When Tone and Manners Actually Matter

Content warning – trans abuse, suicide.

At the end of last year, I had a reunion with my university class, and one of my former classmates brought up the “persecution” of Jordan Peterson over his opposition to it being illegal to call someone who “insists on being called it” as either he or she. I did my best to correct him from the top of my head – I do not remember all the details – and the debate eventually ended with him saying that he agrees trans people should be called by their preferred nouns, but that it should not be mandated by law because “criminalizing bad manners”.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of examples from around the world where it leads to when such bad manners as deliberately misgendering trans people are not policed. Like a few days ago, when a young trans boy Wiktor in Warszaw, Poland, committed suicide by jumping under the oncoming underground train. It was not his first attempt at suicide, but it was his last.

The story is, alas, common and exactly as expected. He expressed his gender identity and a desire to switch. He was supported in his decision by his mother, but that is where the good news end. At school, teachers insisted on misgendering him, schoolmates bullied and belittled him – and teachers did nothing about it. The medical establishment in Poland has failed him too. First his physician by insisting that he should try dating boys and would surely find it nice. They too insisted on gendering him as a woman and admitted only, reluctantly, that he might be a lesbian. Then the psychiatric care, into which he was put after his first suicide attempt, instead of supporting actual evidence-based care for trans people – transition – merely subdued him by drugs into temporary complacency. Nobody has done anything about the chicanery at school, the actual cause of suicidal thoughts. And his misgendering by medical and school officials continue even after his death.

In Poland, and unfortunately in the Czech Republic and Slovakia too, is very strong opposition to trans people, trying to deny their very existence. And, surprise surprise, it is being fueled and propagandized by the Catholic Church.

Words have power and when people die due to their use, they should be regulated by law. A law that forbids people intentionally misgendering someone is of course not a solution in itself. But laws against mugging are not a solution to criminality either. A solution to any problem consists of multiple components – and laws are usually part of it.


  1. voyager says

    God, that’s awful Charly. My community suffered a “suicide pact” by young people 2 years ago. In 6 months 7 kids from 3 different high schools threw themselves under trains. It was very close to my home and I still feel pangs every time I drive through that crossing. My neighbour and friend who was 17 at the time was traumatized by it all and stopped in daily to share her grief. Thanks for sharing. Everyone needs to know about these situations. The teenage years are hard for everyone to navigate, but it must be unbelievably hard if your trans.
    Words do matter and hate speech against trans people should be labelled as hate speech and treated accordingly. We have hate speech laws in Canada, but they mostly relate to religious groups, such as Jews and Muslims. I’d like to see the laws expanded to include our Indigenous peoples as well as the LGB and trans communities.
    I think education is key to changing hearts and minds and it should start when kids are young in school. Teach that everyone is not the same, that we get to decide for ourselves who we are as people and that some people make different choices. As they get older teach gender as a continuum and that sex and gender are different. As the kids age up, give them more specific information and teach through example. Schools should reflect the best of our society and teach human rights.

  2. garnetstar says

    How terrible! I’m so sorry about that poor boy.

    I must say, I don’t think that it’s “illegal” to misgender someone in Canada. Like, you don’t get arrested or anything (please do correct me if wrong).

    However, the argument that misgendering is just “bad manners” is, as you say, way wrong. I think that some words are an implicit threat of violence: the use of the n-word by white Americans most certainly is, and that’s why its use is so very much, well, frowned upon.

    And I think that deliberate, hostile misgendering at least starts to approach that. If the implicit threat is “We’re going to ostracize you and refuse even to recognize your identity and commit violent acts against you and imprison and detain you in psychiatric wards and medically abuse you”, which is what many transphobes seem to mean by their misgendering, it’s still a threat. Laws may be needed.

  3. says

    Names are power. It’s literally the first act of parental control: to name a child. I’m not saying that parents usually do that cause they are abusive, but it already sets the rules. Your boss will often get away with nicknaming you (or a teacher a student), but not the other way around. Misgendering trans people is a form of demonstrating power. I’m sorry for the boy, who was failed by almost all the people tasked with keeping him safe.

  4. Allison says

    Siobhan, on this very site, wrote a cogent post on the subject:
    What trans people mean when we say “misgendering is violence”
    Giliell @3:

    who was failed by almost all the people tasked with keeping him safe.

    Can you call it a “failure” if the so-called “failure” was intentional? From what I can see, there was no intent to keep him safe, but rather to bully him into becoming what they demanded he be. That’s what happens here in the USA, at least. His dying was an “unfortunate” result, perhaps, but (in their view) better than letting him continue to violate social standards.

  5. says

    No clue why your comment landed in moderation, I fixed it.
    I would say “fail” as in “it was their job to keep him safe”. Since he’s dead and they could have prevented it, they failed him. But I think that’s mostly a question of semantics when we agree on the facts.

  6. jrkrideau says

    We have hate speech laws in Canada, but they mostly relate to religious groups, such as Jews and Muslims. I’d like to see the laws expanded to include our Indigenous peoples as well as the LGB and trans communities.

    IANAL but I think the legislation does apply. It is a matter under the Criminal Code and probably Peterson’s behaviour was not egregious enough to trigger a criminal charge.

    Of course that F**ing idiot Harper and his Cons repealled hate speech provisions in the Canadian Human Rights Code which seemed to need a lesser standard of proof ( and lesser penalties). As a couple of Canadian premiers have said, “Harper is a nasty person”.

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