This is simply a request to allow they, them, or their, or silence, despite the insistence from SE that they or silence is a form of misgendering, and to remove that idea as a violation of the new Code Of Conduct.

I point to this list here.

List of protologisms/third person singular gender neutral pronouns

I submit that they, them, or their be allowed to refer to any and all of those in that list, based on the evidence that I submit below. I submit that if they has been the preferred inclusive word for the existing pronouns, then it should also be considered the standard for all other pronouns.

Note: I do not suggest here that the list above cannot also be used generically - the evidence below states that they has a massive advantage. I also do not suggest that they (or others) be used as mandatory for all. That is more compulsion and I disagree with that. The submission is that they or silence not be a bannable offense.


Cesar said it himself.


The vast majority of people go by the pronouns sets “he/him” or “she/her.” A small but increasing number of people use “they/them” pronouns or another pronouns set -- sometimes simply because they don’t want to go by pronouns with a gender association (just as some folks go by “Ms.” whether or not they are married, because they don’t think their marital status should be a relevant issue), and sometimes people use pronouns that aren’t associated with one of those two most common (binary) genders because they are nonbinary (i.e. people who are neither exclusively a man nor exclusively a woman -- e.g. genderqueer, agender, bigender, fluid, third/additional gender in a cultural tradition, etc.).

I want to draw attention to the fact that the text Cesar quoted uses "they" in the rest of their post. Why? What's the reason? This thread is a defense of Monica's stance (and many others) that there are multiple ways to avoid misgendering, and I believe it is a necessary inclusion within the new Code Of Conduct. I will do my best to remain completely unbiased and use nothing but language, history, and trends that I can cite.

In The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing for Writers, Editors and Speakers by Kate Swift and Casey Miller, they rightfully state that the traditional usage to refer to a person of any gender would take the male form. This has been true for thousands of years.

  • Plurality in Latin, Spanish, and many other languages takes the male form.
  • In English, he/his is often used in place of indeterminate antecedent. Example: Each person to his own, but they or their is becoming more popular. See Cesar's quote above.

Efforts to reduce the male bias has led to a more inclusive switch to neutrality.

Some people may take issue with this from a grammatical standpoint. However...

In In Search of Gender Neutrality: Is Singular They a Cognitively Efficient Substitute for Generic He?" Julie Foertsch, she writes this:

As ungrammatical as this shift may be, the justification for it is quite clear. The generic he that grammarians prescribe is typically perceived as referring to a male, not as being all-inclusive (Khosroshahi. 1989; Kidd, 1971; MacKay & Fulkerson, 1979; Martyna, 1978a; Moulton, Robinson, & Elias, 1978; Silvera, 1980).


Eor this reason, it is perhaps not surprising that the pronoun they—a technically plural pronoun— was readily accepted for all four antecedent types. Indeed, when the antecedent was an indefinite pronoun, readers actually processed singular they faster than he or she, and the rules of prescriptive grammar have already been changed to accommodate this apparent preference.

This demonstrates that they is also preferred by speakers. As a Q&A site, I believe we should strive to maintain clarity and inclusiveness for everyone.

  • People already struggle with the English language. They have complained that they will have trouble articulating and formulating the various pronouns. However, I will also add that as a native speaker, I too will have that trouble.
  • As someone on the autism spectrum, I do not feel inclusiveness or friendliness towards my constant, daily struggle to follow social norms. I would like a break and for the SE mods/CMs to recognize that it is polite to be neutral.
  • It allows those whose conscience cannot allow them to use specific pronouns. For whatever reason, they feel like they cannot. I do not put this here to debate their intentions or moral compass. However, I strongly feel that it is professional to remain neutral.

Going back to Cesar's quote, they use they in the text to refer to each individual in the identity groups. It is very telling that Cesar refers to each and every non-binary as they or their in his own post, without even realizing it. The question is: Why?

Because our brains process the word differently.

Firstly, when there was no explicit antecedent, a larger fronto-central positivity was observed 750 msec after pronoun onset for he/she than they, possibly reflecting the additional difficulty involved in establishing a referent for he/she than for they when no explicit referent is available.

That's the difference. They is an implicit referent. It's so natural to our brains that Stack Exchange themselves couldn't avoid it, to the point that you'll see comments like "If someone asks to be called ze, oblige them," even though the list states that the accusative would be zim.

In summary, they, them, and their are not references to self. They are placeholders for references. They act as a catch-all for he, she, xir, zir, xe, or any other identity that a person would like to have, and it is necessary to cooperate and compromise.


Now, why should we compromise? Because compromise is healthy.

From From communitarianism to dialogue: Building better relationships by Michael Kent,

In liberal democratic theory, the good of the individual must sometimes take a backseat for the good of the collective—but the willingness to give up individual rights or positions for communal goals is done only when people feel safe in the knowledge that they will not lose their rights, safety, or security. Social harmony is a worthy goal for public relations and can better inform practitioner’s roles in building relationships within communities. Dialogue can work to facilitate the communitarian goals of community building and privileging the “greater good” while still respecting the rights and interest of individuals. But only when public relations practitioners discard competitive metaphors and instead adopt collaboration and mutual aid as their goal can genuine dialogue between organizations and their publics become possible.

This is especially relevant to Caleb's departure from Christianity SE.

What we have not done is forced other people to agree with or use other group's preferred terminology. I have not demanded this sites' LDS members to call me a true Christian or themselves heretics. In fact they are free to explain why they think my views are heretical as long as they do so under questions about their own views.

We have a case where people's very core beliefs about the actual universe are at stake, and they're able to perfectly handle themselves by polite dialogue. I point to his departure in particular, because his stance perfectly mimics the paper cited above, which references a hundred years of research on community building. Rights were not taken away. Safety was not taken away. Individualism was not taken away. Collaboration was maintained, and a good community existed as a result.

According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

And from Rights, Utility, and Universalization by J.L. Mackie:

Conflicts between these prima facie rights might be handled by a utilitarianism of rights, so that what would count as the ideally just arrangement would be that in which total right-fulfillment was maximized, or total right-infringement minimized.

In this case, Stack Exchange has not sought balance between rights or compromise.


I will end this with a biased opinion, and how I feel, especially with Cesar's claim here:

Q11: If I’m uncomfortable with a particular pronoun, can I just avoid using it?

We are asking everyone to use all stated pronouns as you would naturally write. Explicitly avoiding using someone’s pronouns because you are uncomfortable is a way of refusing to recognize their identity and is a violation of the Code of Conduct.

1: I saw Shog9's answer stating that "language changes." Yes, it does change, but it's changed for the better with the inclusion of gender neutral language. I believe their answer is at odds with the evidence and ideas I've put forth, and that his stance, while well written, does not sufficiently defend the idea that neutrality is a form of misgendering.

I believe Stack Exchange has made a mistake in believing that neutral language is a form of misgendering, as certain words weren't invented to be a gender, but to refer to any gender, and that includes the words I've defended here. But let's discuss the worse problem.

2: Cesar's assertion is morally troubling to me. This section would also contain sources, but... I cannot find any material on the effects of claiming ownership on our voice, lack of voice, and what we think, all at the same time. All I can hope is that Cesar misspoke.

A lot of users here have talked about freedom of speech, the law, etc. I feel like this is a red herring. I do not feel like it applies here. I feel strongly that the right to be neutral isn't a legal right. It is a right given to me by the universe itself. By virtue of being a lifeform with a central nervous system, I was given the abilities to be silent, refrain from sides, decline to be included, and to do nothing.

I feel very strongly that taking away neutrality such as a centuries old word that the LGBTQ+, feminist, and other activist communities have spent years to include and embrace to avoid bias and exclusion, or taking away our ability to be neutral and silent, is at odds with that right.

If Stack Exchange wishes to prevent people from being offended, it is entirely possible that a very small minority of people will still, against all odds, take offense with they or avoidance. That is their right. However... What about us people on the spectrum? What about those who suffer other mental disorders, disabilities, or various traumas? Must we disallow photography of beer or sports? I have autism, and I do not demand that you navigate all of my intricacies when some of them may fly in the face of a majority experience of reality. I couldn't ask that of you. There should be a line.

  • People are interpreting this question differently: some that only "they" should ever be used, never any other 3rd-person pronouns; others that "they" and other gender-neutral pronouns should be used but not "he" and "she"; yet others that "they", "he", and "she" should all be used but not neopronouns; and yet others that "they" should be okay in all circumstances but users may additionally accept other pronouns for themselves. Please clarify! Oct 22, 2019 at 19:00
  • Why do the comments keep disappearing? Oct 22, 2019 at 21:58
  • 4
    Clean-up of comments has increased in intensity lately, probably due to the enormous increase of unhelpful comments generated. Comments have always been third-rate citizens in SE country, so, keep the useful stuff in questions/answers instead.
    – Mast
    Oct 23, 2019 at 10:10
  • 1
    @Mast Yeah but the standard thing to do has always been to move them to chat.
    – Jason C
    Oct 23, 2019 at 10:20

6 Answers 6


This is a subject I tend to avoid in general, as it is often fraught and runs the risk of causing unintentional offense, so I apologize in advance if anything in this response produces that effect. (I also haven't been following the issue, so it's possible this post has little value, except in regard to my own approach.)

I've personally made a practice of utilizing gender neutral language online for two important reasons:

  1. Imperfect Information: This is a virtual environment and I don't know the gender identity of contributor. (I don't need to know b/c the function of SE is to assist people in getting answers to questions, which shouldn't involve identity.)

But this leads to the core rationale for adopting it

  1. Optimal Strategy: Because I don't know, I utilize the strategy that is optimal. Gender neutral language casts the widest net--it won't offend people for whom it is important and shouldn't offend those for whom it is not.

My own views on gender identity are also irrelevant--all that matters is respecting people.

My goal as a mod and a contributor is to facilitate the greatest degree of engagement to continue to grow the Stacks and increase their utility.

Where I think it may become fraught is that, right or wrongly, this is divisive issue. To formally integrate mandated use in the COC, while it would provide reassurance to a segment of the community, would likely be viewed as divisive by another segment of the community.

I think Stack the company is in a difficult position of having to strike a middle-ground. (It is said in mediation that outcomes which produce lasting result is one in which both parties are equally satisfied or equally aggrieved.)

I don't know the answer, but the one thing I am confident of is that whatever approach is taken, it needs to be a minimax calculation--minimizing the maximum downside of a given action.

Gender neutral language is just good strategy, and not utilizing it diminishes utility.

But, sad as it is to say, being overt at a given time in pursuing this strategy is not necessarily optimal. It's a gnarly problem, with many dimensions.


So what exactly would be wrong with this policy for pronouns, anyways, rather than the current CoC?

If a user asks you not to refer to them as "he" or "she" (or not to refer to them as either), then you must stop doing it.

It's simple to understand, easily objectively enforceable, and covers the most common cases of misgendering. There's no list of neopronouns to memorize, no mind reading for the moderators, and no trolls insisting you identify them as attack helicopters. Just a simple rule that can be invoked with a simple request.

  • The reason is that people simply do not wish to. Whatever their reasons may be, they take issue with being forced to. I, and others, are not asking to do what I listed in the misgendering section, where we chase after someone with antagonism. We're asking to simply be able to opt out, and not have our silence or declining as a violation when we already meet all other criteria for etiquette. "Simple to understand" and "easily enforceable" do not override the reasons given to those who have strong convictions about being forced to do something. See Q11 - it doesn't even allow for silence. Oct 21, 2019 at 23:25
  • 2
    @TheAnathema I think you misunderstand my point. The only thing that is restricted under this proposal is "he" or "she" when undesired. Gender neutral language is always fair game. In short, the principle is that you can never misgender someone with gender-neutral language. Oct 21, 2019 at 23:35
  • 10
    You'd think so, but no. The FAQ forbids neutral language as well, and also avoiding the pronoun altogether. See Q11. It states that avoiding the use of pronouns is also a violation, as they will consider silence to not recognize their gender identity. 1) It means they're policing on what we are not saying. 2) It means they are analyzing our intent and I don't believe anyone can do that in a meaningful way and 3) It simply informs people that they must agree with the person's gender identity. For many people, they cannot, such as for religious reasons. Oct 21, 2019 at 23:56
  • 5
    @TheAnathema I'm aware of that, and I agree it's terrible. I'm trying to make an alternate proposal to the current CoC. I suppose I should have been more clear about that. Oct 22, 2019 at 2:02

I have seen a lot of advocacy for the generic use of singular they, but I think that it does not work well in many circumstances. Calling it established, classy, or traditional is marketing hype not supported by facts: it lives in a small niche as a correlative to someone.

There are often stories about an individual and a group interacting with each other. It is really handy to have a plural they and a different singular pronoun to deal with this frequent scenario (note: any pronoun different from they does a good job here). With singular they there is a problem that the plural they is suddenly unusable.

Note that this is different from singular/plural you, because circumstances usually make sure whom you address, and it is also different from the use of singular we, for example, in a single-author scientific article.

EDIT: Some authors in the world of abstract games found it convenient to assign different pronouns to the abstract players of a game, see this question for examples and references.

EDIT2: If there is any neutral pronoun really growing in usage, that this is one. Compare these two Google ngram searches oneself vs. themself and five singular reflexive pronouns. I choose the reflexive because it is the only form that clearly distinguishes singular from plural. Note also the orders of magnitude: For 2000, himself and itself are of approx. same frequency, herself is one third of them, oneself one twentieth, and themself is one thirty-thousandth.

  • 4
    Doesn't context usually make it clear whether the singular or plural use was intended, though? Just like with "you"?
    – Pekka
    Oct 21, 2019 at 10:33
  • 7
    No, there usually one first person party and one second person party, but several potential third person parties in a story. Oct 21, 2019 at 10:36
  • 3
    We're rarely writing stories on SO tho. Using third person pronouns already happens rarely, how often would it happen to write a sentence in which it would be confusing? And in those rare cases one can write the actual name instead of they.
    – Philipp
    Oct 21, 2019 at 20:27
  • 6
    I don't know how you can say it's not supported by facts when I listed facts, complete with links and citations that you can read. Oct 21, 2019 at 21:33
  • @TheAnathema I followed one of the links and it contained marketing hype, I don't care following more of them. Oct 22, 2019 at 8:47
  • @jknappen I don't believe you can give an accurate response if you disregard the majority of the post. I can see your hostility already, but I encourage you to view it as you would a question on StackOverflow. You cannot provide a good answer if you disregard most of the post. The first link was meant to be friendly and warming - below the line, it's all statistics. If you disregard statistics I can only assume you're here on bad faith and to complain about my stance prematurely without any intention to actually weigh the positions side by side. Oct 22, 2019 at 22:01
  • @TheAnathema Just to make it clear: If someone states that their pronoun is they and I am aware of this, I will use it. You want to go further and enforce they for everyone, and I made an argument against this proposal. That's all. Oct 23, 2019 at 8:47
  • BTW, long before this discussion came up, I have used Spivak pronouns (E, Em, Eir, Eirs, Eirself, capitalised, as in the famous manual The Joy of TeX) on the network from time to time. Oct 23, 2019 at 8:49
  • @jknappen No I didn't. From the post: Note: I do not suggest here that the list above cannot also be used generically - the evidence below states that they has a massive advantage. I also do not suggest that they (or others) be used as mandatory for all. That is more compulsion and I disagree with that. The submission is that they or silence not be a bannable offense. Oct 23, 2019 at 13:15
  • The reflexive form of singular they is themselves, not 'themself', according to the OED. Themself, according to the OED is rare – and has a plural meaning! Nov 10, 2019 at 16:03
  • Hi @jk-ReinstateMonica. Am happy to use "he" for you when needed :-). Would you consider dropping the schizophrenia reference in your profile? As, "contrary to popular misconceptions, people with schizophrenia do not have multiple personalities". Also, "I'm not <X>" could be a bit alienating. C.f. meta.stackexchange.com/questions/334163/… . It's treading on other toes too; there's an unfortunately common attack meta.stackexchange.com/questions/334058/…
    – sourcejedi
    Jan 14, 2020 at 23:57
  • @sourcejedi OK, I will follow your suggestion. Jan 15, 2020 at 10:47
  • Thanks @jk-ReinstateMonica.
    – sourcejedi
    Jan 15, 2020 at 12:33

Does it work for all types of uses of pronouns?

It differs depending on whether or not there is an antecedent and what kind of antecedent.

Unspecific antecedent

I notice that, even as a non-native English speaking person I am already using singular their or them, quite often. So, certainly, there are some arguments to make for it and it may be no surprise that for some cases our brains might even process it faster. This happens especially in cases that are close to plural, or where there is not explicit person being mentioned.

Like when I ask google how to translate the Dutch sentence:

'elke persoon krijgt een eigen voornaamwoord' 

it becomes in English:

'every person gets their own pronoun'

(somehow the German "jeder Person bekommt ein eigenes Pronomen" get's translated with 'his' instead of 'they')

and it sounds close to the plural version

'alle personen krijgen een eigen voornaamwoord' 


'all persons get their own pronoun'

Such cases are not difficult to process to me. That might be because the subject 'every person', while being singular, also has a plural feel to it. It is also not ambiguous what 'their' refers to.

Specific and singular antecedent

More problematic would be 'the driver is sitting in their car' (is it the car of the driver mentioned in the same sentence, or the car owned by some group of people not mentioned in the sentence).

To me it does not always feel so natural to substitute 'he/she' with 'they'. And I believe I am not alone and also this is not just a problem for non-native English speakers.

For instance sentences like...

'Alice is moving their suitcases' 
'Bob has lactose intolerance and they do not drink milk.'
'Bob has lactose intolerance and they does not drink milk.'

... these sounds more strange with me. Especially the combination 'they + singular verb' sounds strange (While 'they', both singular and plural, should be conjugated with a plural verb, but this is not clear and when it is conjugated with a plural verb it is not good for clarity. It is not as common as 'you + plural verb'). Also, the use of they for a particular singular person is strange.

The pronoun 'they' works different from 'he' and 'she'

There have been many comments how the use of singular 'they/their' is correct and not abnormal in English. However, I believe that we need to differentiate in the use of the pronouns.

In that respect, in the quote that your take from the article that you refer to (where the processing of 'they' was found to be easier) you should highlight the particular case:

Firstly, when there was no explicit antecedent, a larger fronto-central positivity was observed 750 msec after pronoun onset for he/she than they, possibly reflecting the additional difficulty involved in establishing a referent for he/she than for they when no explicit referent is available.

The researchers in this article are in fact arguing that 'they' is not like 'he' and 'she'

Effectively, singular pronouns require an explicit antecedent, and require one immediately. The search procedure associated with plural pronouns, on the other hand, is less demanding of computational resources

In that research they did not investigate the use of 'they' in combination with a singular antecedent (they used a plural antecedent).

You might argue that the differences that they found between 'they' and the singular pronouns 'he/she' is exactly what makes the use of 'they' as not similar to 'he/she'. The singular 'they' might exist in English, but apparently we process it differently in our brains. Therefore: singular 'they' is not the same as singular 'he' and 'she'.

Based on my own troubles with such sentences (the Alice and Bob examples) I suspect that what makes singular/plural 'they' easy for sentences without antecedent, is exactly gonna make it difficult with (singular) antecedent.

Some side-note about one of the facts mentioned by the OP

  • In 2015, The American Dialect Society chose they as the Word Of The Year for its ability to refer to all individuals as a collective rather than any specific gender-based word.

In the Netherlands 'genderneutraal' was voted for as most irritating word of the year 2017. (on the other hand 'regenboogtaal', or rainbowlanguage in English, was in the top 3 of word of the year 2017)

  • 4
    You seem to be under the impression that "singular they" means that it is used with singular verbs. That is not the case. It is used just like the plural "they", with plural verbs. "They stay inside today" is how your example sentence would be written. That is usually the better way to phrase it, but there are some problems, e.g. "Alice is asking themselves what they are doing with their life" sounds just completely unnatural especially since singular and plural are used to refer to the same person in the same sentence.
    – PoorYorick
    Oct 22, 2019 at 10:57
  • 1
    @PoorYorick the combination 'they + plural verb' indeed sounds better, but it adds a new problem that one refers to a singular person with a plural verb, which is not optimal/practical (only the King or Queen is begin referred to as plural). In the Netherlands this discussion is being taken over from the English speaking areas, and the plural pronouns 'hen/hun' are being suggested, but with singular verbs. It is very confusing as the preferred verb is not added to the 'they/their'. Oct 22, 2019 at 11:23
  • I suspect non-native speakers see "I saw Bob at the store today. They're doing well." more frequently than they see "I saw Bob at the store today. Zir's doing well." Besides that glaringly obvious point, I'm seeing a lot of push back against it being something non-native speakers deal with sometimes. Well, that's fine, but I can come up with 400 more things that a non-native speaker would find it hard to follow. Quite easily, in fact, and none of those things are moderated on StackExchange based on their difficulty. Oct 22, 2019 at 22:03
  • Read rhymes with lead, and read rhymes with lead, but read and lead don’t rhyme, and neither do read and lead. Oct 22, 2019 at 22:05
  • @TheAnathema I am actually arguing that also for non-native English speakers it will not be difficult to adapt to 'they'. However, the evidence that you give is for the case when there is no antecedent, or when there is an indefinite antecedent. When there is a specific singular person then the story is the other way around, 'they' is not easier to process whether you are a native or a non-native English speaker. The articles that you refer to shows that our brains link 'he' and 'she' to a specific person, that makes 'they' sometimes easier, but other times it is more difficult. Oct 23, 2019 at 5:56
  • 1
    "they're doing well" seems to me to refer relatively strongly to a specific antecedent and is not so difficult. It is a bit like the blue-white/black-gold dress and depends on what associations circumstances you happen to fill in. The word 'they' will create lots of language versions of those ambivalent/ambiguous duck-rabbits. Consider sentences like: "Bob has lactose intolerance and they don't drink milk." The presence of two different verbs (singular/plural) will make it difficult to process that sentence and seeing 'they' refers to Bob Oct 23, 2019 at 6:04

Now that I've had time to contemplate further, I'm presenting a more direct response. (My initial response has already received votes, so I didn't want to edit.)

From the FAQ on the COC:

Q9: Do I have to use pronouns I’m unfamiliar or uncomfortable with (e.g., neopronouns like xe, zir, ne... )?

Yes, if those are stated by the individual.

This is just a matter of good manners. "They" is not a form of gender mislabling because it specifically avoids gender—in using it we are addressing people as human beings. But, where a specific term is requested, if using pronouns, it is impolite not to respect the request, regardless of personal views or comfort.

Q11: If I’m uncomfortable with a particular pronoun, can I just avoid using it?

We are asking everyone to use all stated pronouns as you would naturally write. Explicitly avoiding using someone’s pronouns because you are uncomfortable is a way of refusing to recognize their identity and is a violation of the Code of Conduct.

Since pronouns have become an issue in the culture, my writing style in online forums has self-adapted to avoid them wherever possible. Scientific writing specifically strives for neutrality, here in the sense of dispassion.

However, if one goes to great lengths to avoid using a specific term, for instance a conspicuous number of mentions of a person's name to avoid using the requested pronoun, it becomes a form of protest, which can be fairly interpreted as a form of aggression.

Different people will have different responses—for some it might roll right off, where for others, it could be deeply troubling. If we follow a doctrine of kindness and respect, it becomes incumbent on us to consider the full range of responses, and pursue a course with the least chance of causing harm.

The problem I'm sensing is that some people have negative responses to neopronouns, and they feel that their viewpoint is not being considered.

But I think these are different. Where, in the latter case, it is a general discomfort with new terminology, in the former case it is deeply personal.

It is not the function of Stack the company, or Stack the community, to set the standards of the greater culture, but we do have a mandate of kindness and respect for the individual.

Thus we have an obligation to follow this mandate, regardless of our personal views.

(Kindness and charity do not imply comfort, and, in general, it is that which is most difficult that represents the highest expression of these qualities.)

  • On the use of they

I'm not certain using of they in place of any pronoun is necessarily an aggression.

Specifically, my natural writing style has altered since pronouns became an issue, to avoid pronouns in general, and where using pronouns, avoid gendered forms. Even where use of they differs from a specific preferred pronoun, it is not inherently disrespectful. Because it is a natural form with longstanding historical usage, it may not be conspicuous in the way using a name repeatedly would be.

This, in and of itself, does not override the arguments I made previously because so much is dependent on context, but I think that Anathema's argument is sound and worthy of consideration.

It is possible that use of they as a universal default could be the true middle ground.

This, however, begs the question: "Am I using they universally, even in place of he or she, or only in place of neopronouns?"


This approach has many problems

Disparate impact against trans users

It's likely that some users in chat will refer to a female user as "she" and to another as "they", because they know the latter user is trans. This has already happened.

Despite being outwardly neutral, it is a form of misgendering: the speaker is going out of their way to show that they don't see the referent as their expressed gender, just like they would by saying "he".

The rules should not enshrine this behaviour as explicitly okay.

Hurts a small group of users

As you state, most non-binary people are happy to be referred to as "they". Some only accept "they", while others also accept other gender-neutral pronouns. However, some people find that "they" worsens their gender dysphoria, and require a specific pronoun. Some (7% in the linked survey) avoid pronouns entirely and prefer their name to be used every time.

"They" is still suitable in distant/generic references, as you propose, and of course in collective references, which are plural. But it is better for these users to use their pronoun or name in personal references: even if they logically agree with your argument, that won't help their dysphoria.

Not easier to navigate

Social norms are hard, fuzzy, and complicated. Using someone's stated pronouns is not: it's a purely algorithmic process. It could (maybe should?) be done automatically.

Unusual pronouns (but not "he" and "she") do increase overhead somewhat, but having more pronouns makes references less ambiguous.

"Neutrality" is ambiguous

There is a very good argument that the rules of Stack Exchange as a platform should not (appear to) take a side on a current hot-button political issue. Doing so risks destroying us as a place for technical work and turning us into a weapon in a political battle.

If Stack Overflow had existed in 1860, it would have been unwise for it to take an explicit anti-slavery stance, even though that stance was in fact clearly correct. (Also, the programming questions were terrible back then.)

However, not taking a stance is different from taking a neutral stance. Taking any stance on slavery would have been unwise; taking a neutral rather than opposed stance would have been evil.

The part where I explain why all the angry yelling

Recently, some people chanted "Faggots, you're going to hell" at a group I was walking with, because many of the group were visibly LBGTI. I don't enjoy that, but I get it: they think LGBTI people and their supporters are inferior and are going to hell. Nobody's confused about anyone's intentions.

In contrast, the posts here insist that they're moved by good will towards trans people. They come with lectures about how trans and non-binary users are looking to be offended, or making unreasonable demands, or ought to compromise, or are trying to take away a fundamental right to neutrality (this post). They're peppered with disclaimers about being respectful, polite, professional (this post), opposed to discrimination.

In a few cases, these claims are disingenuous. In most, they are perfectly sincere, but still unhelpful.

Given such good will, I would expect:

  • Users who don't have the time to dig into the issue to simply stay away and wait for a consensus to emerge, rather than advocate neutrality.
  • Users who do want to participate in the discussion to do a lot of research on why trans and non-binary people are so loud about pronouns, such as reading accounts of gender dysphoria. In particular, I'd expect evidence-based posts like this one to cite the literature on the tremendous effects of social support, even though it's not clear that the results generalise to an impersonal site.
  • Openness (though of course not blind trust) to the idea that one's well-intentioned behaviour can be harmful. Instead, explaining those harms often feels like walking on eggshells, like some people are waiting for an excuse to say "Ha! You said I hate trans people, now I get to stop listening!".
  • In particular, arguments that the current treatment of trans users is decent and not harmful, rather than blunt assertions.
  • Acknowledgements of the needs of trans users, and attempts to balance them with other considerations (e.g. that paying attention to pronoun choice is an imposition, and that trans rights are a talking point for a specific left-wing ideology), rather than immediately treating the cons as dealbreakers.

Many users use analogies that aren't very much analogous, because they have not done this research. For example, one user is fond of "What if I find it disrespectful when people call me 'Ian' instead of 'Sir Ian Fripplebottom III Esq.'?". It sounds superficially similar to "I find it disrespectful when people call me 'they' instead of 'she'", but I've never met:

  • Anyone who shyly asked a trusted friend to call them "Sir Ian Fripplebottom III Esq." and felt relief crash into them when they heard the name
  • Anyone with a history of suicide attempts or alcoholism or self-harm that stopped when people stopped calling them "Ian"
  • Anyone who fled a comfortable life for homelessness and dangerous jobs just so they could be known as "Sir Ian Fripplebottom III Esq."
  • Any minor who committed suicide over their parents' refusal to call them "Sir Ian Fripplebottom III Esq.", and the grave still says "Ian"

People with enough trans friends to personally know the analogues of all these examples will find the analogy frankly insulting. It's obvious from their other behaviour that (typical) trans people desperately need to live as their gender, whereas (typical) people who get grumpy about titles don't have such pressing needs.

To put it in utilitarian terms, Sir Ian Fripplebottom III Esq. gets a very minor benefit from being called his full title; others suffer a similarly minor cost by saying that many syllables. He may be legitimately suspected of trying to impose his preference, not because it's much greater, but because he wants to show he's in control. "Respect is a two-way street" applies.

Trans people get immense benefits from being recognised socially as their gender. Even if the other party has better grievances than "but remembering pronouns is hard!", such as religious objections, the utilitarian calculus is massively in favour of the trans person.

Many users here don't seem to disagree with this utilitarian claim so much as ignore it.

As a result, people who write these posts believe they have shown good will and good faith and a willingness to compromise, whereas trans users and their supporters believe they've been met with a wall of disingenuous refusal to even notice their needs. No wonder both sides feel wronged!

  • 32
    To explain my downvote, I disagree with the conflation of disagreement and hatred. For example, it's absurd to say that we must agree with someone else's religion to not hate them for their religion. Here, I object to the idea that disagreeing about pronouns is equivalent to violent hatred.
    – Nat
    Oct 20, 2019 at 23:11
  • 3
    I think this particular topic is difficult because trolls have weaponized the wording of a neutral stance. Even worse, the resulting conflict is probably delighting them.
    – N_A
    Oct 21, 2019 at 0:35
  • 1
    Please provide citations for "In contrast, the posts here sound disingenuous. They come with lectures about how trans and non-binary users are looking to be offended, or making unreasonable demands, or ought to compromise, or are trying to take away a fundamental right to neutrality. They're peppered with disclaimers about being respectful, polite, professional, opposed to discrimination."
    – DK Bose
    Oct 21, 2019 at 1:44
  • 5
    I actually do believe that you are spreading false information, which is intrinsically harmful to the society. According to your own reasoning—that means that it doesn't matter how sincere or well-intentioned you are.
    – Wildcard
    Oct 21, 2019 at 8:34
  • 1
    @Nat The implication that the disagreement and harmful treatment are based in hatred was accidental; I've rewritten that section. Feel free to suggest further edits. That said, I can't avoid the controversial claims "people mistakenly think their good intentions mean they aren't causing harm" and "$#!%@ is it tiring trying to talk through that". Oct 21, 2019 at 19:04
  • @DKBose Added links to posts I think exemplify the disclaimers and claims of good will. Oct 21, 2019 at 19:05
  • @Wildcard Yes! It means you should present your arguments that the information is false. It doesn't matter if I'm well-intentioned or sincere or not: I'll be swayed, show a countercase, or go "la la la I can't hear you"; onlookers will have all the information. The current drama is a massive loss: it's important to publicly make and evaluate the case for "actually, trans people should have fewer rights", but it has had to be completely censored out so it doesn't get shoved at everyone all the time. Oct 21, 2019 at 19:11
  • @TheAnathema I try to address your points about neutrality in the first part (why "Monica she, Sarah she, Yvette they" seems neutral but isn't) and second-to-last part (not participating ≠ active neutral stance) but I think I'm still falling short. Can you suggest improvements? Oct 21, 2019 at 19:17
  • 1
    I think the gender dysphoria argument about being called "they" as trans though wanting to be called "she" is important. However: I think the goal here is to avoid forcing people to use neopronouns, so someone who wants to be called "she" is not an issue here. (If someone calls you "they" after the initial confusion, that is simply mean and I think we can agree that it should be acted on by moderators. Unless of course that person calls everyone "they".)
    – PoorYorick
    Oct 22, 2019 at 6:55
  • 2
    Your first point contrasts people using "she" and "they" for different people and names it bigotry. That's true. But the OP post here suggests to always use they. Since most of your post relies on that, I think that breaks down your argument a bit.
    – Gloweye
    Oct 22, 2019 at 7:42

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