Taking one last look at my 2016 inbox, I’m not surprised by how many questions I received about gender and identity. After all, in January, members of the American Dialect Society gave the official okay to “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun (instead of “he” or “she”). Two months later, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed the state’s now infamous “bathroom bill,” which requires trans people to use the restroom that corresponds to their biological sex, not their gender identity. Before heading into the new year, I’ll close out the old with a few of your most common gender-bender questions.
Referring to a transgender person’s earlier life
Q: How should transgender individuals be referred to in the context of events before their transition? Should we say that Caitlyn Jenner won the 1976 Olympic decathlon under the name Bruce? What about Sonny and Cher bringing their toddler onstage (dressed as a girl, and referred to as a girl) — should we now call that child Chaz, even though he was then Chastity? –Ross V., Los Angeles
A: Individuals who transition let go of the name and gender identity given to them at birth, and we must do the same. Refusing to do so is called “deadnaming.” Although it’s often an innocent mistake, sometimes it can also be malicious. “You should always refer to a transgender person by their new name, the name that reflects their authentic gender identity,” Nick Adams, GLAAD’s director of transgender media programs, says.
To answer your specific questions, in daily usage, it’s “Caitlyn Jenner won the 1976 men’s Olympic decathlon.” Obviously, she was competing in a men’s event from this statement. “Chaz Bono, the son of Sonny and Cher, appeared at the end of most episodes of their show. He was 2 years old when the show made its debut in 1971.” It’s really not so hard after all.
Convening a mixed group
Q: Please suggest a way to call to order a meeting of a mixed group of LGBT and straight people. “Gentlemen” or “Ladies and Gentlemen” no longer seems sufficiently inclusive. — Anonymous
A: It’s always good manners to call people what they want to be called, so I applaud your search for an inclusive salutation. A large meeting is likely to include a few individuals who are outside traditional gender norms, and some 21st-century women wouldn’t welcome being addressed as “ladies.” Living in the South, as I do, comes with the benefit of a popular inclusive pronoun. (“Good morning, y’all — please take your seats.”) But for those above the Mason-Dixon Line and at more formal events, here’s another option: “Will everyone please come to order?”
How do we introduce
Q: A college student recently told me that when I introduce myself I should always say, “Hi, my name is _____ and I use she/her pronouns.” Do you do this? — a commenter to the online Civilities chat.
A: More and more. This new way of making introductions is now common on campuses, and when I speak at college events I’m often asked to state my pronouns as well as my name. (“Hi, I’m Steven and I use he/him/his as my pronouns.”) I’m telling everyone that I identify as male, but I’m also making it more acceptable for those who identify as transgender or non-binary to be open about their identity. Jacob Tobia, a trans writer, uses “they, them and their” to refer to themselves in the singular because, as they say, “There are parts of me that are more feminine and parts of me that are more masculine — they/them pronouns allow me the opportunity to express every part of myself.” Grumpy grammarians, take note: The singular “they” is now in many dictionaries and media style guides — including The Washington Post’s — as an accepted usage.
Who’s the “bride” and “groom?”
Q: The son of a good friend of mine announced while he was in college a few years back that he was “genderqueer” and that we were to call him “them” from now on. Now he (they?) is getting married, and the bride (groom?) is also genderqueer. I have absolutely no idea who’s who — should I be expecting a wedding shower for them (them?) Who dances with whom at THIS wedding? — R. Foley, New York
A: Too much thinking can be dangerous! And this is a perfect example. Sure, it’s true that the language of traditional weddings is highly gendered, and it can require some out-of-the-box thinking by those who identify as genderqueer (also called gender non-conforming). How to get around gendered wedding terms? If a couple doesn’t like “husband” or “wife,” then “spouse” can stand in. If “bridesmaid” and “groomsmen” seem too Jane Austen, then go ahead and call them “attendants.” Some wedding planners now refer to lovebirds as “Partner A” and “Partner B.” Regarding pronouns, their wedding invitation will probably provide some insight, as Kathryn Hamm, the publisher of GayWeddings.com, told me. Don’t worry about wedding showers, either, given that these days, they are often held for both “betrotheds,” another way to say fiance/fiancee. And as for who dances with whom, well, that’s an easy one. Life is short: Dance with everyone. Mazel tov.
Email questions to Civilities at firstname.lastname@example.org (unfortunately not all questions can be answered). You can reach him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on Dec. 20 at 1 p.m.