The recent Code of Conduct change and, more specifically, the associated FAQ (now deleted; Wayback Machine copy here) have not gone down well. (For the avoidance of doubt, linking to those does not constitute endorsement.)
So of course I wonder whether any policies on this contentious issue would be more broadly acceptable to the community while still addressing the issues the revised CoC and the FAQ were intended to address. (If not, then perhaps SE management have done the best they can and the problem is just that people like to yell at one another about contentious things.)
My guess is that this is possible, and this is an attempt to test that guess by making a very concrete proposal and seeing what the reaction is. Perhaps it will get downvoted to oblivion and I will have learned a valuable lesson.
I would be glad to receive any constructive feedback, especially from some particular groups of people:
- Trans people, especially non-binary people: if this were the policy, and if it were consistently and correctly applied, would you feel safe here?
- People concerned by the "compelled speech" aspects of the CoC and its associated FAQ: is this sufficiently non-constraining?
- Moderators: does this seem like something you could apply in good conscience?
And, if it turns out that this meets with general approval:
- Representatives of Stack Exchange: does this (or perhaps some version of it modified to tone down the informality of its language a bit) do what you needed the CoC and FAQ to do, and, if not, how does it fail?
The central principle I have tried to apply is that all of this is a practical outworking of the already-existing, fully general requirement to Be Nice. More broadly, I have tried to find principles that apply universally and apply them here.
What are we trying to achieve?
I take it that Stack Exchange Inc. wants (at least) the following things:
- To have a welcoming environment where no one feels as if they're fair game for rude and marginalizing language.
- Not to do things that result in a large fraction of the community, or of particular parts of the community (e.g., moderators), feeling alienated.
I take it that trans people, and others who may use less-common pronouns, want (at least) the following things:
- To be treated with the same respect as everyone else gets.
- To have their often particularly difficult circumstances understood sympathetically.
I take it that most participants here want (at least) the following things:
- To be allowed to say what they want to, so far as that's consistent with the overall goals of the place. (Which include making Stack Exchange sites friendly and welcoming places.)
- To have Stack Exchange sites function effectively for their core function of Q&A.
I think the proposals here achieve all of those things.
Cynically minded people have attributed a number of other, less respectable-sounding, goals to various groups of participants here. I have largely ignored these.
Proposed CoC language
Actually, I think the CoC itself is fine as is; it's the elaboration in the FAQ to which some people object. The relevant bits of the CoC are these:
Be inclusive and respectful [...] Prefer gender-neutral language when uncertain.
No bigotry [...] Use stated pronouns (where known).
Some readers might object that there are reasons other than bigotry for objecting to someone's pronouns, and that this looks too much like a requirement not to avoid the pronoun issue entirely by wording things so as not to need pronouns; both of these concerns are addressed in the FAQs below.
Q1. What's this business about "stated pronouns"?
A. It's rude to refer to a man as "she" or a woman as "he". Some people don't consider themselves either male or female and might, for instance, ask to be referred to as "they". We're asking that when someone indicates what pronouns should be used to refer to them, you do as they ask.
Q2. Is this about transgender people?
A. It's about anyone who expresses a preference about what pronouns you use for them. Sometimes they will do this because they're trans, but it might also be because they're called Sam and people keep guessing wrong, or because they don't think their gender is any business of anyone here.
Q3. So if someone I think is female asks to be called "he" rather than "she" then I have to comply?
Q4. What was that about being neither male nor female?
A. Some people consider themselves not to be either male or female. The usual term for such people is "non-binary". Just as you wouldn't want to be referred to by a pronoun that doesn't fit you, neither do they.
Q5. This seems like a very marginal thing to make a fuss over.
A. While it may seem marginal to you, it can be a big deal for people who have spent much of their lives being thought of, and treated, as something that feels completely wrong to them.
Q6. I sincerely and without malice disagree that transgender people are who and what they say they are. Am I still welcome on Stack Exchange sites?
A. You are, but some of the things you might want to say aren't (You might sincerely think that someone is an idiot, but you still aren't allowed to tell them so here, or refer to them as "that idiot", because it's rude and makes constructive communication harder. This is just the same).
Q7. Are you saying that it's bigotry not to use the pronouns someone asks for?
A. No. Sometimes that's a thing bigots do, which is why it's mentioned in the "No bigotry" section of the Code of Conduct, but not everyone who is uncomfortable about some people's pronouns is a bigot (Note, though, that the effect of using language in a particular way doesn't depend on whether you're a bigot or not; something you say with the purest of intentions may be just as hurtful as if a bigot says it. Our Code of Conduct is intended to avoid hurting people, not to keep bigots out).
Q8. But free choice of language is important to me. This rule impairs my freedom of speech.
A. By participating here you're agreeing to treat others with politeness. That includes not complaining that they're idiots (even if you sincerely think they are, and even if you're right). It also includes not misgendering them, however sincerely.
Q9. My religion tells me that people can't change their gender. Aren't you treating me with disrespect in the name of treating others with respect?
A. You are welcome to believe anything you like about people's gender, just as they are welcome to believe anything they like about your religion. But if you go out of your way to point out your disagreement about their gender, you aren't behaving in a way we want here — just as people who make a fuss about how wrong they think your religion is aren't behaving in a way we want here.
Q10. Am I forbidden to express my opinion about this?
A. In most contexts your opinions about gender, whatever they are, are off topic. In contexts where those opinions are actually relevant — as they might be in, say, a discussion on Philosophy.SE — you are welcome to express those opinions so long as you do so respectfully and politely. But please be aware that many things you might want to say may be extremely distressing to some readers, and try to minimize that distress.
Q11. I find it really distressing to use pronouns in a way I think is wrong. Is there really no alternative?
A. You can often avoid using pronouns altogether. It's actually pretty rare to need third-person pronouns at all on most Stack Exchange sites. But if you conspicuously avoid using pronouns for one group of people while using them normally for others, you will likely make them feel rejected and excluded. Don't do that.
Q12. So do I have to use pronouns where I normally wouldn't, just to make it clear that I'm using the ones someone has asked me to?
A. If you're writing something that naturally doesn't need pronouns, it's unlikely that anyone will be bothered by their absence. Problems only arise when a person or group feels singled out by having pronouns used for other people but not for them. If you're writing normally and naturally and it comes out pronoun-less, then that's fine.
Q13. I'm not a native speaker. Am I going to get in trouble just because my English isn't great?
A. No. Honest mistakes are fine, and everyone should understand that non-native speakers make a lot of honest mistakes.
Q14. I'm a moderator. I often have to refer to other users, I can't really choose which ones I have to refer to, and often it isn't feasible to avoid pronouns. So do I really have to use pronouns I find uncomfortable?
A. Yes, sorry. As a moderator you're a representative of Stack Exchange as well as of the community, and we at Stack Exchange have decided that using inappropriate pronouns for someone, or conspicuously avoiding using pronouns for them at all, is disrespectful. If you find that difficult, we hope you can grit your teeth and be nice to them just the same — as you would do if dealing with a user you find annoying in other ways. If you honestly can't do that, then being a moderator here isn't for you.
Q15. Does this mean that I will be in trouble if I ever get someone's pronouns wrong?
A. No. It's fine not to know what they want. It's fine to make an honest mistake. But once you know what someone wants, please act accordingly.
Q16. What if someone wants some nonstandard pronoun that I don't even know how to use?
A. Then everyone will be especially understanding if you get it wrong. Just do your best.
Q17. What if someone wants to be referred to as "the Great and Mighty One" or by an obscenity or something?
A. If something is obviously unreasonable — e.g., if they are demanding to be worshiped or asking you to use obscenities when referring to them — then you are welcome to act accordingly. Note that "it sounds silly to me" is not sufficient grounds to think something is obviously unreasonable. If you and they can't agree, seek an independent opinion from a moderator (or, if a moderator is one of the parties to the dispute, the Community Team) as you would in other cases of dispute.
Q18. If someone is non-binary, does it really matter whether I call them "ey" or "they" or "xe" or some other gender-neutral pronoun? Do I really have to handle dozens of different pronouns?
A. Many non-binary people will be OK with whatever non-binary pronoun you prefer for them — if in doubt, ask.
Q19. I'm a moderator. What should I do if I see these rules being broken?
A. If someone makes an honest mistake, you should probably point it out gently. (Or let the person in question do it, if it seems likely that they would prefer that.) But if someone knows and is refusing to comply, treat this as you would any other case where someone is being deliberately disagreeable.
Q20. I'm not a moderator. What should I do if I see these rules being broken?
A. Again, if you see an honest mistake, then you should probably point it out politely. If it looks as if there's something more than that going on, please flag what you see. A moderator or community manager will take a look.
Q21. I'm worried that I may get banned. Should I be?
A. Not if you're acting in good faith. If you go out of your way to talk to, or refer to, people in ways you know they will find upsetting, then you are likely to get the same sort of escalating warnings and suspensions as you would for willfully upsetting people in other ways.
Q22. What should I do if I don't know someone's pronouns?
A. Use gender-neutral language — use their name instead of a pronoun, use "they", or find some other way of organizing your sentence. If their username makes it seem obvious what their pronouns are, it's probably OK to go with those, but be aware that you might guess wrong and be ready to apologize and adjust if it turns out you did.
Q23. "Gender-neutral"? Does that mean like "he/she"?
A. Many people do this and it's better than just calling everyone "he", but it doesn't work for non-binary people and therefore isn't really gender-neutral. Other ways are better.
Q24. Do I have to say what my pronouns are?
Q25. I want to let people know what my pronouns are. What should I do?
A. Put them in the "About me" section of your profile.
Q26. Isn't all this causing lots of inconvenience to everyone for the sake of a tiny minority?
A. No. Two things are required of you. First, that when someone requests particular pronouns you take notice. If only a tiny minority cares then this will hardly ever happen. If it happens a lot, then it turns out that a lot of people care. Second, that you don't make gratuitous assumptions about people's gender. That's something you should have been avoiding in any case, even if there were no trans people in the world at all.
Q27. Seriously, though, I haven't seen any hostility or disrespect towards transgender people; why do we need any of this?
A. It's very easy not to see things that don't affect you personally! Many trans people have told us that they feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or even unsafe here. That isn't what we want, and it shouldn't be what anyone wants. We hope that these small modifications to the Code of Conduct will make it less likely that anyone accidentally says things to make those people feel unwelcome, and make it easier to take appropriate action if anyone does so deliberately.
Q28. If someone puts a pronoun request into a question they're asking, should we leave that in or edit it out as noise?
A. Add a comment noting what they said and suggesting that they add it to their profile. Edit it out of the question as you would with "Hi" and "Thanks". Because you've made their request less visible, keep an eye out for mistakes in answers and comments and consider making polite corrections.
Q29. There are still edge-cases that aren't clear to me.
A. There always will be. Use your common sense, be nice, assume good faith but be prepared to revise that assumption in the face of the evidence, and you are unlikely to go too far wrong.
Q30. I heard that someone was removed as a moderator for pronoun-related behaviour that seems, according to the above, as if they did nothing to violate the Code of Conduct. What's up with that?
A. Someone was removed as a moderator for pronoun-related matters. There's an ongoing dispute as to whether that was justified, and this isn't the right place to discuss it. Our policy going forward is what's described here.
- back off a bit on the "compulsion": you have to refrain from conspicuous pronoun-avoidance, because that's what actually has the potential to cause hurt; this means (1) that if you're writing naturally and don't outright misgender people then you're fine, and (2) that you're unlikely to get in trouble for anything you could do while honestly trying to treat people nicely.
- try to clarify some of the issues by analogy with less contentious parallels which I hope will be understood even by people with divergent opinions on gender: calling someone by a pronoun they've asked you not to use is rather like calling them an idiot; even if in some sense you're right it's rude and you shouldn't do it here.
- explicitly address some specific pain points: religious convictions, insincere pronoun requests, having to use specific neopronouns.
- change the policy of leaving pronoun-declarations in questions, which in practice I think will hardly ever be an issue (aside from trolls doing it because they don't like the policy) but which I think SE staff got very wrong.
These changes are all, so to speak, in the same direction. So am I in effect saying that we should give in to the bigots? No. (The bigots want to call you "he" if you were assigned male at birth and now identity as female; I am proposing to say a firm no to that. The bigots want to insist that everyone is either "he" or "she"; I am proposing to say a firm no to that.) I am saying, though, that in practice LGBTQ+ people on Stack Exchange sites are better served by a set of rules that is a little less ambitious but that more of the users and moderators can sincerely endorse.
My own positions
In case anyone cares: I call people what they ask to be called. I consider your gender to be whatever you tell me you consider it is. I think people saying things like "oh, I identify as an attack helicopter" are stupid trolls and can be treated the same way as other stupid trolls. I am generally opposed to requiring people to say specific things. I think it is possible to have misgivings about the whole idea of transgenderness without being a bigot, but have no such misgivings myself. I would like Stack Exchange sites to be places where everyone, including people whose views I find horrifying, can coexist peacefully when discussing things that don't pertain to their mutually-horrifying views.