Transgender Studies 102: Pronouns again
June 1, 2015 5:43 PM   Subscribe

I've noticed that some websites, including the wikipedia page, are using "she" retroactively (i.e., "she won the gold medal in the decathalon at the 1976 Summer Olympics") for Caitlyn Jenner. I've always assumed that you use the pronoun of the gender which the person presents, so that we'd use "he" for Bruce Jenner prior to 2015, and "she" for Caitlyn Jenner from here on out. But I honestly don't know. Is there an accepted standard?
posted by kanewai to Human Relations (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: When someone comes out a trans, they are telling you (typically) that they have always been the same gender, just maybe not the one that you assumed they were. So, Caitlyn has always been a female, and should have her pronouns reflect that, even if they were before she came out.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:45 PM on June 1, 2015 [16 favorites]

Best answer: The GLAAD Media Reference Guide says:
Ideally a story will not use pronouns associated with a person's birth sex when referring to the person's life prior to transition. Try to write transgender people's stories from the present day, instead of narrating them from some point in the past, thus avoiding confusion and potentially disrespectful use of incorrect pronouns.
posted by dayintoday at 6:00 PM on June 1, 2015

Best answer: You are watching the standard develop, and it's doing so according to the wishes of (many of) the actual people affected by the issue, so that's why you're seeing it.

It will no doubt be a pretty complicated style matrix, and there's going to be an aspect to style manuals that looks to preference, which in the past (at least in newspaper and magazine house styles) has been weirdly rigid (like there was a time that newspapers did not have a style guide for dealing with Madonna or Prince, and so used Ciccone and Nelson because that's what the style guide said), so there will be a period of evolution until all the potential quirks get worked out.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:04 PM on June 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: so that we'd use "he" for Bruce Jenner prior to 2015, and "she" for Caitlyn Jenner from here on out. But I honestly don't know. Is there an accepted standard?

The general practice is that you use the correct pronoun even retroactively.

It can be confusing to read sometimes (and Wikipedia is a battleground for some of this stuff but also has a set of editors who try hard to be up to date on what current best practices are). I read and appreciated BoingBoing's recent guide which might be helpful. I have also read books that do things exactly how you described where the person is described using the pronouns that were matched to their gender presentation at the time (My Brother My Sister by Molly Haskell is a high profile version of this. Haskell did this with the okay of her sibling but many reviewers found it cringeworthy and even the review from 2013 uses pronouns that the NYT would not use today).

The current standard is use either 1) what the person prefers if known and next 2) the pronoun of the gender the person currently is, in this case "she" for Jenner now and in the past. There's a lot of media coverage of this so you'll see a lot of squabbling or people who are doing it various ways but GLAAD and other organizations (and the people they represent) are the ones whose style guide I would most pay attention to.
posted by jessamyn at 6:50 PM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

So, is it stylistically correct to say, referring to Caitlyn Jenner, "She won the men's Olympic decathlon in 1976"? That is an awkward sentence. I think that in the case of Caitlyn Jenner, it is somewhat unusual in that she used to compete in a gender segregated arena. For most people, referring to their past, gender is not relevant. "She graduated high school in 1977" is really the same regardless of gender then or now.
posted by AugustWest at 7:31 PM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

So, is it stylistically correct to say, referring to Caitlyn Jenner, "She won the men's Olympic decathlon in 1976"?


That is an awkward sentence.

There are women who win men's sporting events. You can find that as awkward or inconvenient as you like, but it's true, and there's no reason to go through linguistic contortions to hide it.

Actually, there are even cis women who win men's competitions. For instance, consider Eva Moser: "In 2006 she won the men's Austrian Chess Championship in Köflach, becoming the first woman to do so." Nobody insists on using the pronoun "he" to refer to her in writing about that win — and if someone did, I think she'd be well within her rights to be offended by it. A good rule of thumb is to accord trans women the same respect you'd accord to cis women, and by that rule of thumb we should talk about Caitlyn Jenner's wins the same way we talk about Eva Moser's, by saying "She won the men's competition."
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:08 PM on June 1, 2015 [22 favorites]

Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. Folks, let's keep the focus on whether there's an accepted standard, and what guidebooks/organizations have to say, etc., not on back-and-forth discussion over our individual "sounds right to my ear" judgments. Thanks.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:12 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have found formulations like this helpful in thinking about the issue:
This is something that seems to come up from time to time so I think it’s an important thing to talk about. What’s the best way to talk about a trans person’s past? For example, if you’re telling a story about someone, how should your refer to them? Should you use their chosen name and the pronouns they’ve asked you to use or should you stick with what they went by at the time?

For the most part, 99% of the time, you should never use a trans person’s birth name–or, as some of us often call it, dead name–and you should always stick with the pronouns they’ve asked you to use. There may be a situation in which the person said it’s okay to do otherwise, but unless you’ve been specifically told to deviate from this, you should stick with what you refer to them as now.

First, it’s important to understand that they didn’t become who they are the moment they told you their chosen name. And they didn’t become this person because they transition, instead, they transitioned because they already were this person. When you’re talking about their past, even though you may not have known them as the person they are now, this is still the person they were. For example, I’ve always been Amelia. I may not have gone by this name in the past, but this was always the person I was inside, even if I was hiding it as much as possible and pretending to be someone else.
posted by jaguar at 9:39 PM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: GLAAD responds to Vanity Fair cover featuring Caitlyn Jenner, releases updated tip sheet for journalists
... DO refer to her as Caitlyn Jenner. DON’T refer to her by her former name. She has changed it, and should be accorded the same respect received by anyone who has changed their name. Since Caitlyn Jenner was known to the public by her prior name, it may be necessary initially to say "Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner…" However, once the public has learned Jenner's new name, do not continually refer to it in stories.

DO use female pronouns (she, her, hers) when referring to Caitlyn Jenner.

DO avoid male pronouns and Caitlyn's prior name, even when referring to events in her past. For example, "Prior to her transition, Caitlyn Jenner won the gold medal in the men's decathlon at the Summer Olympics held in Montreal in 1976."

DO refer to Caitlyn Jenner's female identity as her gender identity, not her sexual orientation. Gender identity is one's own internal, deeply held sense of being male or female. Sexual orientation is who one is attracted to. They are not the same thing and should not be conflated or confused.

AVOID the phrase "born a man" when referring to Jenner. If it is necessary to describe for your audience what it means to be transgender, consider: "While Caitlyn Jenner was designated male on her birth certificate, as a young child she knew that she was a girl" ...
posted by jaguar at 10:05 PM on June 1, 2015 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I've always assumed that you use the pronoun of the gender which the person presents

A safer bet is to use the pronoun the person requests/the designation that's most up to date. People change names and social roles throughout their lives, but standard practice is to address them in the way that's most current. A news story about a woman who started going by her middle name in her early twenties and legally assumed her spouse's surname when she was 30 wouldn't refer to her by her first name or her maiden name when it talked about accomplishments in her early life; they would use her most current titles and identity. You wouldn't see a news source referring to Hillary Rodham Clinton as "Rodham" when talking about essays she wrote in college and "Clinton" only after she'd married Bill.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 11:56 PM on June 1, 2015 [20 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the simple and clear explanations.

I leaned towards the 'this doesn't sound right' camp when I first saw the Wikipedia page. This discussion really helps clarify why, in fact, we should use the correct pronoun retroactively. It even helps make it sound more natural.

This is the side of metafilter I love.
posted by kanewai at 12:32 AM on June 2, 2015 [11 favorites]

It is complicated. You also just ask what the person in question would prefer.

An ex-partners father transitioned for many years, 'passed' successfully, then transitioned back to male recently.
So, we use gender terms according to what she or he was identifying as at the time (the tricky one was 'Dad', it was a lot harder for her children to address that she didn't want to be their 'Dad' anymore).
posted by Elysum at 6:58 AM on June 2, 2015

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