Do You Call A Transgender Person He or She?

Some Rules for Pronouns That Apply to Transgender Individuals

How should you refer to a transgender person — as a male or female? What pronoun should you use? It's appropriate to ask a transgender person which he or she prefers, regardless of whether they take hormones or have had surgery. Here are the general rules used by some major publications. 

The AP Stylebook 

The AP Stylebook, widely used by journalists and editors, was updated in 2006 to include standards for terms relating to transgender people.

It encourages writers to "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 individual lives publicly."

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage 

According the New York Times, transgender "is an overall term for people whose current identity differs from their sex at birth, whether or not they have changed their biological characteristics. Cite a person’s transgender status only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader. Unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent, use the name and pronouns (he, his, she, her, hers) preferred by the transgender person. If no preference is known, use the pronouns consistent with the way the subject lives publicly."

The Washington Post 

The Washington Post takes a different approach. Its style guide allows the use of the singular "they," but this mostly applies when an individual does not identify with either gender, such as someone who has a non-binary gender identity.

GLAAD Media Reference Guide 

GLAAD recommends referring to a transgender individual by the pronoun that relates to the gender he or she identifies with.

GLAAD also indicates that it's perfectly acceptable to ask the individual what he or she prefers, but if that's not possible, go with the way he presents himself to the world or fall back on the singular "they." 

What Does It All Mean? 

Your best bet is always to ask first. If a transgender individual expresses no preference — and this is rare — or if it's not possible to ask, default to the way he presents himself. For example, a transgender male who typically dresses as or styles his hair as a female should be referred to as "she." If you can't pick up any clear-cut signals from the way the transgender individual presents himself, it's perfectly okay to use "they," as in, "They don't present as either male or female." 

An additional note — if you're writing, do not place quotation marks around he, she or they. 

Some transgender people prefer not to use he or she, but rather the more gender-neutral terms ze, zhe or hir. It's admittedly a bit of a minefield if you can't check at the source and ask the transgender individual directly. One school of thought indicates that using they is the safest and least potentially offensive approach when in doubt.