He or She or They

Over the last several months, I've been asked by reporters and friends alike how to gauge language change, specifically the shifting societal expectations around preferred pronoun usage in reference to trans people or those who don't fall on the gender binary. I find it most useful to focus on a very tiny slice of the pie because it's such a nuanced issue.

Terry Gross, a case study

One great record of the increasing cultural awareness of preferred pronouns is Terry Gross and her archive of Fresh Air interviews. In October 2014 Terry Gross interviewed Jill Soloway about her show Transparent. Throughout the interview, Soloway keeps on correcting Gross's use of pronouns in reference to transgender people. Even Terry Gross, who is very conscientious and progressive, slips up a few times in the recorded interview.

However, over the last year or so, Terry Gross has become a lot more attuned to the question of what is the respectful language to use in these conversations. This past summer she spoke to Mya Taylor and Sean Baker about Tangerine, an indie film starring trans actors. Baker and Gross have an interesting back-and-forth about the term cisgender and how the "proper term these days is chromosomal female." They discuss that the "proper" language surrounding gender is changing fast. Then later in the interview, despite having corrected Gross earlier, Baker describes himself as "cisgender."

By December 2015, when Terry Gross interviewed Jeffrey Tambor about his role in Transparent, she was definitely more aware of, and intentional with, her pronoun use in reference to transgender people than she was the year before.

If Terry Gross's learning curve is any indication, it's becoming a standard practice—as a mark of respect—to use a person's preferred pronouns, whatever they may be. With the Washington Post now accepting gender-inclusive singular they, it's only a matter of time before other major publications follow. Of course it's far easier to employ measured language in written and edited text than in spoken conversational utterances.

As I said, this is a matter or respect. Our concept of what is grammatically correct changes over time, and that's okay. In this case, it's great. If our language can be flexible enough to accommodate the pronoun preferences of marginalized groups, that's a positive thing.