Racism changes. So do pronouns.
“Now this is something? They’re having third graders declare pronouns? We’re not doing the pronoun Olympics in Florida.”
I heard Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on TV last week at an evangelical Christian school, defending the sweeping restrictions on freedom of speech and gender expression that he signed into state law last week.
That quip suggests that his opposition to LGBTQ+ rights is based on his unfamiliarity with them.
In fairness, until a few years ago, there was not a socially acceptable way to clarify when a person’s gender identity may not be visibly apparent. Now, there is.
But because it is new, it is wrong and bad, in Governor DeSantis’ view. The way things have been is the way things should always be.
We are in the midst of a major social shift in mainstream understanding of gender identity. Gender (as opposed to sex) is a social construct. And social norms change all the time. What is understood “feminine” or “masculine” or “androgynous” are cultural signals, and they evolve.
As I listened to DeSantis seem to claim the opposite—that social constructs must never change—I wondered if has reflected on how his own ethnic identity has evolved in the United States.
According to genealogical researcher Megan Smolenyak, Governor DeSantis’ great-great-grandmother Luigia Collucci fled Italy to immigrate to the United States in 1917.
Her timing was good. Just a few decades earlier, the social construct of race had been redefined to allow Italians most of the privileges of being “white.” But during the 19th century, when Italians began coming to North America in large numbers, they were often excluded from the white club: discriminated against, portrayed as low-lifes in popular culture, and even lynched en masse in New Orleans in 1890.
The governor would have to admit that when the U.S. adjusted its norms so that Italians could more fully participate in our society, it was a net gain for all of us, not just Italians. Surely he wouldn’t argue that the past definitions of race, which excluded his own family, should be restored.
But now DeSantis takes his inclusion for granted. And how quick he is to exclude other groups in the name of tradition. He’s almost gleeful when he attacks DEI programs, calling them “discrimination, exclusion, and indoctrination,” which is as accurate a description of his own agenda as I can think of.
DEI is so not this. Even the fact that we keep adding letters (D, D&I, DEI, DEIB, DEIA, DEI/RJ…) shows that our goal is including more and more people! Pronouns are part of this movement.
DeSantis’ rhetoric appeals to people’s fear of change. But as his own heritage shows, sometimes the way things were is actually what we should be afraid of. Especially for marginalized people.
Change may be uncomfortable. But history shows that we can adapt—and create a world that welcomes everyone.