DEAR MISS MANNERS: The new Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Center at the university I work for hosted a cocktail party to which all interested persons – faculty, staff or students – were invited. As I was standing in the corner quietly chatting with my partner, I noticed a person standing rather forlornly in the center of the room with no one to talk to. We made eye contact and this person smiled and walked up to us.
As “they” got closer, I realized that “they” were obviously in the advanced stages of a male-to-female transition – complete with feminine attire. I glanced at the name tag, which read “John Jones, Chair, Department of Biology” (not the real name or title).
I was unsure whether to say, “Hello, Mr. Jones” or “Hello, Ms. Jones,” so I opted for what I thought would be a very safe “Hello, Dr. Jones,” as I am quite sure that all of the chairs of the university’s departments are Ph.Ds.
Dr. Jones responded with shock and said, “You should call me John!” I duly apologized and the encounter otherwise went well.
After the event, my partner said that I was wrong to leap straight to “Dr.” Jones and that I should just assume that “they” would want to be called by their first name.
This led to a further argument as to how to address transgendered persons who, for various reasons during their transition, appear androgynous for a while. Is it permissible to ask how they would like to be addressed? I have always thought inquiring as to what gender a person was seemed rude.
GENTLE READER: Yes, to that last question, it is rude; but this really has nothing to do with your chief question.
Miss Manners is sorry to cut through the complications of this situation with a simple answer, but when someone tells you to use his or her first name, it is conferring a privilege, not reacting to a perceived insult.
In general, though, you could use some other gender- neutral term, such as “dear colleague” or “my friend,” until the transition is complete.