Queen’s professor discusses ‘No Big Deal’ Campaign

Queen's Certificate in Law

AAC Academic Grievance Centre

Dr. Lee Airton discusses politicization of gender-neutral pronouns

Supplied by 'No Big Deal' Campaign

On Wednesday, Dr. Lee Airton told a group of students and faculty in Sir. John A. MacDonald Hall that using gender-neutral pronouns is “No Big Deal.” 

Dr. Airton is an assistant professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies in the Queen’s Faculty of Education. As part of a lecture on Mar. 7 entitled, “The De/Politicization of Pronouns: Implications of the No Big Deal Campaign for Transgender Activism,” they [Airton] discussed their 2016 “No Big Deal” (NBD) initiative.

Airton created NBD after the topic garnered substantial controversy following an amendment to Bill C-16. The purpose of the campaign is to clarify misconceptions prevalent throughout the free speech rhetoric used to oppose Bill C-16. Specifically, the amendment has been critiqued due to the perception that people will be punished for refusing to use an individual’s preferred pronoun. 

The NBD initiative further aims to maintain a sense of community to counteract the “alarmist and divisive” narratives set by “Canadian journalists and some academics,” as per the website. 

According to the campaign website, NBD is “a positive and affirming response to the recent conflict around transgender peoples’ pronouns, including gender-neutral ones like singular they/them and non-binary pronouns ze/hir (instead of she/her or he/him).”  

“Some are claiming that Bill C-16 poses a threat to ‘free speech’ because refusing to use someone’s preferred gender pronoun would become hate speech,” the website details. “This is inaccurate, but has become a popular reason to disrespect some transgender peoples’ pronouns.” 

At the lecture, Airton explained their view that insistence on the importance of free speech found in mainstream discourse is a “normative and low-intensity proposition.” It’s one that attempts to place individuals above question or challenge. 

“But using someone’s gender-neutral pronoun… is not effortless. It’s intensive… it can be a demand to make an effort without understanding why,” they continued. “To think, practice and be corrected about the pronouns we apply to others because we’re having to notice something now.” 

Airton described the campaign as focused on the intrinsic, individual effort required to use pronouns. They stated this effort is “the actual issue at stake, not free speech,” since using personal pronouns can require a certain level of awareness, consciousness and responsibility. 

Through its campaign materials and infographics, NBD attempts to communicate facts and dismantle false ideas about the use of preferred pronouns. On top of this, the campaign discusses how to be a supporter and ally of the trans community. 

“I’ll use your pronoun. No big deal,” is the tagline of the campaign, and attempts to lighten the responsibility a non-trans person could feel.  Some have criticized this methodology as diminishing the importance of pronouns for trans people, which Airton acknowledged as a valid concern.  

Nonetheless, the campaign has proven successful. It’s expanded beyond Airton’s initial social sphere to become an educational resource for individuals unaware of the nuances of gender-neutral pronouns. NBD’s campaign materials are also available on the site for public use. 

“NBD tacitly produces the act of using a trans person’s pronouns as requiring an everyday and unremarkable kind of effort, not something excessive,” Airton summarized.  

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