There has been a mini-revolution in the way we perceive identity, sex and gender in recent years. Forms (styles) of address are affected by this. Using the correct form of address shows respect.
Canadians have been closely following the U.S. elections in November 2020. Kamala Harris, the first woman, first black, and first person of South Asian descent elected as U.S. Vice President, will be known as Madam Vice President after her swearing in. American newscasters also talk about Ms. Harris being a person of colour, meaning anyone who is not white. In Canada, we tend to talk about members of visible minorities, an expression defined in our legislation. The Employment Equity Act defines visible minorities as "persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour."1
Mr. President will be the correct way to address Joe Biden after his inauguration as President of the United States (POTUS) in January 2021. Until then, he is President-elect. Ms. Harris’s husband, Douglas Emhoff, will be making history in his own right.2 There has never been a VP's husband in the U.S. Perhaps he will be styled "Second Gentleman" or SGOTUS by analogy with First Lady Jill Biden (FLOTUS). However, since they were not elected, "First Lady" and "Second Gentleman" are roles, not honorifics.3 As a matter of interest, the title of president was chosen by George Washington in the 1790s.
How do we refer to transgender and non-binary people in this day and age? Ideally, we should know what the person goes by. If we do not know what the addressee uses when writing a letter, we can simply drop Mrs., Miss, Mr. and Ms. In Québec, Mrs. should not be used in any case because women keep their maiden names after marriage according to Civil Code article 393. “Dear [first name](or initials)" and “[last name]” usually solves the problem for correspondence.
In some cases, you may be able to use Mx (a no-gender version of Mr. or Mrs.). Mx, pronounced “mix”, entered the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 2017. Cisgender, another new word accepted in 2017, means the sex the person was born with, i.e., the opposite of transgender.
Gender-inclusive writing avoids assuming a gender when it is unknown, or when we know someone is non-binary (does not identify with being either male or female). The singular "they" and its various forms (their, them) are inclusive and can be used when someone's gender is not known. Despite its name, the singular "they" takes a plural verb: they are and not they is.
Here are some examples of how to use it:
a. I asked which gender to use to refer to them, and the tired and drawn-looking youth said they preferred they. They handed me their bag of drugs, and it was tested for fentanyl in the lab.
b. They asked me if they could use my telephone to find somewhere to stay, so I gave them a list of phone numbers to call to find a shelter for the night. The person left the needle-exchange centre about an hour later with a hot drink, a healthy snack and a place to stay.
In plain writing, the singular they can replace he or she and their can replace his or her. It is always advisable to find out what the client’s preference is. Also, a good guide to gender-inclusive language is available in Writing Tips Plus. Other gender-neutral resources can be found on Justice Canada’s website.
Other articles by the same author about gender-neutral language: