The NY Post proclaims today that this week, the city "issued new guidelines that require employers and landlords to use pronouns such as 'ze/hir' to refer to transgender workers and tenants who request them—or be subject to fines as high as $250,000." NY1, in a story published shortly after the Post's, similarly asserts that "businesses and landlords across the city must now refer to transgender people by their preferred pronouns or risk a big fine," and Fox 5 NY has its own aggregated version of the story up this morning. But in fact, the city's Commission on Human Rights did not just issue new guidelines, and those guidelines that do exist do not state that any and all incorrect pronoun usages will necessarily result in a fine as high as $250,000.
Here's what is true: back in December of 2015, the NYC Commission on Human Rights announced new protections for transgender and gender-nonconforming New Yorkers. One of the many guidelines released at the time was that "the [NYC Human Rights Law] requires employers and covered entities to use an individual's preferred name, pronoun and title (e.g., Ms./Mrs.) regardless of the individual's sex assigned at birth, anatomy, gender, medical history, appearance, or the sex indicated on the individual's identification." That includes pronouns such as "they/them/theirs or ze/hir," which some transgender and gender-nonconforming people prefer to the conventional binary pronouns of "he/him/his" or "she/her/hers."
Those guidelines also noted that the Commission can impose penalties of up to $250,000 "for violations that are the result of willful, wanton, or malicious conduct." The guidelines have since been referenced in lawsuits accusing employers of discrimination against transgender employees.
Shortly after the guidelines were released, a number of conservative outlets published pieces suggesting that all New Yorkers could be automatically subject to a $250,000 fine for using incorrect pronouns. Meanwhile, LGBTQ Nation celebrated the guidelines as "a huge win, especially for the 25,000 transgender individuals living in New York City," and notably specified that these fines for employers, landlords, or service providers who maliciously discriminate against transgender or gender-nonconforming individuals by misgendering them would be "determined based on the severity of the violation, a history of previous violations, knowledge of the NYC Human Rights Law and the violating company's size."
At the time, Snopes, which regularly fact-checks such rumors swirling around the internet, debunked claims that "accidentally referring to a transgender person with the wrong pronoun in NYC will result in a $250,000 fine":
[A]n individual who simply mistakenly uses the wrong pronoun when referring to a transgender individual will not be fined under the new law. However, a person who intentionally and repeatedly refuses to use an individual's preferred pronoun would be subject to fines (that could reach as high as $250,000 for multiple violations) under the the law.
So why has this misleading story resurfaced five months later, necessitating yet another debunking? Conservative sites appear to have followed the lead of conservative law professor and blogger Eugene Volokh, who writes "The Volokh Conspiracy" opinion blog for the Washington Post. In an arguably transphobic post published Tuesday, Volokh lamented that "we have to use 'ze,' a made-up word that carries an obvious political connotation (endorsement of the 'non-binary' view of gender)...what if some people insist that their title is 'Milord,' or 'Your Holiness'? They may look like non-gender-related titles, but who's to say?"
Volokh's 1,300-word diatribe was quickly spun into "news" articles on myriad conservative websites. The NYC Human Rights Commission has been asking outlets to correct their pieces, but at the time of publishing, most still referred to the guidelines as "new," and didn't clarify the nature of the potential $250,000 fine, allowing readers to infer that any accidental misgendering could lead to them being slapped with a fine.
To clear up any confusion once and for all, the Commission offered us this statement, from Commissioner and Chair Carmelyn P. Malalis:
Accidentally misusing a transgender person's preferred pronoun is not a violation of the law and will not result in a fine...In fact, our guidance encourages people to ask transgender and gender non-conforming individuals how they would like to be addressed. The law is meant to address situations in which individuals intentionally and repeatedly target transgender and gender non-conforming people with this type of harassment. Transgender and gender non-conforming people experience discrimination on a daily basis, from exclusion from bathrooms to verbal harassment and even violence. We issued this guidance last year so employers and individuals understand what the law says and to ensure that every transgender individual in New York City is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
So, to recap: these protections for transgender and gender-nonconforming New Yorkers have been in place since December, and they do not mandate a $250,000 fine for anyone who uses an incorrect pronoun when referring to someone who is transgender or gender-nonconforming. That said, if you do accidentally use the wrong pronoun when referring to someone, it's good practice to apologize and proceed with their preferred pronoun—for more tips on how to be a better ally, check out GLAAD's comprehensive rundown.