As a writer, it is difficult to help your readers hold two dissonant ideas in their heads. This can occur when the situation you are describing does not match well with the lived experience of your readers. For example, it is the common experience of most people that they identify strongly with their biological sex. Males usually identify as men and females usually identify as women. And yet, when writing about transgendered persons, it may be necessary to refer to events that meet two criteria:
- The event occurred when the transgendered person presented the opposite gender identity from that which they currently identify with, and
- this switch of genders is not relevant to the event being described or the goals the writer has for relating that event.
To me, this poses an important question: How can we write in a way that is both sensitive to the transgendered person, and yet clear to our readers so as not to bring about dissonance when none is necessary?
An example of the sensitive approach is that of GLAAD. They have published a tip sheet / brief style guide for journalists reporting on Caitlyn Jenner's recent transition. For example, GLAAD suggests:
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."
To me, this projection of a female pronoun into the past to describe events occurring when the transgendered person's public identity was that of a man, is a sensitive usage of pronouns. It respects the identity that Jenner has now chosen for herself. I believe that I understand the motivation for this.
This usage, however, is, at least to me, confusing. For example, an essay that seems to follow this style guide closely is "I went to church with Bruce Jenner. Here’s what Caitlyn Jenner taught me about Jesus." from The Washington Post. In the essay, the author refers to an event that happened when Jenner's public presentation of gender identity was as a man, i.e. at that time Jenner was Bruce Jenner, and the author chose to use Jenner's current presentation of gender identity, i.e. Jenner is Caitlyn Jenner, for selecting a pronoun, even though the lack of gender continuity seems non-germane to the goals of the author:
Here, on the set of a reality-TV show and a family home, I began to have conversations with the celebrity we now know as Caitlyn Jenner before the youth group gathering. We would make small talk as she microwaved a giant plate of spaghetti. Students dropped cupcakes in her pool, and she was stellar enough to tell me not to worry about it. I would later watch her scoop it out of the pool herself. It was a great experience and a formative time for me. I even met my wife here as she volunteered for the youth group.
To me, this usage seems to unnecessarily highlight the gender transition and draw to mind cognitive dissonance when it does not seem necessary to do so. (Perhaps, I am wrong and dissonance is part of the point as it will ask the reader to evaluate their stance on gender issues.)
And so, to repeat the question: How can we write in a way that is both sensitive to the transgendered person, and yet clear to our readers so as not to bring about dissonance when none is necessary? Any guidance is appreciated. (And, hopefully, this is an appropriate forum to ask for it!)