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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Clive Lewis was furious when a Trident pledge went missing from his speech

The shadow defence secretary is carving out his own line on security. 

Clive Lewis’s first conference speech as shadow defence secretary has been overshadowed by a row over a last-minute change to his speech, when a section saying that he “would not seek to change” Labour’s policy on renewing Trident submarines disappeared.

Lewis took the stage expecting to make the announcement and was only notified of the change via a post-it note, having reportedly signed it of with the leader’s office in advance. 

Lewis was, I’m told, “fucking furious”, and according to Kevin Schofield over at PoliticsHome, is said to have “punched a wall” in anger at the change. The finger of blame is being pointed at Jeremy Corbyn’s press chief, Seumas Milne.

What’s going on? The important political context is the finely-balanced struggle for power on Labour’s ruling national executive committee, which has tilted away from Corbyn after conference passed a resolution to give the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish parties the right to appoint a representative each to the body. (Corbyn, as leader, has the right to appoint three.)  

One of Corbyn’s more resolvable headaches on the NEC is the GMB, who are increasingly willing to challenge  the Labour leader, and who represent many of the people employed making the submarines themselves. An added source of tension in all this is that the GMB and Unite compete with one another for members in the nuclear industry, and that being seen to be the louder defender of their workers’ interests has proved a good recruiting agent for the GMB in recent years. 

Strike a deal with the GMB over Trident, and it could make passing wider changes to the party rulebook through party conference significantly easier. (Not least because the GMB also accounts for a large chunk of the trade union delegates on the conference floor.) 

So what happened? My understanding is that Milne was not freelancing but acting on clear instruction. Although Team Corbyn are well aware a nuclear deal could ease the path for the wider project, they also know that trying to get Corbyn to strike a pose he doesn’t agree with is a self-defeating task. 

“Jeremy’s biggest strength,” a senior ally of his told me, “is that you absolutely cannot get him to say something he doesn’t believe, and without that, he wouldn’t be leader. But it can make it harder for him to be the leader.”

Corbyn is also of the generation – as are John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – for whom going soft on Trident was symptomatic of Neil Kinnock’s rightward turn. Going easy on this issue was always going be nothing doing. 

There are three big winners in all this. The first, of course, are Corbyn’s internal opponents, who will continue to feel the benefits of the GMB’s support. The second is Iain McNicol, formerly of the GMB. While he enjoys the protection of the GMB, there simply isn’t a majority on the NEC to be found to get rid of him. Corbyn’s inner circle have been increasingly certain they cannot remove McNicol and will insead have to go around him, but this confirms it.

But the third big winner is Lewis. In his praise for NATO – dubbing it a “socialist” organisation, a reference to the fact the Attlee government were its co-creators – and in his rebuffed attempt to park the nuclear issue, he is making himeslf the natural home for those in Labour who agree with Corbyn on the economics but fear that on security issues he is dead on arrival with the electorate.  That position probably accounts for at least 40 per cent of the party membership and around 100 MPs. 

If tomorrow’s Labour party belongs to a figure who has remained in the trenches with Corbyn – which, in my view, is why Emily Thornberry remains worth a bet too – then Clive Lewis has done his chances after 2020 no small amount of good. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.