When Facebook announced in mid-February that users would be able to display 56 gender options beyond “male” and “female” in their profiles, the response was largely positive, outside of a few skeptical Fox News anchors. But there was also head-scratching. What exactly did words like “neutrois” and “two-spirit” mean? And why were quite so many words necessary? Various media sites, including Time, the Daily Beast, and Slate, published translation guides for those who might never have encountered “cisgender,” “androgyne,” or “genderqueer” before. “Confused by Facebook’s new gender options?” a Washington Post headline asked, helpfully.
Not long ago, two genders were seen as sufficient for pretty much any form or sign-up page. But as trans or transgender people—umbrella terms encompassing both people who feel at home as members of the opposite sex of their birth, and people who feel their gender can’t be reduced to male or female—have become more prominent and more vocal in America, the language is bending to accommodate more possibilities.
In just the last few years, people such as actress Laverne Cox, writer Janet Mock, screenwriter and director Lana Wachowski, and activist Chaz Bono have become household names. Major shifts in trans rights have happened even more recently. In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s bible for diagnoses, replaced “Gender Identity Disorder” with “Gender Dysphoria” (implying that trans identity wasn’t a problem, but profound unhappiness about gender could be). The Senate passed the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, including protections for transgender people, in November.
This means that more and more Americans, even those who have always taken gender for granted, are reaching for words to talk to and about people in this group in an appropriate way. And it’s not always easy: The transgender community tends to put considerable energy into thinking about how our understanding of gender and identity is shaped by language, and to tailoring and policing language accordingly. As the movement goes increasingly mainstream, it’s entailing a new effort to translate its fast-evolving lexicon to outsiders—and even well-intentioned people may struggle to keep up.
Although trans people have shown up in print for hundreds of years, they haven’t had much control over the words used to describe them until very recently. Jen Manion, a historian at Connecticut College who has studied news accounts of “female-husbands” and other gender-nonconformers in the 18th century, says that gendered language like doubled pronouns—“she (he)”—was used to shame or mock. The practice of “misgendering,” or identifying people by other gender terms than they themselves would use, continues today: The Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Los Angeles Times have both in recent years referred to African-American transwomen murder victims with male pronouns and male names, which to critics seemed an uncomfortable reflection of the same lack of acceptance that has led to a high rate of violence against that population.
Newspapers have traditionally based pronouns largely on sex-change surgery and physical appearance—a distinction that focuses on perceived biological sex over the internal experience of gender. This has started to shift. Associated Press style, according to the 2013 guide, bases pronouns on an individual’s stated preference, though it doesn’t make specific allowances for using novel words. The Globe style guide references AP, relying essentially on “the pronoun preferred by the person in question.”
The pitfalls of the traditional approach became clear last summer, when the soldier who had become famous as Wiki-leaker Bradley Manning announced the day after sentencing that she was now using female pronouns and going by Chelsea Manning. Many outlets continued calling her “Bradley” and using male pronouns for at least several days. Some, like NPR (which within 24 hours reversed its policy), stated that they wouldn’t switch pronouns until Manning transitioned surgically—something that would be particularly difficult for her to do in prison.
Part of the difficulty in adjusting pronouns comes from the rigid, binary nature of English when it comes to gender. “In English you can’t refer to an individual in the third person without either gendering them or referring to them with a word that generally connotes lack of humanity—you’re either a he or a she or an it,” said Susan Stryker, director of the Institute for LGBT Studies at the University of Arizona.
Some transgender people transition from one category to the other—he to she, or vice versa—and that’s that. For others, however, a sense of existing outside those categories has inspired new words or usages altogether. One approach to the pronoun conundrum has been the singular use of “they/them”; another is the creation of neutral third-person pronouns like “ze/hir,” and some college newspapers, including the Wesleyan Argus, allow for either depending on a source’s preference.
The myriad new gender options on Facebook represent both a playfulness about language and an attempt to offer everyone a choice that feels right. They also reflect the speed with which words come and go. “Transgender” itself came into broad use only in the mid-1990s, a moment when the old words—“transsexual,” which implies surgical intervention; “transvestite,” a pejorative term referring to people who dressed as the opposite gender, or even the acceptable “cross-dresser”—were viewed as too narrow. “The word [transgender] was a way...of encompassing that variety of people who really wanted to do different things with gender than simply just have an operation,” Don Kulick, a University of Chicago anthropologist who’s studied trans communities, told me.
Many of the words on the Facebook list, such as “trans*” (the asterisk indicates a “wildcard” search term, so the word means, basically, “trans-anything”), “genderqueer,” “gender questioning,” or “neutrois,” come largely from younger people and online forums and suggest a much more fluid approach to gender. For newcomers, as the various media guides suggest, they may be puzzling. “Most of America probably hasn’t experienced those words yet, and some of those just are very new,” said Mara Keisling, founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
So what’s a would-be “ally” (the term for a nontransgender supporter of transgender rights) to do? Start by not presuming anything—like anyone else, transgender people have individual desires about the language they choose for themselves, including both how they describe themselves and what pronouns they use. Once you learn the language someone prefers, embrace it, as more and more publications, workplaces, and schools are beginning to do. “If someone says they are a man, and they don’t want to be called a transgender man or a ‘man who used to be a woman,’ I think that’s really important. That’s just about respect,” Keisling said. This is one area where words can either be a weapon or a powerful means of self-determination.
Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.