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Gender variation causes language quandaries

In a world where news about gender variation is becoming more common, newspapers are struggling to find appropriate language.

The Associated Press Stylebook — the grammar, punctuation and spelling Bible for many newspapers — now advises media to follow a subject's preference when using the pronouns "he," "she," "his" and "her."

When Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner announced he was transgender and became Caitlyn Jenner, most media switched to "she" and "her" when discussing Jenner.

The issue of pronouns becomes more tricky when a person does not identify as male or female.

Ashland resident Amiko-Gabriel Blue, who does not identify as either male or female, advocates the use of "they" and "their" as pronouns, even when referring to a single person.

In everyday speech, the use of "they" and "their" when speaking about a single person has become common, as when a person says, "Someone left their coat on this chair."

The singular use of "they" and "their" is less accepted in formal written communication. Editors of the Associated Press Stylebook have rejected the use of those pronouns when referring to an individual.

In articles about Blue, the Mail Tribune has chosen to use the singular pronouns "she" and "her" for clarity. Blue was born female and recently had her request to legally change her gender to neutral rejected in Jackson County Circuit Court.

Other newspapers are also dealing with the issue of what to call people who don't identify as male or female. The New York Times recently used the title "Mx." in place of "Ms." or "Mr." to refer to a person who prefers not to be assigned a gender.

"What happens when people don't identify as either male or female? This is still a relatively rare situation in news articles, but it seems to be arising more often," wrote Philip Corbett, a Times editor, in an article this month responding to readers' questions about the use of "Mx." "Usage is unsettled and evolving. 'Mx.' has gained some acceptance, but it remains unfamiliar to many readers."

The Washington Post recently sent a memo to reporters saying the use of "they" and "their" would be allowed to refer to an individual who does not identify as male or female.

As for face-to-face communication, Blue said there are polite, friendly ways to find out whether a transgender or gender-neutral person prefers to be called "he," "she," "they" or something else.

In a safe, private setting, Blue recommends introducing yourself and saying what pronouns you prefer in reference to yourself.

"Then say, 'What are your pronouns?' " Blue said.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.