When I began writing about language several decades ago, the pronoun errors that concerned my readers related to number and case. I never imagined that gender would ever become a source of confusion.
Nowadays, however, journalists are faced with the question of which pronouns to use when writing about transgender people.
The recommendation of the Associated Press and other style authorities is to use whichever pronouns the subject prefers:
Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics (by hormone therapy, body modification, or surgery) of the opposite sex and present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.
The recommendation is easy to follow when writing about events that take place after the subject’s transition. Problems arise when a writer wishes to deal with events that preceded the change.
For example, the following sentences from a Wikipedia article illustrate the disconcerting effect of making the new pronouns retroactive:
Born Bradley Edward Manning in 1987 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, she was the second child of Susan Fox, originally from Wales, and Brian Manning, an American.
By then, Manning was living as an openly gay man. Her relationship with her father was apparently good.
The Wikipedia article on the former Bruce Jenner deals with the problem by avoiding pronouns altogether:
After Olympic success, Jenner decided to cash in on celebrity status, which required forgoing any future Olympic competition. Jenner’s agent George Wallach felt at the time that Jenner had a four-year window to capitalize upon. Wallach reported that Jenner was being considered for the role of Superman, which ultimately went to Christopher Reeve.
Journalists are not the only ones struggling with the question of gendered pronouns.
University authorities, sensitive to the question of assumptions relating to gender, are rethinking the traditional Male/Female designations on registration forms. According to an article at AP The Big Story, students registering at Harvard are allowed to indicate the pronouns they prefer and are offered the gender-neutral options ze and they.
The State University of New York is “working on a data-collection tool to let students choose among seven gender identities, including trans man, questioning, and genderqueer.”
An article in Slate reports that Facebook now offers a drop-down gender menu containing more than fifty designations. Some of the options are cis female, gender fluid, transfeminine, neutrois, and two-spirit.
Facebook also provides pronoun options for the feature that alerts users to a friend’s upcoming birthday:
wish him a happy birthday
wish her a happy birthday
wish them a happy birthday
Perhaps the day is not too far off when English speakers drop the singular third-person personal pronouns altogether in favor of plural, gender-neutral they and them.