When Caitlyn Jenner came out as a transgender woman to ABC News's Diane Sawyer, she asked to be referred to with male pronouns for the time being. But in a new Vanity Fair cover story by Buzz Bissinger, Jenner is referred to as "she." The reason is simple: Jenner is now publicly referring to herself that way.
This is standard advice for referring to people's gender identity: respect their wishes. If there's any reasonable uncertainty, GLAAD advises the best thing to do is directly ask what someone's gender identity is. Although it can be awkward for both parties, it's much better than the problems that can arise from not asking and making an assumption. And there's a good chance transgender people may be used to the question — and might even appreciate it, because it shows you don't want to misgender them.
Misgendering is seen as an insult within LGBTQ communities because it characterizes people in a way they don't relate to. What's worse, some opponents of LGBTQ rights purposely misgender people to show their disapproval of identifying or expressing gender in a way that doesn't heed traditional social standards. These subtle acts are viewed by many LGBTQ people as microaggressions, which, while not always overtly or purposely insulting, can act as a constant reminder to people that large segments of the population don't understand or approve of their personal identity.
"Imagine going through life every day and having so many of your interactions involve somebody trying to give you a hug and stepping on your foot while doing it," Emily Prince, a 31-year-old trans woman in Alexandria, Virginia, said in December. "And then when you ask them to step off your foot, no matter how polite you are about it, they respond with, 'Oh, excuse me, I was just trying to give you a hug.'"
Sometimes the problem is magnified by limitations in the English language, which relies heavily on gendered pronouns. LGBTQ communities have tried to propose various gender-neutral pronouns, but none have caught on. Some people and organizations, including Vox, might use "they" instead of "he" or "she" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.
The lack of a widely accepted gender-neutral pronoun makes it difficult for even the most well-meaning person to correctly address someone without running the risk of misgendering them. That's one of the reasons it's typically better to directly ask about a person's gender identity if there's any reasonable uncertainty.