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Trans people, pronouns and language

When it comes to pronouns or gendered descriptors, it's better to allow people autonomy over their identities rather than impose your own preconceptions.

A gay activist silhouetted against the LGBT flag at a rally at the University of
If in doubt, ask (politely). Photograph: Getty Images

In 1910, German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld published The Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress ­– the first investigation into the practice of wearing clothes designated for the “opposite” sex, and those who wanted to be the “opposite” sex or find space between “male” and “female”. With no recognised word to describe any of these positions or practices, Hirschfeld popularised “transvestite” from the Latin trans- (meaning “across”) and vestitus (“dressed”), variations on which had been used across Europe since the sixteenth century. (Zagria’s Gender Variance Who’s Who provides a potted history here.)

The sexological categorisation of gender-variant practices, and the new possibilities opened by scientific advances and changing attitudes throughout the twentieth century, posed a significant challenge to European languages, which had not previously been seriously demanded to accommodate areas between the two established sexes or genders. The definition of transvestite has been narrowed following the emergence of transsexual and genderqueer people, commonly referring to people who cross-dress for sexual pleasure without wishing for sex or gender reassignment, but a linguistic problem around gender variance that persists is that of pronouns – with just “he/him” and “she/her” in common English usage, little possibility traditionally existed for those between the gender binary, with third parties often unsure of how to address even those who have moved from male to female, or vice versa.

There exists a decades-long lag between trans activism and mainstream media discussion of trans people and politics, with the latter still struggling to catch up with the former. Before the internet, it was hard to find trans people talking about their lives in their voices – a search through the Guardian archives, for example, reveals that “transsexual” was first used in the Observer on 28 April 1974, in an article headlined “Trans-Sexuals” by medical correspondent Christine Doyle. It was not until the 1990s that any openly transsexual person was given any platform in the Guardian or the Observer, and not until the late 2000s that they were allowed more than one-off columns.

Kept out of the mainstream media, gender-variant people, many of whom could not “out” in their daily lives, communicated directly in spaces that allowed them to retain anonymity – fanzines and online forums. Sandy Stone’s brilliant essay The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto was written in 1987 in response to radical feminist Janice Raymond’s searing attacks on Gender Identity Clinics and transsexual people in The Transsexual Empire (1979) and circulated on early online communities, before being published in 1991. This called for transsexual people to move beyond “passing” and be open about their gender histories, but the wave of transgender activists and academics that coalesced in the early 1990s, such as Transgender Warriors author Leslie Feinberg, felt it was worth exploring a new linguistic framework to better describe their experiences, starting with pronouns such as “ze” and “hir” to create space between “he” and “she”, “him” and “her”, and generate a lexicon that was not imposed by the medical community.

Transgender History, written by San Francisco-based historian, filmmaker and activist Susan Stryker, well described where this discourse had reached by 2008:

Appropriate use of gender-neutral pronouns can be tricky. The practice often works well within transgender communities, where many people understand what’s being said, but can be confusing for outsiders. Changes in language structure usually happen very slowly and pronouns are among the linguistic elements most resistant to change, so trying to speed up a change of usage can sometimes sound forced or strange. Some transgender people – often those who have worked very hard to attain a gender status other than the one assigned to them at birth – take offence when gender-neutral pronouns, rather than the appropriate gendered ones, are applied to them because they perceive this usage as a way that others fail to acknowledge their attained gender.

So it’s recognised that making such changes to the English language is a difficult job, for so many reasons, but it’s interesting to note that the vocabulary needed to apprehend the way that computers changed the world never met with the same opprobrium as that needed to understand sexual diversity or gender variance. (Did you hear anyone complaining that “tweet used to be such a lovely word – now it just means anonymously calling someone a fucking dick?” or “Why should I have to use the word ‘internet’?” in a way that you do with “gay” or any trans-related terminology?)

Striving to close this gap, pressure group Trans Media Watch, which was formed in 2009 to monitor adverse print or broadcast portrayals of trans people and offer advice on how these may be improved, produced a Media Style Guide which, amongst other things, suggests to “Avoid using pronouns or gendered descriptors that conflict with an individual’s personal experience of their gender identity”. This is less complicated than cisgender (non-trans) people sometimes think – basically, if you’re unsure about someone’s gender identity and preferred terms, ask (politely). If you can’t ask, work on the basis that someone who wears male clothes and uses a male name, for example, would prefer “he” and “him”: allowing people autonomy over their identities is fairer than imposing your own preconceptions. Perhaps the way that the English language and English-language media deal with gender variance will continue to evolve in ways that we can predict for decades to come, but for now, the adoption of this principle would be a very good place for writers, publications and people to start.