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It took me less than a nanosecond to get comfortable with gender fluid pronouns. Perhaps counterintuitively, there’s a religion story behind this.

When Cassius Clay converted to Islam and took the name Muhammad Ali, many refused to call him by his new name. That enraged Ali. He viewed it as an insult, towards both him and his religion.

Howard Cosell, the Jewish television commentator with whom Ali formed a powerful bond, viewed it as a matter of respect to call Ali by the name he preferred.

When someone told me 10 years or so ago that they wished to be referred to as ‘them’ not ‘she’, the Ali/Cosell story was my instinctive reference point. The lesson of that story? You get to be called what you want to be called.

I think about this religiously inflected reference point every time that I’m with a campus diversity group where people go through the ritual of saying their name, title and preferred gender pronoun. And then I wonder, “Why is the only dimension of identity that’s put front and center in this way gender?”

Obviously, the rationale here is that we ought to be sensitive to the language we use as it relates to gender. Not everyone is cisgender, nor does everyone wish to be called the pronoun that their appearance might suggest. We should create a space where language is used inclusively.

I fully agree. 

But is this only relevant when it comes to gender pronouns?

Isn’t it the case that there are language sensitivities associated with, say, different religious identities? There are, for example, many religious commitments where it is viewed as a transgression to take the Lord’s name in vain. There are other ethnic/religious communities, including some segments of the Hmong, where it is customary to ask an individual about the well-being of her family members before any other business is done. Lots of Muslims will pepper their talk with phrases like Insha’Allah and Mash’Allah (if God wills, and thanks be to God). They would certainly feel like the space was more inclusive of their identity if others knew of their religious commitment and welcomed this kind of language.

So, why isn’t “preferred language related to orientation around religion” a ritual part of the circle of introductions, in the same way that “preferred gender pronoun” is?

A final story: I work out at a gym where lots of diversity progressive types go – the kind of people who, like me, shop at Whole Foods and go to women’s marches.

On Easter, the workout instructor showed us how to do an exercise she called “the running person”. The video screen called it “the running man”. The instructor promised to get the video screen fixed. Gender nouns and pronouns mattered.

On our way out, she smirked and wished all of us a “Happy Zombie Jesus Day -- or whatever you celebrate”.

It was Easter Sunday. An Easter Sunday, I might add, where over two hundred Sri Lankan Christians had been killed in terrorist bombings while they worshipped.

What is it about diversity progressive culture in this particular moment that has us hypersensitive to language related to some dimensions of identity (gender), and so willing to be gratuitously insulting to others (religion)? 

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