Pronoun He/Him/She/Her They?
Recently a celebrity called Sam Smith (if you don’t recognize him, neither do many others), who once identified as a gay man, wished to be identified as neither male nor female – non-binary, and he requested his preferred pronoun be “they” rather than him/his, leading to a stream of exclamations, debate and vitriol as to whether the rules of English grammar at the very least should kow-tow to such requests1. To all appearances, he still comes across as a man and isn‘t doing drag or undertaking procedures to alter his hormonal chemistry.
Jeffrey Marsh (twitter: @thejeffreymarsh), clearly agreed as a self-identified non-binary person – or at least he comes across as such. He presents as male with obvious women’s clothing and makeup. In one of his tweets he says that it’s only respectful to refer to someone who wishes to be known as THEY in the singular form as: “they is”, a clear violation of English grammar (e.g., they is hungry?).
Rita Panahi on Twitter is sarcastic “From hereon I would like to be referred to as “your majesty”, “queen of Sheba” … it’s how I self-identify and I expect my wishes to be respected as I grapple with my new-found royal status” – in an article in the Australian Herald Sun2 she follows with “Any troglodytes who mock or disregard my self-identification are nothing more than bigots standing in the way of social justice and progress.” Panahi states that the Merriam-Webster dictionary has now amended its definition of “they”. She quotes author Douglas Murray as stating: “… in the face of such demands, so few people are willing to do anything but nod and comply. … Perhaps it requires somebody who is gay to say this, but I call ‘enough’. It is so tedious, boring and unproductive, this endless game of going on about sexuality and gender …” in response to Smith’s requests.
Transgender people often seek at least a temporary change of pronouns. Transvestites, in the sense of men who dress as women, will often give themselves a female alter ego complete with name and pronouns to match in the circles they move in. They don’t necessarily want to be referred at as women while they spend the majority of their time as men. However, those in that spectrum who live full time as the opposite sex, with or without hormones or surgery, probably expect to be referred to in the pronouns not given them at birth: or at least, this is what the media would have you believe.
Take Paul Hockey (his legal name) who often passes as Miss Kate Vovro or Volvo, a crossdresser3: in a newspaper legal dispute article, he was consistently referred to as “she” by the journalist, even though “she” is legally male.
One might suppose that the most famous "transgender" celebrity of all, Ru Paul, may wish to be referred to as She. Not necessarily so. Judge Judy (and she should know) consistently referred to Ru Paul as a man in an interview4.
Freddy McConnell, a transman with a womb, recently gave birth (yes, a man giving birth) and took legal proceedings that his request to be listed as the father in legal documents be respected. However, the UK high courts dismissed this and he will still be referred to as the mother given a requirement of the child to have a defined mum5. The judge mooted further reviews of the laws regarding gender in a modern sense. Commentators, such as Australian Kirralie Smith, who only recognizes two genders, applauded the decision.
This whole area is now turning into a minefield. On the one had there are transgender people requesting to be referred to as the opposite gender they were assigned. Then there are non-binary people who want to be referred to as “they” or newly minted words such as zie among others. Should we all just silently nod in agreement as Douglas Murray observes?
In drag and male to female (MTF) situations, men are popularly referred to as “she” – that is, the gender they present as, while they are presenting as women. This is not a mandatory requirement given that RuPaul is quite happy to be known as a man. In a situation where a transman gives birth, legally, he’s male but recognised as a mother. There are also many butch lesbians who would be offended to be referred to as he, even though they dress outwardly as men.
I tend to agree with Douglas Murray. At least in our private spaces, we should refer to people as we understand them, not necessarily how they wish to be seen or referred as. A measure of common sense must prevail. English grammar should be respected as far as possible. Many TERFS (trans excluding radical feminists), reject the idea that trans-women should be regarded as real women, to the chagrin of modern “woke” culture (this includes non feminist commentators like Kirallie Smith and also UK journalist Julia Hartley Brewer). In the public sphere, maybe we can go along with what trans people request, especially if they are work colleagues or “customers”. It takes more than just balls or make-up to be male or female. Real women bleed regularly unlike most transwomen, regardless of their newfound, sometimes capriciously figured if legal titles. But should we go so far to refer to “non-binary” people as “they” if they present as a specific gender (often male). The short answer at this moment in time is probably no, though this situation may change, especially if they dress very ambiguously. Flexibility and case by case judgement has to prevail in a minefield of multiple self-identified genders.