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.

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.

If in doubt, ask (politely). Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Here’s everything wrong with Daniel Hannan’s tweet about Saturday’s Unite for Europe march

I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.

I was going to give up the Daniel Hannan thing, I really was. He’s never responded to this column, despite definitely being aware of it. The chances of him changing his views in response to verifiable facts seem to be nil, so the odds of him doing it because some smug lefty keeps mocking him on the internet must be into negative numbers.

And three different people now have told me that they were blissfully unaware of Hannan's existence until I kept going on about him. Doing Dan’s PR for him was never really the point of the exercise – so I was going to quietly abandon the field, leave Hannan to his delusion that the disasters ahead are entirely the fault of the people who always said Brexit would be a disaster, and get back to my busy schedule of crippling existential terror.

Told you he was aware of it.

Except then he does something so infuriating that I lose an entire weekend to cataloguing the many ways how. I just can’t bring myself to let it go: I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.

I never quite finished that book, but I’m sure it all worked out fine for Ahab, so we might as well get on with it*. Here’s what’s annoying me this week:

And here are some of the many ways in which I’m finding it obnoxious.

1. It only counts as libel if it’s untrue.

2. This sign is not untrue.

3. The idea that “liars, buffoons and swivel-eyed loons” are now in control of the country is not only not untrue, it’s not even controversial.

4. The leaders of the Leave campaign, who now dominate our politics, are 70 per cent water and 30 per cent lies.

5. For starters, they told everyone that, by leaving the EU, Britain could save £350m a week which we could then spend on the NHS. This, it turned out, was a lie.

6. They said Turkey was about to join the EU. This was a lie too.

7. A variety of Leave campaigners spent recent years saying that our place in the single market was safe. Which it turned out was... oh, you guessed.

8. As to buffoons, well, there’s Brexit secretary David Davis, for one, who goes around cheerfully admitting to Select Committees that the government has no idea what Brexit would actually do to the economy.

9. There was also his 2005 leadership campaign, in which he got a variety of Tory women to wear tight t-shirts with (I’m sorry) “It’s DD for me” written across the chest.

10. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is definitely a liar AND a buffoon.

11. I mean, you don’t even need me to present any evidence of that one, do you? You just nodded automatically.

12. You probably got there before me, even. For what it's worth, he was sacked from The Times for making up a quote, and sacked from the shadow frontbench for hiding an affair.

13. Then there’s Liam Fox, who is Liam Fox.

14. I’m not going to identify any “swivel-eyed loons”, because mocking someone’s physical attributes is mean and also because I don’t want to get sued, but let’s not pretend Leave campaigners who fit the bill would be hard to find.

15. Has anyone ever managed to read a tweet by Hannan beginning with the words “a reminder” without getting an overwhelming urge to do unspeakable things to an inanimate object, just to get rid of their rage?

16. Even if the accusation made in that picture was untrue, which it isn’t, it wouldn’t count as libel. It’s not possible to libel 52 per cent of the electorate unless they form a distinct legal entity. Which they don’t.

17. Also, at risk of coming over a bit AC Grayling, “52 per cent of those who voted” is not the same as “most Britons”. I don’t think that means we can dismiss the referendum result, but those phrases mean two different things.

18. As ever, though, the most infuriating thing Hannan’s done here is a cheap rhetorical sleight of hand. The sign isn’t talking about the entire chunk of the electorate who voted for Brexit: it’s clearly talking specifically about the nation’s leaders. He’s conflated the two and assumed we won’t notice.

19. It’s as if you told someone they were shit at their job, and they responded, “How dare you attack my mother!”

20. Love the way Hannan is so outraged that anyone might conflate an entire half of the population with an “out of touch elite”, something that literally no Leave campaigners have ever, ever done.

21. Does he really not know that he’s done this? Or is he just pretending, so as to give him another excuse to imply that all opposition to his ideas is illegitimate?

22. Once again, I come back to my eternal question about Hannan: does he know he’s getting this stuff wrong, or is he genuinely this dim?

23. Will I ever be able to stop wasting my life analysing the intellectual sewage this infuriating man keeps pouring down the internet?

*Related: the collected Hannan Fodder is now about the same wordcount as Moby Dick.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.