A PRO’S VIEW: I’M PRO-GENDER-NEUTRAL PRONOUNS
As a copy editor at USA TODAY, I was asked by our editor in chief last summer what I thought about the Pfc. Bradley/Chelsea Manning case.
Not so much what I thought about it, but whether I thought we should follow the lead of the Associated Press, which soon after Manning’s sentencing decided to start referring to Manning, a transgender who identifies as female but has not yet gone through any transitioning, as “she” and “her” instead of “he,” “his” and “him.”
This is what the USA TODAY style guide says about that:
Transgender is an umbrella term that refers to people whose biological and gender identity or expression may not be the same. This can include preoperative, postoperative or non-operative transsexuals, female and male cross-dressers, drag queens or kings, female or male impersonators and intersex individuals.
If an individual prefers to be called transsexual, drag queen or king, intersex, etc., use that term.
When writing about a transgender person, use the name and personal pronouns that are consistent with the way the individual lives publicly.”
Therein lies the catch for Manning: “… the way the individual lives publicly.” For the crimes of espionage, theft and fraud for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, Manning is serving 35 years at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas — an all-male prison. And the Army has denied Manning’s request for hormone therapy. As far as dressing male or female goes — aren’t prison jumpsuits fairly unisex (Orange Is the New Black)?
If Manning has no opportunity to live publicly as a woman, how can we, the media (includes you), honor the request or apply an institutionalized style?
At the time, and on deadline no less, I suggested avoiding pronouns and writing around things — introducing the situation on first reference: “Pfc. Bradley Manning, who prefers to be known as Chelsea” then using only Manning on second reference. But that seems wimpy. The point of setting style is to be bold, even dictatorial. Besides, the name “Manning” leans male — unfortunate surname for a transgender woman.
And “writing around things,” I realize now, is the equivalent of sweeping things under the rug — precisely what society has done with pegs who don’t fit into precise holes. We ought to address this issue here and now. As much as human brains construct language, language can help to shape minds.
When the story broke in August, the media was vigorous in debating the issue, and many outlets took an immediate stand in allowing Manning to declare her own gender. We follow similar styles on name treatment: We strictly don’t use Jr. … well, that is, unless it’s required for clarity or a source insists, so it’s not so strict — and same with middle initials.
But if the media went around allowing anyone to declare which gender they identify with on a given day, without requiring precedent or proof, doesn’t that invite capriciousness and — horrors — inaccuracy?
The issue comes down to who is making the determination and whether this might be an extreme example of self-determination vs. predetermination. In other words, do we trust our eyes to recognize and make judgments about sexual dimorphism? Or do we trust the source to make a judgment for themselves? (Note the use of the singular “they.”)
Maybe — brilliant — remove the act of judging entirely. Introduce a new, non-judgmental word.
In Sweden, gender-equality activists are working to get ahead of the transgender curve by proposing a third, gender-neutral pronoun. (Although “hen” wouldn’t work in this country — leans female, and sexist, at that.)
In Nepal, the census recognizes a third gender, but doesn’t name it.
Another wordpress blog examines many options, attempts to consolidate all reasonable suggestions for epicene pronouns and explores how to make this linguistic transformation happen. But a related Facebook page has only 40 members as of this posting.
Look — people have been discussing this not just since last summer, but since the mid-19th century. What’s the big hang-up? As more transgenders do the talk-show circuit or become household names, such as Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black), we realize: People are getting used to the idea. Let’s simplify the process with language.
Adopting new words and changing old patterns can feel daunting. So I’m not proposing inventing any new, weird-sounding pronouns, which would serve only to alienate. Rather, we could repurpose ones we already use and understand, just as body parts get transfigured.
Many men use the personal pronouns “she” and “her” to describe random inanimate objects, like ships and car engines. And oogenesistically speaking, we all start out as female. So let’s use “her” for both possessive pronouns and personal pronouns to describe gender, including those in the objective case. Men shouldn’t complain — they have been objectifying females for eons, plus “her” has the word “he” built in. This streamlines things significantly, eliminating not only “his” but also “him.” “Her” works both ways. You can even spell it he/r, kinda poetically aloof to sexism.
The new movie “Her” serves as my PR campaign. That tangle of 0’s and 1’s isn’t even human, yet a
man projects a gender — and much more — onto it.
Likewise, “she” will be the new “he.” I’d be willing to spell it “s/he” until it caught on and we abandoned the slash. Punctuation does add punch somehow.
Having lived so long with an androgynous name like Terry, I have enjoyed knowing that few can tell what I am by my writing alone. It has made for some interesting instant-messaging exchanges — they go from good-ol’-boy crass to suddenly polite and tender when my gender dawns on men.
In the patriarchal publishing world, I think both P.L. Travers (Mary Poppins) and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) tried to circumvent some sort of sexism by initially masking their gender — as if being female creates some drag on the sails of success. Is that where the term “drag” comes from? What’s it called when a woman “dresses as a man”? Normal, right?
The worlds both authors created spun on transformational magic — poof! We can change things with a flick of our hands.
My one regret in naming my daughters is that I didn’t bestow unisex names on them. But maybe boys’ and girls’ baby-name lists are taking care of this naturally, as dual-purpose names like Morgan, Andy, Alex and Sidney grow more popular. People can spell them however they choose, adding clues or not, branding their child from Day One with arbitrary name baggage.
So this campaign is my new baby.
Presenting … h/ers and s/hes. Poof! There s/he is.
• Where is “Sandy?” on the list of popular baby names? (mommytongue.com)