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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:

  1. The event occurred when the transgendered person presented the opposite gender identity from that which they currently identify with, and
  2. 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!)

  • Nathan, thanks for the interesting question. Have edited your title to make the main point of the question more obvious. – Neil Fein Jun 9 '15 at 16:11
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Without getting into social commentary, it seems to me that it's practically impossible to talk about the life of a transgendered person without getting into the sort of paradoxical or at least confusing statements that you describe. If you say "Caitlyn Jenner ... she won a gold medal in the men's decathlon ...", this creates the pretty obvious anomaly of how a "she" could win the "men's" decathlon.

I suppose you could say that the same sort of paradox could come up with many life changes, and we typically resolve them by referring to the person by the "status" they held at the time the event occurred, with explanations of how and when that changed if necessary. To take a trivial example: If I am talking about the life of a gray-haired old man, and I tell you about something that happened when he went to elementary school 70 years ago, I don't say, "The gray-haired old man entered the school room ..." I say "The little boy entered the school room ...", because that's what he was then. Or likewise, if I was discussing the life of someone who immigrated to the U.S. from another country, I surely would not write, "So-and-so, a citizen of Austria, ran for governor of California", if he was not a citizen of Austria at the time that he ran. That would just create confusion, and arguably be simply false. I might say "a former citizen of Austria".

What name to use for someone who has changed their name can be problematic. Note this is not just an issue for transgendered persons. Many non-transgendered people have changed their names. I don't know of any good general rule there. If I was talking about someone who had changed his name, and the old name was relevant to the point, of course I'd have to use the old name. Like if I said, "Eric Jones found that anti-Semitism was so bad that many companies refused to hire him the instant they saw his name on a job application", such a statement would be baffling unless you knew that at the time he went by the name "Isaac Cohen". Or if I was quoting news stories or letters about a person, I might have to use the old name.

Of course if you're talking about the person's sex-change operations, it's not like any of this is going to slip by unnoticed. If a reader really said, "Wait, you say that Bruce Jenner had a sex-change operation and is now a woman, but now all of a sudden you're referring to him as 'she'? How did he become a 'she'? And who is this Caitlyn person who has suddenly appeared? Where did she come from? Is that his sister? I'm confused", well, obviously such a reader has completely missed the point of the narrative. I think you have to give the reader some credit for ability to comprehend what you're saying, or why are you even bothering to write this?

By the way, I'm not sure that "cognitive dissonance" is really the right term here. I understand that to mean the psychological stress caused by trying to hold contradictory beliefs simultaneously, like someone on the one hand being a committed racist but at the same time believing that his black neighbor Joe is a pleasant and intelligent person. The only potential I see for cognitive dissonance here is if someone on the one hand believes that Jenner is a man because he still has XY chromosomes, but on the other hand simultaneously believes that Jenner is a woman because she has been surgically altered to look like a woman. (Note how I subtly shifted the pronouns there to match the two cases ...) If someone believes that Jenner is now unquestionably a woman, or if someone believes that Jenner is still a man, than that person has no CG on the subject.

2

I know I'm coming to this party so long after it's been over, but hey. I'm a transgender woman, so I think I have something of an insider's information that can help.

First you need to consider what the common narrative is regarding transgender people. Now, it's logical to assume that most people accept transgender people, and that we now live in a world where it's okay to just talk about these things.

Sadly, that isn't the case everywhere, and in fact, it's still a very much debated topic (our lives, our genitals, our private business, and frankly even our sanity).

So here's the problem if you go with, "Caitlyn Jenner won the men's trophy," and assume the dissonance isn't going to happen. First, every trans person I've spoken to on the subject, prefers to be called by their proper pronouns ('she' in Caitlyn's case), even when you're talking about them pre-transition (note: not, "when he was...", I'm saying 'pre-transition'). So you can get around the hotbutton kneejerk reaction from trans people by using their name (not their deadname), and then simply adding 'before [insert proper pronoun] transitioned' somewhere in there.

Another way this can be done without being a jerk about it, is simply following what is done for many stars or actors or performers. You start by saying 'born [insert name], assigned [insert currently incorrect gender'] at birth'.

What I am getting at is "used to be a guy", "back when she was a boy", and other such wordings are hurtful, because we have enough people telling us that we still are 'a guy', and adding to that narrative is counterproductive and to our detriment.

Or you might want to be gentle with where you tread. I'll never say not to write about transgender characters and their lives, but really, it's hard to get right, because even I have the debate with other trans people about why writing trans lesbians is actually counterproductive (being a transwoman that's dated only women in her lifetime, you'd think I would like to write about that... but I guess I'm supposed to only talk about hetero trans women TT_TT You just can't win sometimes).

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As this answer points out, name changes aren't limited to transgender people. A practice I've seen often is to include both names when clarification is necessary. For example, I'd adjust the example in your question as follows:

Caitlyn Jenner (then Bruce Jenner) won the gold medal in the men's decathlon at the Summer Olympics held in Montreal in 1976.

The same approach works for an example given in Jay's answer:

Original:

Eric Jones found that anti-Semitism was so bad that many companies refused to hire him the instant they saw his name on a job application.

My version:

Eric Jones (previously Eric Rosensweig) found that anti-Semitism was so bad that many companies refused to hire him the instant they saw his name on a job application.

Or alternatively:

Eric Rosenszweig found that anti-Semitism was so bad that many companies refused to hire him the instant they saw his name on a job application, leading him to change his name to Eric Jones.

Which approach you use depends on whether you just need a passing reference to overcome reader confusion ("Caitlyn won men's decathlon...what??") or are explaining a change (my second Eric example).

For authors, whether for name changes or pen names, you can also use the "writing as (name)" formation: "Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)" or "Alice Brady Sheldon (writing as James Tiptree, Jr)". In the last example the reader doesn't know (just from this) whether Alice is transgender or wrote under a pseudonym, but that's ok -- most of the time it doesn't matter.

  • Yes, thank you for expanding my examples! If the point of the narrative you are writing is to explain why or under what circumstances someone changed his name, then explain it and any confusion or awkwardness should go away. If what you're writing has nothing to do with the name change but the subject comes up because of some reference to his past, just mention it, like "blah blah Eric Jones blah blah (he went by the name Eric Rosensweig at that time)". – Jay Feb 5 '18 at 18:21
  • I suppose if transgenderism became common and people routinely accepted that this person is now really a different sex, then we'd come to routinely say things like, "Sally was able to draw on her experience from the Men's Yacht Club -- she had been a man at that time and went by the name Salvadore -- and she ..." – Jay Feb 5 '18 at 18:24
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My immediate thought is that you don't need to shepherd the reader, people are aware of the concept of transgender, we live in a society that is open enough to be able to have conversations about that.

My personal approach would be to simply respect the gender that the person attached to themselves at those times. If you're talking about a scene in the time of Bruce Jenner then the pronouns are masculine, if the scene is Caitlyn then they are feminine.

I think it is more insensitive when we twist ourselves in knots trying to be sensitive. Be pragmatic and open about the context. People are aware enough of how gender works to be able to follow the story you're telling. try not to distract them from that by being awkwardly sensitive.

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