A: You are not going to get in trouble for accidentally using the wrong pronouns.
Now, if you deliberately and persistently use the wrong pronouns for someone in an effort to hurt their feelings, this would count as harassment in some jurisdictions, and you might get sued (especially if you do it at work, and you do it to your coworker so much that it interferes with their ability to do their job). If you’re a medical professional and you refuse to treat a trans person, your using the wrong pronouns might count as evidence against you in a discrimination lawsuit. If you beat up a trans person, your using the wrong pronouns might count as evidence that the beating is a hate crime and you targeted the victim because they were trans. But you’re not going to get into any kind of legal trouble just for making an honest mistake.
What do anti-discrimination laws do?
I’m going to focus on anti-discrimination laws in the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia.
Anti-discrimination laws typically make it illegal to target someone for bad treatment based on one of their protected characteristics, such as race, gender, or disability, or trans status. Anti-discrimination law might govern:
- Employment: Employers can’t refuse to hire someone, fire them, or pay them less, just because they have a protected characteristic that’s not relevant to their job performance.
- Housing: Landlords can’t refuse to rent to someone just because they have a protected characteristic.
- Health care: Health care providers can’t refuse to give someone adequate treatement just because they have a protected characteristic.
- Voting: States can’t stop someone from voting just because they have a protected characteristic.
- Harassment: Individuals can’t single out someone on the basis of a protected characteristic and harass them.
- Hate crimes: A violent crime might receive a more severe punishment if it was motivated by prejudice against one of the victim’s protected characteristics.
Outlawing discrimination against trans people isn’t about giving us special treatment; it’s about requiring people to give us equal treatment (in other words, it makes it illegal to single us out for worse treatment). Because anti-discrimination law in the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia is typically formulated in terms of protected characteristics, adding “gender identity and expression” to the list of protected characteristics also makes it illegal to discriminate against cis people for being cis.
Why are so many people afraid of getting in trouble over pronouns?
There’s an interesting story of media disinformation behind this fear.
In 2016, Canada’s federal government passed House Government Bill C16: An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. The bill did two things.
- It amended Canada’s Human Rights Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate against people based on protected characteristics like race, religion, age, sex, marital status, and disability. This means that, for example, an employer cannot refuse to hire somebody because they are Aboriginal, pay them less because they are a woman, or fire them because of their age. Bill C16 added “gender identity or expression” to the list of protected characteristics. So now, it’s also illegal to discriminate against people because they’re trans. (For more information about the Canadian Human Rights act, go here.)
- It amended a part of Canada’s Criminal Code: the part that gives sentencing guidelines for breaking the law. Before Bill C16, judges were urged to give harsher sentences for crimes motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on a protected characteristic. It’s illegal to beat someone up whether or not you do it on the basis of their race, but you might get a harsher sentence if you beat them up because of their race. Bill C16 added “gender identity or expression” to the list of protected characteristics, so now you might also get a harsher sentence if you beat somebody up because they’re trans.
In other words, bill C16 made a small, reasonable amendment to existing anti-discrimination laws in Candada. It essentially says that discriminating against trans people is illegal, just like discriminating against women or Aboriginal people is illegal.
A psychology professor at the University of Toronto called Jordan Peterson claimed in a viral YouTube video that using the wrong pronouns was hate speech under Bill C16, and that some things he said in his lectures would get him fined or sent to jail for exercising his right to free speech. None of that is true, but Peterson’s media campaign has been influential (not to mention lucrative for him).
- National Center for Transgender Equality: Know Your Rights (US)
- Canadian Human Rights Act, full text (Canada)
- Australia’s Anti-Discrimination Law (Australia)
- Discrimination: Your Rights (UK)