If NPR can respect pronouns, so can the rest of the media, and you

Alex Gino is a fat genderqueer glitter liberationist who attracted considerable media attention earlier this year with the release of their chapter book Georgeabout a transgender fourth grader. The book joins the growing canon of books expanding trans representation in media and pop culture, but it also hits a critical age range, as children’s books with trans characters are still quite scant. That’s rough for trans kids who might not realise that they aren’t alone, and it’s also hard for classmates who have difficulty understanding the trans students among them.

But I’m not here to talk about George today. I’m specifically interested in Gino and how they were covered by the media, because I noticed two very interesting things:

  1. Many media outlets respected their pronouns.
  2. Many of them also provided some outreach and education in the process of doing so.

People who use nonbinary pronouns typically struggle for recognition, especially when it comes to dealings with the mainstream media. They’re frequently told that it would violate ‘house style’ (often based on AP Style) to actually use the correct pronouns (and typically stylisation of names is also ignored). Consequently, people like Gino are typically misgendered by being forced to choose between two pronouns that they don’t actually use — would you like to be misgendered as ‘he’ or ‘she’ today? Everyone has their own approach to dealing with this problem, but it’s incredibly dehumanising and frustrating to be repeatedly reminded that media can’t make room for you.

Notably, the retreat to AP is actually erroneous, because here’s what the storied journalistic authority has to say on the subject: ‘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.’

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation also quite clearly states in their guidelines for journalists that: ‘It is never appropriate to put quotation marks around either a transgender person’s chosen name or the pronoun that reflects that person’s gender identity.’

Short version: Use and respect people’s pronouns, period. (And don’t use language like ‘preferred pronouns,’ which implies that a pronoun is some sort of whimsical preference rather than…a pronoun.)

In coverage of George, I noticed that many media outlets consistently referred to them using the correct pronoun — as for example in this NPR feature on Gino. Perhaps it’s rather depressing that I should be so startled and delighted by this development, in which a trans person was treated with basic respect and dignity, but the truth is that it was a really remarkable event. And evidence of a huge cultural shift that’s starting to gain momentum in the US as people come to the understanding that trans people are here, we’re not going away, and not all of us are binary. Gino is genderqueer and doesn’t use binary pronouns (some nonbinary people do).

Clearly, however, many media organisations also wanted to forestall irritating complaints about the use of singular ‘they,’ and so they added quick asides that also rather brilliantly shut down not just annoying readers, but transphobic attitudes about pronouns in general. On the one hand, the move was journalistically necessary as such decisions often are, because readers like to whip themselves up into a froth when catching ‘errors’ — but the fact was that readers were going to get self-righteous about singular ‘they’ anyway, and moreover, they’d get almost more angry about the fact that Gino’s correct pronoun was used and media outlets had the audacity to preemptively spank them for complaining about it.

Here’s NPR: ‘Gino [uses] the pronoun ‘they’ rather than ‘him’ or ‘her’ when referring to themself. (The singular ‘they’ is unconventional, rather than wrong. It can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. And nobody else has to use it to refer to themselves if they don’t want to.)’

As the kids say, mic drop. Whether that was Neda Ulaby or an NPR editor or fact checker*, it was a very unambiguous statement that made it crystal clear NPR would be respecting Gino. It was also hopefully an indicator that the organisation would respect pronouns across the board — certainly it’s a statement I’ll be referring to if I hear people misgendered on NPR in the future. Given that NPR is an incredibly respected media organisation that helps set style standards by example, it pointedly took the lead on forcing the hand of other publications, like the Washington Post (which forced me to misgender myself in a feature earlier this year), the New York Times, and the Guardian. Moreover, it also led the charge on forcing the AP to firm up its policies to explicitly make it clear that all pronouns should be respected (a deliberately ambiguous reading on the AP statement might argue that it doesn’t discuss nonbinary people and their pronouns).

The move also served as both education and warning to the public. Many people are resistant to nonbinary pronouns, and don’t like hearing them in daily life, let alone in the media. Some may have flinched at a singular ‘they’ due to excessively prescriptivist grammar education (I freely admit that I used to get my panties in a wad over it for the same reason until I got over it), but NPR made it clear that it had zero patience for their nonsense. If even a handful of people came away from the story reconsidering their rabid stance on the subject, I’d say it was worth it.

*Update: Neda Ulaby kindly reached out to me after spotting this piece to politely correct the spelling of her name (sorry again!), but also to tell me that reporters at NPR write their radio scripts and webtext. In this case, I’d argue it would be more proper to credit the handling of Gino’s pronoun to Ulaby than NPR (though hopefully other reporters will take note and follow her example).

Image: problem with pronouns, frances1972, Flickr