As national headlines focused on transgender issues have fixated on the legal debate over which restroom to use, one city has been spreading awareness from a linguistic level: which pronoun to use.
New York City issued guidelines in December 2015 for employers and landlords on the correct pronoun usage for transgender men and transgender women. Violating the guidelines intentionally or repeatedly could result in a fine as large as $250,000, especially if doing so appears to be malicious. The guidelines say that to avoid the fine, transgender people must be asked what their preferred pronoun is.
The guidelines require anyone who provides jobs or housing to use the transgender person's preferred pronoun, such as "ze," "hir," "they," them," "he," "she," "him," or "her." "Ze" is the third person singular, used in place of either "he" or "she," while "hir" is third person possessive, used to replace "his" or "her." Pronouns like "ze" or "hir" represent a break from traditional male- or female-only roles.
"Gender expression may not be distinctively male or female and may not conform to traditional gender-based stereotypes to specific gender identities," said a city official.
While some say that the conversation over transgender pronouns represents progress toward equality, others note how easy it might be – even for the parents of transgender people – to also sometimes forget or mix up the pronouns.
The guidelines are the country's first of their kind, coming from the New York City Commission on Human Rights. About 75,000 transgender people live in New York City.
"I think it comes down to respect. People identify how they want to identify and it's not up to anyone else to determine that," a pedestrian told Fox 5. "There are a lot of social norms that are changing and people need to understand that this is someone's life, it's not just a flippant choice."
Others however think the fine is too high. "I understand the intent," another pedestrian told Fox, "but $250,000 is excessive." Writer Paul Joseph Watson at InfoWar said the notion of businesses asking every customer what pronoun they want to use is "absurd," given that even Facebook delineates 71 gender options.
"So people can basically force us – on pain of massive legal liability – to say what they want us to say, whether or not we want to endorse the political message associated with that term, and whether or not we think it's a lie," writes Eugene Volokh, law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
John McWhorter, linguistics professor at Columbia University, counters that rigid use of gender binary pronouns like "he" or "she" does not fairly represent the identities of many people and may be insulting. He proposes wide acceptance of alternative non-binary pronouns like "ze."
New York City's guidelines came in advance of the Obama administration's decree last week, which mandates that all public schools in the country allow transgender students to use whichever bathrooms they feel matches their identities. "There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex," said US Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Although some have criticized the high-fine risk if a pronoun is intentionally misused in New York, city officials say the guidelines serve the purpose of raising awareness of fair treatment.
"The Commission's legal guidance on gender identity protections under the NYC Human Rights Law addresses situations in which individuals intentionally and repeatedly target transgender and gender non-conforming people. Accidentally misusing a transgender person's preferred pronoun is not a violation of the law and will not result in a fine," says Seth Hoy, press secretary for the New York City Commission on Human Rights in a statement.
Other violations of the New York City Commission on Human Rights Legal Enforcement Guidance on Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Expression include disallowing individuals from using single-sex facilities consistent with their gender, sex stereotyping, imposing sex- or gender-based uniforms or grooming standards, discriminatory employee benefits, considering gender in evaluating accommodation requests, harassment, and retaliation.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated when New York City issued the guidelines. They were issued in December 2015.