Q: Our niece is dating a woman who is in the process of becoming male (she/he is presently taking ‘hormones’). My husband and I disagree about which are the appropriate pronouns when referring to her/him. I believe that since ‘he’ and our niece have accepted the gender change and refer to ‘him’ as ‘he,’ ‘his’, ‘him,’ etc., then we should follow suit. My husband believes that since ‘she’ still has a vagina and is biologically female, that she is ‘she.’ What is the proper etiquette in this situation? ~Anonymous
A: This is a very good question and a timely one, too. In its June 9 issue, TIME magazine’s cover features Laverne Cox, star of the Netflix drama “Orange Is The New Black” and one of roughly 1.5 million Americans who identify as transgender. The headline: “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.”
For many within the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community and among straight people, I’ve seen much confusion when it comes to some very basic questions about transgender individuals and identity. No doubt part of the problem is that only 8 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender according to a 2013 Pew Research survey (compared to 90 percent who say they know someone who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual).
Invisibility is not the only challenge for transgender people. A recent study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality concluded: “Hundreds of dramatic findings on the impact of anti-transgender bias are presented in this report. In many cases, a series of bias-related events lead to insurmountable challenges and devastating outcomes for study participants.” Among the findings: 78 percent of transgender individuals in school reported “alarming” rates of harassment due to their identity; 90 percent reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job; and a “staggering” 41 percent reported attempting suicide (compared to 1.6 percent of the general population.”
When I posted the TIME magazine cover on my Facebook page, I mentioned the confusion but also took note of the prevalence of the antipathy; here’s just one of the posts:
- “I think this [cover story] is ridiculous. What kind of civil rights do they need… This is what makes everyone say the gay community is looking for special privileges. When a fringe group says they want MORE, it reflects poorly on all of us. This [TIME] cover wasn’t a ground breaking move for LGBT… it was a giant step backwards.”
Okay, enough background; now to answer your question: You are correct in using the male pronoun for your niece’s sweetheart. In short, it’s always respectful to refer to people in the way that they identify and the best way to do that is to listen. To help all us of choose our words wisely when it comes to transgender individuals, here’s a “cheat sheet,” excerpted from GLAAD’s “Tips for Allies of Transgender People.” Consider it “Transgender Etiquette 101.”
1. Respect the terminology a transgender person uses to describe their identity.
The transgender community uses many different terms to describe their experiences. Respect the term (transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, cross-dresser, etc.) a person uses to describe themselves. If a person is not sure of which identity label fits them best, give them the time and space to figure it out for themselves. Don’t tell them which term you think they should use. You wouldn’t like your identity to be defined by others, so please allow others to define themselves.
2. Don’t make assumptions about a transgender person’s sexual orientation.
Gender identity is different than sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is about who we’re attracted to. Gender identity is about our own personal sense of being male or female (or someone outside that binary.) Transgender people can be gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight.
3. If you don’t know what pronouns to use, ask.
Be polite and respectful when you ask a person which pronoun they prefer. Then use that pronoun and encourage others to do so. If you accidently use the wrong pronoun, apologize quickly and sincerely, then move on. The bigger deal you make out of the situation, the more uncomfortable it is for everyone.
4. Don’t ask about a transgender person’s genitals or surgical status.
It wouldn’t be appropriate to ask a non-transgender person about the appearance or status of their genitalia, so it isn’t appropriate to ask a transgender person that question either. Likewise, don’t ask if a transgender person has had “the surgery” or if they are “pre-op” or “post-op.” If a transgender person wants to talk to you about such matters, let them bring it up.
5. Don’t ask a transgender person what their “real name” is.
For some transgender people, being associated with their birth name is a tremendous source of anxiety, or it is simply a part of their life they wish to leave behind. Respect the name a transgender person is currently using. If you already know someone’s prior name don’t share it without the person’s explicit permission. For more from GLAAD, click here.
Of course not all the responses on my Facebook page about TIME’s decision to feature Laverne Cox were negative. One lesbian woman from Maryland posted: “I am working hard on this one, but progressing. It’s a journey folks, but we need to support all those who struggle with gender/ethnicity/or any discriminatory issues. We’ll all be better for it.” Agreed. And no place better than to start with the right foundation, that’s to say the correct pronouns.
Agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comment field below.
Every other week, Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his new column, Civilities. E-mail questions to Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org (unfortunately not all questions can be answered). You can also reach Steven on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on June 3 at 1 P.M. ET.