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Here’s something that happened to me last month: I got asked my preferred gender pronoun.

For those who aren’t familiar, this is a thing that tends to happen a lot at queer-positive conferences and gatherings these days. When you go around the room at the beginning of a session, you’ll say your name, something about yourself, maybe answer an ice-breaker question, and state your preferred gender pronoun. It can be he/him, she/her, they/their, or one of the newer alternatives like ze or hir. Or you can just say you’d prefer to be referred to by your name.

I first encountered this tradition in 2011, I think. Maybe 2010. Most likely it was at a United States Student Association conference. The idea behind it is that respecting people’s gender identity is important, and volunteering your identity can be awkward, and misgendering someone is hurtful. So rather than guessing, or asking individual people to speak up if their preferences are non-standard or non-obvious, you just go around the room.

So I’ve been asked my preferred gender pronoun before. But this was different. This was at a party. In a one-on-one conversation.

It was the middle of the evening, and I’d been chatting with someone — a college student — for ten or fifteen minutes, over by the snacks. And at some point, as an aside, like asking me what borough I lived in, they asked what my preferred gender pronoun was.

I’m six foot three. I have short hair. That night I was wearing jeans and a button-down, and I don’t think I’d shaved. The question wasn’t about my self-presentation, is what I’m saying. It wasn’t specifically about me at all. It was about a new way of interacting, a new way of thinking that is on its way to becoming ubiquitous among young people — and far quicker than I could ever have imagined.

Every few months, doing the kind of work I do, I encounter another artifact of this sort of change. It can be a little discombobulating. But when I told this story to a friend a few days ago, and he rolled his eyes, I surprised myself a little with the vehemence of my response.

Because it was actually a great question that I was asked that night. It was an exciting question. I’m a “he.” I’ve always thought of myself as a he, and I expect I always will. I’m a man, I’m a guy, I’m a dad, I’m a son, I’m a brother.

But in that moment, I got to choose. I was asked to choose, asked to pick whether for the duration of that conversation I wanted to be approached as a he or as something else. And I knew that whatever answer I gave, it would be honored, respected, taken seriously. And that recognition, far more than any of the rote rounds of he/she/they/ze responses I’ve seen given at the start of workshops, opened something up in me. It wasn’t a door — at least not a door I was tempted to walk through — but it was a window.

And I liked the view.

A student who sued her school district over a requirement that she wear an ID tag equipped with an RFID chip that allowed the school to track her movements lost her court case yesterday.

The case filed in a Texas federal court, was a strange one. San Antonio sophomore Andrea Hernandez objected to the RFID chip on the basis of theology, not privacy — she believes that the tracking tag is the Mark of the Beast warned of in the biblical book of Revelation. As a result, she contends that her religion forbids her from wearing the tag, and that the school’s tag requirement is a violation of her First Amendment rights. As her father put it in a September letter, “it is our Hell Fire Belief that if we compromise our faith and religious freedom to allow you to track my daughter while she is at school it will condemn us to hell.” In a later meeting with a district official he also expressed concern that wearing the chip might cause cancer.

Hernandez was suspended later that month for refusing to wear her school-issued ID, and told that she would not be allowed to return without it. District officials gave her the option of transferring to a school that didn’t use the tracking chips. Instead she sued, and won a preliminary injunction against the suspension. Yesterday’s ruling lifted that injunction and freed the district to transfer her to another school. (Hernandez is likely to appeal.)

So where does the victory come in? Well, at a relatively early stage of the process, the school offered to give Hernandez an ID badge with the RFID chip disabled. Her movements wouldn’t be tracked, her attendance wouldn’t be automatically logged — it’d just be an ordinary ID on an ordinary lanyard.

Hernandez refused this accommodation on the grounds that even a chip-less ID — which her father referred  to as a “symbol” of the RFID tracking program — constituted forced speech in favor of the program itself. The court rejected that argument yesterday.

It’s not clear whether Hernandez would have prevailed in court if the school hadn’t offered the compromise that it did, but the language of the court’s ruling made it clear that she would have been on stronger ground. (They did not address the question of the constitutionality of the ID requirement on privacy grounds, as Hernandez explicitly disavowed such a claim.)

Yesterday’s ruling, then, leaves many of the core issues surrounding student RFID tags unresolved. But it does provide support for the idea that allowing students to opt out of RFID requirements is a reasonable accommodation, as well as raising the public profile of the opt-out path for those students who might be interested in it.

One note about the RFID requirement. Although yesterday’s ruling claimed that the tags “are expected to improve [school] safety by allowing school staff to know the whereabouts of a student that may be missing or unaccounted for in the event of a fire alarm or other emergency evacuation,” that’s not the reason that the chips were added.

In Texas, as elsewhere in the country, state school funding is set partially on the basis of student attendance. When students are absent, funding goes down. Equipping ID cards with RFID, and mandating that students wear the IDs on campus at all times, allows the school to automate attendance-taking and include students who arrive late, leave early, or otherwise fall through the roll-call cracks in their attendance reports. More accurate record-keeping means more state money.

As is so often the case these days, this new — and potentially problematic — education policy is driven primarily by the ongoing crisis in public school funding.

Today’s press conference by NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre has been greeted with a storm of derision and outrage from across the political spectrum. Even moderates and conservatives were appalled — New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s comment that the speech reflected a “paranoid, dystopian vision” of America was distinctive more for its phrasing than its sentiment.

One of the most ridiculed elements of LaPierre’s appearance was his call for a national volunteer force of armed guards to patrol every school in America — a “blanket of safety,” he called it, and he wants it in place by the end of the Christmas break.

Many observers pointed out that Columbine High School had an armed sheriff’s deputy on site on the day that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered thirteen and wounded twenty-one more in what stands as the bloodiest high school massacre in the nation’s history.

Some conservatives are “peeved” by this criticism, however. As Daniel Foster writes at the website of the National Review,

“it isn’t like the deputy was sitting around eating doughnuts. … He traded fire (that is, he drew fire) with Harris for an extended period of time, during which Harris’s gun jammed. … In this highly chaotic tactical environment, the deputy acted both bravely and prudently, and who knows how many lives he saved by engaging Harris.”

Let’s consider this a moment.

Wayne LaPierre asserts that the solution to the problem of school shootings is bringing armed guards onto the nation’s campuses. Critics point out that the worst high school shooting in American history took place at a school where just such a guard was on hand. And how do LaPierre’s supporters respond?

You see? It works!

The NRA and its allies believe that Columbine was a win. They believe that we need more Columbines, not fewer.

Here’s the entirety of the only passage in President Obama’s speech in Tucson after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in 2011 that even implied advocacy for governmental action against gun violence:

“We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future.”

Here’s the analogous passage from his speech in Colorado after the Aurora shootings in July:

“I hope that over the next several days, next several weeks, and next several months, we all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country, but also reflect on all the wonderful people who make this the greatest country on Earth.”

And here’s the analogous passage from his speech tonight in Newtown:

“This is our first task, caring for our children. Our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live our their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

“Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings. Fourth time we’ve hugged survivors. Fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. In between there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children in small towns and big cities all across America. Victims who much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this. If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.

“In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

Should be an interesting next few weeks.

A federal judge has ruled that three supporters of “ex-gay” therapy may not be sanctioned by the state of California under a new law against the use of so-called conversion therapy on gays, lesbians, and bisexuals under the age of 18.

The law, SB 1172, passed earlier this year and is set to go into effect on January 1. Declaring that “being lesbian, gay, or bisexual is not a disease, disorder, illness, deficiency, or shortcoming,” and that “sexual orientation change efforts can pose critical health risks to lesbian, gay, and bisexual people,” the law bars mental health professionals from attempting to change the sexual orientation of gay minors.

Judge William B. Shubb, a George HW Bush appointee, ruled that three men challenging the law — psychiatrist Anthony Duk, therapist Donald Welch, and prospective counseling student Aaron Bitzer — may not be sanctioned under its provisions until the resolution of a pending court case on their claim that it violates their free speech rights.

In his ruling Judge Shubb declared that SB 1172 is “unlikely” to survive constitutional scrutiny because its underlying premise — that conversion therapy is harmful to minors — is based on “questionable and scientifically incomplete studies.”

Judge Shubb’s ruling currently applies only to the three named plaintiffs, but their lawyer says that they would be willing to add any other mental health practitioner facing sanctions under the law to their suit.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall
StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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