and the lack of healthcare access and protections.
Yet, as a way of minimizing these legally entrenched inequalities, reactionaries have created myths about threats to youth sports, fabricated fears about parents or other trans people forcing children to transition or take hormones, and use pronouns as a scare tactic to undermine the serious project of trans liberation.
As a Black man, Ford is unquestionably subject to systemic discrimination and individual bigotry himself. Yet as a member of a multi-generation political family, he’s benefitted from the status quo. He can choose to denigrate trans people and further entrench the status quo and unjust systems, or fight them. His mockery of pronoun inclusion does not reflect any inconvenience or oppression but serves to consolidate power behind transphobia.
With 46 known deaths, 2021 is the deadliest year on record for trans people since the Human Rights Commission began tracking such violence. Studies repeatedly show that social support, reduced experiences of transphobia, and correct usage of names and pronouns reduces suicide risk in trans populations. Ford’s words have a real and existential impact and empower others filled with hate and bigotry by normalizing these attacks in our public spaces.
As someone who uses he/they pronouns, I can attest to the erosion of your mental and psychological health when others repeatedly refuse to acknowledge your humanity by simply using your correct pronoun.
I also know what it is to be pigeonholed in your identity, as if all of your accomplishments and passions are secondary to your outsider status as a queer person.
Hensley did not ask to have gender identity—theirs or anyone’s— mocked at a council meeting. They were there as a county government representative and advocate for safe communities.
Instead, Ford’s comments remind all queer and trans people that our competence and access to a space can be questioned at any time and in any context, using the shorthand language of anti-trans or anti-gay culture war politics.
At a time when we trans people are under attack statewide and nationwide, we could use the support of those in power. Yet only George Boyington, who works in the Shelby County property assessor’s office, came to Hensley’s defense, only to endure verbal abuse from Ford too. Not one council member, progressive or otherwise, challenged Ford. This is reminiscent of the lack of opposition by many local Democratic state legislators in the face of the anti-trans docket, which caused an outcry from the LGBTQ caucus.
When queer Memphians see a pattern of those we elect refusing to take a stand for us, we are definitionally unrepresented. Those who consider themselves supporters of equal rights for all, regardless of gender identity or expression, must speak up when they see these abuses of power – whether by their council colleague or in institutions that perpetuate the idea that civil rights and protections do not extend to those who express their gender and normalize gender difference.
Memphis must raise our standards about who we allow to represent us. If elected officials are serious about representing all of their constituents, including the LGBT community, they must treat us with respect, understand our identities aren’t a pawn in the culture war and speak up for our legal and social protections.
Trans, nonbinary and queer people deserve better and the people of Memphis deserve better.
J. Dylan Sandifer (he/they) is a writer and human rights advocate living in Memphis.
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