English pronouns and gender

The Office for Diversity and Inclusion at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, hit the headlines last week after it published internal advice on the use of third-person pronouns to refer to individual transgender*  and genderqueer* students.

The advice divided opinion in the media but does raise an important question for writers and their editors, who do their best to keep bias – including the kinds that are culturally ingrained in us through long historical usage, such as the use of he and she to refer to people who are assigned either male or female sex at birth – out of their writing: which third-person pronouns should we use to refer to transgender and genderqueer people?

Looking through a number of sources (see list below), there seems to be general agreement on the most sensitive and inclusive approach to adopt. If possible, of course, it is preferable to ask the person being referred to to supply the preferred pronoun. This should be an easier task when writing about someone as opposed to speaking about them, as we are likely to have the time to consult either the person or the historical record.

However, there may still be cases where consulting is not possible. In these cases, the consensus appears to be:

  • to refer to a transgender or transsexual woman*, use sheher, and her;
  • to refer to a transgender or transsexual man*, use he, him, and his; and
  • to refer to a genderqueer person, use appropriate editorial techniques to avoid using pronouns (see, e.g. The Chicago Manual of Style, section 5.225).

Finally, writers and editors must remain sensitive not only to their subjects but also to their audience; so, always be at pains to explain the meaning of terms that may otherwise be unfamiliar to the reader.

I welcome comments/corrections/discussion.

* See GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide – Transgender Issues for an explanation of these terms.

Sources list

AP Stylebook

Chicago Manual of Style

Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association

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