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Transgender and pronouns

In this morning’s Baltimore Sun Justin Fenton writes about a victim of homicide found asphyxiated in a vacant house. It is one more in Baltimore’s apparently endless series of killings. But the trouble for the reporter, and for some readers, was a matter of pronouns.

The victim, born Anthony Trent, more recently known as Tyra, was a transgendered person who preferred to live as a woman and did so openly.

Mr. Fenton’s article quotes members of the Trent family referring to the victim as “he.” Mr. Fenton refers to the victim in the article as “she.” And today, I’m told, the family is upset with the feminine pronoun, advocates for the transgendered with the masculine.

There are two principles we follow here. The first, and simplest, is that we do not reword direct quotations. If the family says “he,” so will the article. If friends and associates say “she,” so will the article.

The second is that we refer to people as they choose to be known. When, for example, someone prefers to be known by a nickname rather than a given name, and no fraud is involved, we honor that preference. That is why we have written about Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton rather than James Earl Carter Jr. and William Jefferson Clinton.

In the far more delicate area of sexual identity, we refer to people by the gender by which they choose to be known. Ordinarily, of course, this is no problem, but with transgendered individuals we have to provide additional context, as Mr. Fenton did in his article.

This is an aspect of our effort to remain faithful to the truth and the facts, however complicated they may be.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:03 PM | | Comments (41)


Clearly, appending the appropriate pronoun, be it the masculine "he", or the feminine "she", to an openly transgendered individual can be somewhat problematic, as we can appreciate, to a degree, in this minor hubbub chronicled in today's Baltimore Sun's Justin Fenton's post-mortem account of this unfortunate murder victim, "Tyra"'s demise.

Of course, more unambiguous terms for the transgendered such as "shemale", or "ladyboy" have a rather tawdry, porn-tinged, connotation, and probably should be avoided in 'proper' media accounts. Just sayin'.

Sadly, the deceased, Anthony Trent, can not speak for himself (herself ?), but I imagine since he DID identify his gender as female, and presented himself outwardly to the world as a woman, he would have surely preferred to be referred to as "she'.

Reporter Fenton, I believe, respected victim Anthony Trent's avowed self-perception, or identity of being, in essence, a female, and IMHO used the appropriate referential pronoun "she" in this morning's account.

I can understand the victim's grieving family still wanting to refer to their son/brother as "he", as more likely than not, they hadn't fully accepted their son/brother as a family member who identified with, and lived openly as a woman---and as such, perceived "Tyra" as still really a guy. At least that's my assumption. I may be wrong on that count, yet I suspect not.

Naturally, the local advocates who publicly spoke out to the media representing the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, would be most comfortable w/ referring to "Tyra" w/ the feminine pronoun "she'.

Granted, it's all seems very complicated, and at times confusing. These nuanced sexual identity issues will continue to challenge all our notions of how well (or ill) our greater society adjusts, and is willing to accommodate the multiplicity of gender variants, and alternative manifestations of human sexual identity out there, going forward.

Hmm........ I always thought Pres. Clinton was just plain old Bubba? At least that's what George 'Dubya' claims. HA!


An article I edited not too long ago used a source that adamantly preferred a gender-neutral pronoun (ze and zir; "Ze said this and that," "Hand zir the book.")

We had no choice but to use "ze" and "zir" throughout the story, since it had already been used in quotes. While I'm glad that transgendered/genderqueer folks are knocking down the often misogynistic banalities of our fair language, it sure makes for an interesting argument at the copy desk.

Ah, there is a limit to this, however. I share with you a letter we received some months ago at the Missourian:


My name is Z*** S******. I was just quoted in an article, "The Peace Nook celebrates 20 years". In it, it is written, "Z*** S****** recalled the first time he came to the Peace Nook. After volunteering for more than four years, he is a part-time staff member."

I am writing because my preferred pronoun is actually "ze" and not "he". I am wondering if it would be possible to correct the pronoun use. I think it would be good of journalists to start asking what pronoun a person prefers when being quoted.


Ah, Drew's post popped up after I submitted mine.

For the record, we told the subject we were limited to the words of the English language. However, we offered to simply refer to the subject only by name and not by pronoun. Easy enough in a story in which this person was just a minor figure. It would have required some talking-out and finesse if the subject had been more prominently featured.

Mr. McIntyre, thank you for articulating the Baltimore Sun’s policies. I am pleased that the Sun chooses to address people as they wish to be known, whether that refers to the name an individual chooses to go by or that individual’s gender expression. While the goals are laudable, the execution, in this case, was less than perfect.

The first sentence of the article uses the name Anthony, with Tyra’s chosen name given only in the second sentence, and given in quotes. Initially offended by the quotation marks around Tyra’s name, I was glad to see the page on Bill Clinton identifies him as William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton, and I inferred the Sun generally refers to someone’s chosen name in quotes the first time it’s used, but this policy did not seem consistently applied throughout articles on Clinton. I am curious why Mr. Fenton chose to give Trent’s birth name before her chosen name. I prefer Mr.McIntyre's phrasing above which seems to clarify the status of Anthony as a birth given name and Tyra as the name by which Trent chose to be known.

The sentence “family say Trent lived with his mother and always had a place to say” strikes me as inconsistent. I understand and respect the choice not to reword direct quotations, and I understand the tricky nature of the above sentence, but I think it would have been prudent for Mr. Fenton to either directly quote a family member or to continue to use Trent’s chosen pronoun as he did throughout the rest of the article.

Alex’s above identification of "shemale" as an “unambiguous term” raises my hackles, even if it was said in jest. I’m grateful that as a ciswoman, should I have the privilege of being referred to in the Sun, I would not be identified as a broad or a chick – both presumably equally unambiguous terms – but would be referred to respectfully. All others deserve this same respect, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, etc. I’m pleased the Sun seems to agree with me in this regard.

I'm not sure that perfection is possible in these circumstances.

The deceased person's legal name was Anthony. You may notice a mention in the story of an intention to change the name legally, but that had not been carried out. So the first reference may not be ideal, but it is defensible.

The paraphrase of what the family said is indeed tricky, but the point of paraphrase is to stay close to the original utterance, and in the context of the family's statements the masculine pronoun was used.

The Sun also has policies about avoiding offensive terms of ethic, sexist, etc. nature.

I'm glad you guys follow the preferred-pronoun rule. Most newspapers these days do, I believe.

I'm a copy editor myself at a small group of newspapers, and I have one question: In your post, you use the word "transgendered." but isn't the adjective "transgender"?

This is probably not a big deal, but I ask because the addition of the -ed kind of make sit look like some sort of process the person went through, as if they "transgendered" themselves or had someone else "transgender" them. I always ask writers to remove the -ed.

Webster has "transgender" without the -ed. Are there other sources that leave it?

Thanks. Love your blog!

Lia Boyle,

In hindsight, I regret even bringing up the term "shemale", as it wasn't really germane to the 'debate' at hand regarding the appropriate use of the pronoun "he" or "she" in cases of referring to transgendered individuals. I admit there was an air of flippancy in my tone, as well, and I apologize for that.

I can see how the term might, indeed, justifiably 'raise your hackles', and you do make a sound argument against the wider use of this clearly niche-based, unsavory transgender-descriptive word.

Lia, I appreciate your persuasive commentary. It was well thought out, and IMO showed a sincere sensitivity to the sometimes thorny issue(s) of gender identity, and further, how the MSM should be most vigilant and respectful in how they refer to individuals who identify as either male, or female, even though at birth their biology said otherwise.

Of course , there are those rare individuals who are born w/ ambiguous, malformed, or partial genitalia, and for them navigating the unpredictable gender waters can be even more of a challenge.

In my view, sexual identity goes far beyond our 'equipment', or personal 'plumbing', and has just as much, or perhaps even more to do w/ our individual psychological, feeling nature. But enough of my amateur psycho-babble. HA!

Again, Lia, thanks for you cogent words of reason.


Nick Jungman, your "limited to the words of the English language" sounds remakably like the response of long years ago, when we first started using Ms. Roll with it, fellas.

Maybe so, Eve. But there's no doubt "Ms." became a commonly understood word in the English language. I'm not sure "ze" is ever going to get there; it's definitely not there now.

This does present a complex problem. A new word would actually clear up a lot of confusion, but I don't see that happening any time soon. Referring to the name of the person may be a best bet for now.

"Ze" won't make it. The pronoun is a closed class in English. You can lose one or more, but you can't gain them. It just doesn't happen (not in any language of which I am aware). This is a well-known phenomenon of natural language. Prepositions are mostly closed - a new one creeps in, generally by collapsing a phrase such as "by the side -> beside" or compounding (off of, into, according to). But pronouns? Closed.

The closest we ever see is a replacement, as when English replaced "hi" with Danish's "she" - but note, replaced not added.

Individuals may strive for some desired gender-neutral pronoun, but frankly if we don't go to "they" for all singular usages (don't laugh, we lost "thou"), I don't see it happening. We just might have been able to collapse "he" and "hi" into one, but a new one? I'm as confident as I ever get talking about language when I say: Never gonna happen.

Ridger: It's not so simple. Latin had no 3rd person pronouns (only demonstratives), but the Romance languages do. Japanese pronouns are more or less always coming and going, moving from polite to rude and back (see Wikipedia).

In response to John Cowan's response, I can assure you pronouns are undoubtedly a closed class in English, although additions are occasionally made. Noting this, and the fact that using "they" is grammatically inappropriate in this sort of circumstance, the only solution is using a preferred pronoun on a case by case basis. Having both a BS in Linguistics and a BA in English, I must say that the English language certainly can be frustrating at times...but necessarily the way it is for a reason.

Jeremy, and that reason is...? English is indeed frustrating, and endlessly fascinating, but I was not aware that reason was the governing principal of its ungainly development.

Language evolves - and as word usage evolves, so, occasionally, does grammar. I think there's no question that "they" is moving towards the singular. Today it is grammatically incorrect, but I think I'll live long enough (I'm middle-aged, God help me) to see it become standard usage, endlessly disparaged by peevers remembering the English teachers of their youth.

Sorry, Jeremey, for misspelling your name above.

As a trans woman I am very much aware of my gender. I am not gender neutral and I think my personal gender identity (as a woman) proves this. I never understood the desire to create the Ze or Zir pronouns (atleast as a blanket pronouns for transgender people)... I am a woman and as such expect people to use she and her.

I may prefer to think of myself as an onion and dress as one. That doesn't make me an onion. Nor would I expect anyone to assume I was an onion. And I wouldn't have the slightest idea how an onion acts or feels. There are times when I wish English had kept the Latin neuter form. This is one of those times.

The Sun's ambition is laudable, but it brings its own problems: (a) there will those like Lia who are less than impressed, and (b) the reader is thrown from side to side like a back seat passenger in a chicane.

It might be that the better course would be to pick your sticking place and screw your courage to it. Decide which pronoun is least wrong, use it throughout the story (square brackets in the direct quotes if you're changing them), and add a short explanatory note. That would make things easier for the reader, and would be open about the problem.

There is a big difference between "think" and "know"... Just saying.

Yes, Katherine, but of course the journalist's problem comes when Patricia knows she's an onion and much of the rest of the world, including those who have been close to her since she was a bulblet, know that she's not.

Given my Welsh forebears, I usually tend towards the Leek. Too much Shakespeare hath made me bulbous. Figuratively speaking, naturlich.


There is only one person who knows who you are and that is yourself. Patricia is the only person on earth who knows 100% that she is an onion... Everyone else has an opinion on the matter but it is impossible to expect that they "know" anything about the matter.

I do know, however, that hard as I may try to be a leek, I will never be an authentic leek. One must be born a leek to be a leek.

It's St Davd's Day, so we can at least be honorary leeks.

Doesn't your style manual say anything about using "transgendered" instead of "transgender"?

"In my view, sexual identity goes far beyond our 'equipment', or personal 'plumbing', and has just as much, or perhaps even more to do w/ our individual psychological, feeling nature."


Without a doubt. I subscribe to the *more* to do with 'our individual psychological nature' way of thinking. As I always say; sex is what one has between their legs. Gender is what one has between their ears.

Kitten, what happens when what's between your ears leads you to enter a restroom full of people who do not share the same attribute of what's between your legs? I'm not saying I disagree with your position, I'm just wondering about how this plays out in this (fairly representative, I think) scenario.

Tim, one possible solution to the situation you posit is a key to an executive washroom (one seater variety).

I appreciate this thoughtful discussion. It's encouraging that the Sun wants both in its grammar and pronoun choices to honor the identity of transgender people.

In the LGBT community, "transgender" is generally preferred to "transgendered." One reason is grammatical: there is no verb "to gender." Another reason is that the usage implies there was a time in which a person exchanged his or her gender for another; in fact, many transgender people are asserting a gender identity they've always had.

While "transgender" is not an adjective, nouns can, of course, be used as adjectives in English grammar, as in "apple juice" and "vegetable garden." So there's no grammatical obstacle to "transgender people."

Great idea, Dahlink!

Everyone will have a private restroom wherever they go (for whenever they need to go), and I won't have to share with anyone whose hygiene is not up to my standards. It's not just that I want to have a one-seater that I can access, though, as you suggest. I want a restroom that is reserved solely for my use wherever I go, and no one else will use it ever.

It has nothing to do with the gender issues raised in this post, of course, but it sure would make travelling a lot more pleasant for me. And isn't that what's really important?

Gotta go,

All this flap about cowtowing to another tiny minority - again. And I simply can't say "thou" to Ms - it sounds like a pesky mosquito buzzing around one's ears.

I guess I'm just grateful not to be a member of a minority. Well, actually I was, when I was in India. But I was always treated with the utmost graciousness and respect there. Come to think of it, there was a lot of cowtowing going on.

Laura Lee,

While in india, would that have been 'sacred' cowtowing? (Groan!)

Oh, and blogger Andy Lang, thanks much for kind of shedding some clearer light on the "transgender" vs. "transgendered" usage. You make a whole lot of sense.

Laura Lee, hope you are doing well these days. Miss your timely, and always appropriate, poetic references.


A cow is still a cow, for all that.

A cow is still a cow, for all that.

A cow is still a cow, for all that.

Sorry for the repitition. The bloody CAPTCHA thingummy again. Still, a cow is......

This is the worst CAPTCHA in the world. And it doesn't seem to stop the viagrators or enlargenators, either.


I'm heartily on board w/ your, "this is the worst CAPTCHA in the world", peeve.(Ugh!)

I don't know how many times one, or both CAPTCHA words appear so fuzzed out, the letters so hyper-compressed, or the key words just plain nonsensical, or unintelligible that i've been forced to click off the article back onto the home page, (sometimes more than once), and then return to said article to try my luck at coming up w/ something that's half readable. $#&*@#)......... it's all too frustrating, indeed.

"Viagratores" and "enlargenators" randomly showing up, I must admit, can be quite 'the pill', too. HA! As if we aren't bombarded enough in print, and on the 'tele' w/ those unceasing, and thoroughly annoying ED magic tablet adverts. Four-hour erections............ really? HA!

@Patricia the Terse------ hmm........ It wasn't Gertrude Stein who coined the phrase "a cow is still a cow, is still a cow....", was it? Oops! I kinda blew that one. A little birdie named Alice B. Toklas just reminded me that girthy Gertie came up w/ the line, " ..... a rose, is a rose, is a rose......". Nothing whatsoever to do w/ bovines....... Never mind.


When it comes down to it, the real question is, how literal do we want to be, here? Patricia the Terse made a rather interesting (if somewhat silly) comparison involving onions, but it most certainly represents a valid standpoint: To what extend should it apply that we human beings insist to be referred to as something that we are physically not?

Don't get me wrong, I fully respect any individual's right to feel like they should be something other than what they are. But honestly, I could say "Gosh, I wish I were born an Englishman!" till the cows come home...heck, I could even speak with a British accent; use chiefly British terminology, spellings, slang etc.; I could import and consume only British goods. But at the end of the day, does that mean I should really have the right to expect anyone - friends, family, or total strangers - to refer to me as an authentic British person? No, because I'd still be an American. I'm native to this land and nothing I feel will ever change that, just like nothing (not even "the operation") will ever change the fact that a man-cum-woman will still have the genetically male "Y" chromosomes that define him as a male being.

Just my two cents. I don't expect everyone to agree with my views, I'm just saying: In the same way you can lead a horse to water but can't make it drink, you can shove these politically correct pronouns down the throats of people like myself, but you can't make us adhere to them. People are going to call transgender people whatever they want to call them, and that's a fact that everyone will be much better off accepting rather than fighting.


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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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