Friday, September 08, 2006

Pronoun Trouble

[posted by Callimachus]

Where's Kafka when I need him? I woke up this morning and discovered I don't know the difference between men and women.

Last night, my newspaper ran a local story about a transgender man who had killed another man in a fit of rage. It's an old case, but he's coming up for retrial, so it hadn't been in the paper in a while. The article artfully avoided reference to the convict except by name and by genderless noun-phrases like "52-year-old." But eventually the prose backed into a corner with no escape and had to cough up a pronoun.

That pronoun was she.

Last night, I pointed out -- quietly and to only one other editor, I should add, considering the way things are turning out -- that pronouns didn't seem like they ought to be negotiable, and that the media ought to stick to its guns and not change essential facts and realities of a thing just to make some source happy.

I could tell by the look I got in return that I had strayed from the fold of "sensitivity" into "judgmentalism." This wasn't about language and grammar. This was a test.

The only thing like an argument I got in return was, "Well, he had a sex change operation." But I remember this case from before: He hasn't. He's legally changed his name from "Henry" to "Julie," but he's physiologically still a man, living as a woman, with eye shadow and 5-o'clock shadow both evident in his mug shot.

He's in a men's prison and the officials in the case, quoted in the story, refer to him as "Mr. ______."

And this doesn't even get into the question of whether lopping it off and claiming you're no longer a man makes you a woman. I'll let the women decide if that respects them or not. I can legally change my name to "cat" and get whiskers surgically implanted. I can file my teeth and eat cat food and lick my ass an lie around the house all day. I don't think that makes me a "cat."

Today I brought it up again, by way of confirming with the reporter who has worked on the case that the man is still in every physical sense a man. But I was pretty much told by my deskmates to shut up about it or else. I was compared to a former co-worker who used to get irrationally worked up over trivial things.

Yet this hardly seems trivial to me. I am not looking to bring more grief and misery to that luckless character who's the subject of the story. I wouldn't want to walk in his shoes. But this is about language, communication, and, right down at the core, telling the truth.

An argument was made that the use of "she" in this case makes the story clear for the reader. I think the opposite and I said so. I also was told today that the pronoun choice in this case was dictated by the rules of the Associated Press stylebook, which is our copy editors' bible here: Everything in the paper conforms to the rules it sets. Probably most American newspapers have the same policy.

And here, it turns out, my co-workers were right. I should read the damned thing more often. I have the latest edition and had noted some stylistic changes in it, but I missed this whopper:

transgender Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.

If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

Holy smokes. One thousand years of using English language pronouns based on physiology just went out the window.

Apparently, this change was a result, in part of pressure brought by an advocacy group. The news release is dated March 2006:

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the nation's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) media advocacy group, today applauded the Associated Press' (AP) unveiling of updated LGBT-related AP Stylebook entries as a significant step forward in promoting fair, accurate and inclusive language throughout the nation's media.

Nicknamed "the journalist's bible," the AP Stylebook is the most widely used style guide for reporters and editors in the United States.

... During 2005, GLAAD's National News staff met with senior AP editors to discuss proposed terminology updates and recommendations. In one of those meetings the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) co-facilitated a presentation about the evolution of transgender-specific terminology. Today's newly updated entries reflect many of those recommendations.

It indicates the changes are new to the 2006 edition. The AP agreed to restrict uses of homosexual and ban the term sexual preference. The word lesbianism (which I can live without) was disappeared entirely. GLAAD said homosexual was "pejorative" and praised the new language as, among other things, "more inclusive."

Odd, though, that the AP would ban "sexual preference" while in the same action turning gender into a matter of preference, not biology.

Look for more changes to come:

GLAAD will continue to advocate for contemporary language usage and style guidelines at the Associated Press, including a proposed entry for bisexual and language recommendations related to coverage of LGBT civil rights.