It’s no secret that modern citizens can be confused about which pronoun to use for a transgender individual (here I mean both individuals who have received treatments to change their biological gender or individuals who may present themselves as the gender opposite of their biological sex). And even though I’m a linguist, I can don’t always have the answer in a situation like this.
So before I dive further, apologies if I get something wrong. Although I have had some interactions with transgender individuals, my experience is still mostly as a cisgender woman.
Personal Preference Counts
First, it is important to note that some linguistic usage guidelines should be based on preferences of groups and individuals and not on any sort of grammatical or semantic “logic.” For instance, speakers of the Celtic language spoken in Ireland generally prefer the term Irish over the older term Gaelic…despite the fact that the name for Irish in Irish is Gaeilge. One reason for this preference is likely to distinguish it from the Gaelic language of Scotland (a.k.a. “Scottish Gaelic”). Both Irish and Scottish Gaelic are close sister languages by the way.
As an English speaker, you may feel that Gaelic is a perfectly acceptable and “logical” alternative, but once I was corrected, I have always used the term Irish. Speaker preference here overrides other considerations.
Note: I once informed a student that the term Irish was preferred and he told me that his Irish-American grandmother always used the term “Gaelic.” In this case, I advised him not to correct his grandmother, but not to use the word Gaelic around Irish speakers.
Some Transgender Pronoun Guidelines
In terms of referring to a transgender individual you may not know personally, a good choice is likely to use the gender the person is presenting as. If you are not sure, GLAAD.org advises you to listen or ask politely.
Note: GLAAD.org also notes that you may not always be aware that a person is in fact transgender because you feel you can identify the presented gender. In that case, using the pronoun matching the visible gender was probably a safe choice.
Having said that, a person may still advise an alternate to your guess, including possibly a gender-neutral one. You should use that choice whenever possible and apologize for past errors.
One of the most famous transgender individuals in RuPaul who appears in public sometimes dressed in men’s clothing and sometimes in women’s clothing (and always looking fabulous). So if I’m reviewing an album like American (2017), which is the best pronoun to use?
As it turns out RuPaul has given us an answer (from Wikipedia) – “You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me.”
And in one interview RuPaul clarifies that there is a distinction between “drag” and a transgender identity. I would also note that RuPaul may what Navaho and other communities refer to as “two spirit” – a reference to individuals who may choose to sometimes present themselves in a gender opposite of their biological gender.
What about “Queer”?
Oddly, the one term I would have problems with is queer. I grew up with this term being a pejorative term for both homosexual and transgender individuals. But both communities (as well as the bisexual community) have reclaimed this term and use it in a positive manner, to the point of using the term “Queer Studies” in an academic sense. In fact, one student who noted she sometimes presented herself as masculine sincerely felt that queer was the right term to describe her situation.
Yet, as a cisgender (and white) individual, I feel uncomfortable using “queer” as I would using terms like “wop” or “spic” or the N-word even though I have heard Italian-Americans and Latinos use those terms. I am not sure it is yet acceptable to use these terms if one isn’t a member of that community.