Transgender people are no longer in the shadows. Bruce Jenner’s public transition to Caitlyn, as well as high-profile debates over “bathroom bills,” have inspired transgender people to speak up and demand respect. And that respect extends to the language we use.
If we want to show respect, we first should avoid referring to a transgender person as “a transgender.” That would be like calling someone “a deaf” or “a gay.” Transgender is an adjective, so it’s proper to refer to a transgender man (if he is transitioning to male) or a transgender woman (if she is transitioning to female). Besides the grammar issue, when we refer to individual people by a single collective adjective, we tend to diminish their personhood.
Some transgender people prefer to be referred to by traditional gender pronouns – he or she – in concert with their gender self-identity. But others reject these traditional pronouns in favor of gender-neutral ones.
The most common of these new pronouns seems to be ze (or xe). It’s pronounced zhee, with the first letter intoned as a soft J (as in Jacques). Thus, a traditionally gendered sentence like this one – “He ordered a cheese pizza for himself and his brother” – has a gender-neutral alternative: “Ze ordered a cheese pizza for zirself and zir brother.”
The speed of the change in public attitudes about transgender people has been remarkable. Indeed, just last month, editors at the Associated Press announced that they will allow use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun in respect of those who choose not to identify as a man or woman.
The new entry in the AP stylebook says: “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze.”
At least not yet.
Neil Chethik, aka the Grammar Gourmet, is executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning (www.carnegiecenterlex.org) and author of “FatherLoss” and “VoiceMale.” The Carnegie Center offers writing classes and seminars for businesses and individuals. Contact Chethik at email@example.com or