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5 years ago, I posted a comment using the pronoun 'he' as a shortcut. My comment went like this:

OP you should read the answer of @user-1248177 . He gives more information than I on this specific point.

I don't know @user-1248177's pronoun. I use 'he' as a default (like we do in my mother tongue). Let's consider that this was the fitting pronoun.

2 years ago, @user-1248177 made an important decision and choose another pronoun than 'he'. Later on, @user-1248177 updated the profile page to add the new pronoun.

Now, my old comment misgendered that user. Is this a problem?

A solution could be to have a macro (like [mcve]). A clunky idea could be to use [pronoun:user-1248177] or something like [they:user-1248177].

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    if you want you can search with SEDE for your own comments. – rene Oct 22 '19 at 16:43
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    This kind of revisionist thinking only happens on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. Unless something else has changed at SE corporate, and we're now in the business of combing through old posts to see what sins everyone is guilty of, I wouldn't worry too much about what happened five years ago. – user102937 Oct 22 '19 at 16:50
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    This brings up the issue of gendering an anonymized name. I can do my level best to keep up with pronoun prefs, but I don't think I'm going to stand a chance of tracking a user name anonymized at that level. (Hmm, let me see, was it user-1248177 who pinged me with a pronoun pref three weeks ago, or was that user-1258177??) – Scott Seidman Oct 22 '19 at 16:56
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    @ScottSeidman if literal user-1248177 chooses to do that - and not provide a profile hint you can double-check - then xyr will have to live with the extra annoyance of reminding humans who aren't so good at memorizing 7 digit numbers. And users can always set their own thresholds, of how much effort they're prepared to put in for any given acquiantance, before choosing to stop engaging with them. (Or limit your engagement with all users who use handles that you are not easily able to tell apart). IMO those are useful principles to consider, when you start thinking about a novel hypothetical. – sourcejedi Oct 22 '19 at 17:15
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    Suppose you search and change all your old pronouns. Next month, user-1248177 changes their preference. Now, your updated pronouns are wrong again. There isn't a practical way to deal with old posts. But consider that for the vast majority of posts, most of the views are when the post is new. There will be little awareness of that old content. Also, user-1248177 can hardly take offense at what you wrote before they stated a different preference. – fixer1234 Oct 22 '19 at 19:51
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    I don't really understand why this has downvotes - it's an honest question. I appreciate that you're making an effort to learn how to not misgender people. – weakdna Oct 22 '19 at 21:54
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    If it helps, imagine having a conversation in real-life with that person 4 years ago. You wouldn't now look back on it and worry about misgendering - what was said was said and can't be changed. The only difference between that conversation and SE is that SE preserves the comments. They're still not editable for us mortals 4 years later - what was written then cannot be changed. The point? Don't worry about it. It happened in the past - there's nothing that can be done to change that – Zoe The Lockdown Princess Oct 22 '19 at 22:26
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No, it is not a problem. If someone requests a certain pronoun, you should use that going forward, but you do not need to retroactively. To quote a comment from CesarM:

CesarM : we recommend that you use gender-neutral they if you don't know the person's pronouns. That's a recommendation, not a CoC violation. However, if you use "he" as default and someone asks you to refer to them by something else, please start referring to them by that going forward

There is no need to edit previous posts to use gender-inclusive language; in fact, doing mass edits like that is likely to get you a stern talking-to by a mod.

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    Ok so error from the past are not problematic under the CoC. – aloisdg moving to codidact.com Oct 23 '19 at 11:43
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    The mods are going to love cross-referencing time stamps. – marcellothearcane Oct 23 '19 at 18:33
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    @marcellothearcane Why do you think they’ll need to do that? Mistakes and forgetting are explicitly stated to not be problems. There’s no inquisition here, looking into past wrongs: the explicit guidance is “try your best” and “don’t be a jerk about it" – divibisan Oct 23 '19 at 18:36
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Comments are often full of obsolete information, like someone's display name. If @user-1248177 changes their display name to Steve your comment won't be updated. We are all generally fine with that. There has been no suggestion anywhere that you are obliged to monitor every comment you have ever written to see if it has become obsolete.

That said, if @user-1248177 were to ping you and say that "she" is how to refer to her, (there's no need for a gender change or a choice, you wrote yourself that you had just assumed @user-1248177 was "he"), it would be nice if you would change your comment in accordance with the information you had just gained. Since comments can't be edited (except within 5 minutes), you would have to delete it and repost it with the correct pronoun. (If there's a reason you can't do that, you could flag and ask a mod to edit it, but that might not succeed.)

If that level of future work worries you, write your comments neutrally to begin with. For example:

You should read the answer provided by @user-1248177; it has more information than I provide on this specific point.

The only mention in the CoC of avoiding pronouns is if you know a person's pronouns and write unnaturally to avoid using them for some people, while cheerfully using them for everyone else. Always avoiding them prevents this sort of problem. And as an extra bonus, it prevents the minor sting of invisibility many women on these sites feel when people praise them while assuming they are men. Win-win.

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    "delete it and repost it" - that would make a mess of transcripts. I'd suggest keeping it for posterity and just using the correct pronoun from then on. – John Dvorak Oct 22 '19 at 17:03
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    If there's a long chain of comments, sure. If it's the only comment under the post (or the only one other than the "please call me her" which can be noted as obsolete once read) then it's perfectly feasible to delete and repost. I would say the existence of a chain is "a reason you can't do that" – Kate Gregory Oct 22 '19 at 17:13
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    It's also worth noting the transient nature of comments themselves. Generally speaking, comments are not expected to contain valuable information, and may be cleaned up at any time. The primary purpose of comments are suggested improvements to the question or requests for clarification; once acted upon, those comments can then be removed. – V2Blast Oct 23 '19 at 8:03
  • @codygray the sample comment was based on what the question included. I changed as little as possible to focus on removing the "he" rather than copyediting the entire comment. Also I disagree that OP is confusing. – Kate Gregory Oct 23 '19 at 12:36
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    @Kate Ah, sorry, I missed that you were trying to keep as consistent as possible with the comment showed in the original question. I got directed to your answer out of the context of the question, and I failed to do my due diligence in going back to read it. :-) The observation about "OP" is based mostly on my experience as a moderator. I've been honestly shocked by how many people are unfamiliar with the abbreviation "OP", but a whole bunch of them are. I also tend not to be a big fan of abbrevs anyway, so this is a good justification for stamping it out. – Cody Gray Oct 23 '19 at 18:35
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There is a lot of legacy Question and Answer out here, noone is expected to edit all that just to conform the new standards. In fact, doing such edits can be considered harmful because the edits poison the active questions list.

Also, when a user states a pronoun at some point in time, this statement only applies to the future from that point in time. The same applies when a user changes the pronoun for some reason.

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If you aren't sure, use "they".

I'm queer, but I'm not trans. However, as someone who presents my gender in a way that may not be clear to some, I'm fine with being called "they" as opposed to "she" when someone isn't sure.

I don't care what the new CoC does or doesn't say; I have never met a single transgender, nonbinary, or androgynous person who hated being called "they" when someone wasn't sure.

The only thing wrong with accidentally using the wrong pronouns right now would be if you referred to someone with the wrong pronouns, were corrected, but kept using the wrong ones. That is what misgendering is.

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  • +1 I think a lot of people, including maybe some of those writing the CoCs, don't seem to understand that "misgendering", the not-nice form of harassment we should absolutely not do, is when you know what someone's stated gender is, but deliberately refer to them as something else to send them a message that you reject it. An enormous amount of confusion seems to come from people (including some of those responsible for writing the policy?) thinking innocent mistakes or uncertainty would (or, should) be treated the same as clear harassment. – user56reinstatemonica8 Oct 23 '19 at 10:02
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The other answers cover the options pretty well: delete / edit / flag if you come across issues, but no need to go searching or mass-editing.

Also, moderators can see edit history for a user's display name and "about me" sections. So in a case where you use one pronoun, and later that user specifies a different one in their profile, (and your comment is flagged,) the mods can simply check that history and see that it wasn't incorrect at the time you posted it.

(In addition, you're not required to check user profiles anyways, so even if the user had "she/her" in their profile at the time of your comment it'd just be considered an honest mistake - all you're expected to do is use the correct pronoun in future comments once informed.)

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This sounds a lot like the Ex Post Facto Law, where what you said years ago now contradicts with the new Code of Conduct released this year. I'm sure nothing bad will come of this one situation. Like others have said, if the user has requested to be referred to as another gender/pronoun, then refer to them as such moving on. You should be in the clear.

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I think it's worth mentioning "comments are transient". E.g. the comment discussion might be much less useful than the surrounding content. Or, an unusual case that seems already ruled out by the question. Or, you might also have edited the information into the body of your answer.

This means some old comment discussions can be flagged as "no longer needed". I would flag these with a custom reason: "comments no longer needed" + "user-1248177 now uses a different pronoun, I think we should remove (or edit) my comment".

You can't flag your own comment, so flag the post the comments are attached to.

"No longer needed" is a judgement call. Check up on these flags, to see if your judgement is confirmed by a moderator.

EDIT: On reflection, it sounds more likely these specific comments were still needed.

Regarding updating old non transient content: On many SE sites, it's relatively uncommon to need to use pronouns. In that case, I don't see any problem updating such content.

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    Since you can't flag your own comments ... but you can delete your own comments – rene Oct 22 '19 at 16:37
  • @rene If the other poster left their comment up after having their question answered, AFAIK that makes it eligible for flagging and "cleaning up". I've noticed "no longer needed" is not always accepted when I flag it under my own posts :). But when I observe such comments elsewhere, my flags have been accepted more often than not. Avoiding telling third-party readers the wrong pronoun would add a lot of weight to a cleanup request IMO. (Another strong reason is when "no longer needed" comments have the effect of cluttering up popular pages). – sourcejedi Oct 22 '19 at 16:45
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    Please don't flag comments as "no longer needed" unless they are actually no longer needed. The fact that you've changed your pronouns is not a good reason to ask moderators to start removing useful and relevant information, any more than the fact that you've changed your user name from "sourcejedi" to "destinationjedi" is a reason to flag every old comment that replied to you for deletion. – Cody Gray Oct 23 '19 at 3:07
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If such happen and the comment was flagged. A moderator could just edit the comment to replace the pronoun.

It's what 'presume good faith' is, as we can understand a user pefered pronoun, versus you, that has no idea what it's at that time.

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The CoC effectively asks us to, "try this, wait to be corrected, correct yourself, and remember -every user." That's awful. Give us tools. Give us a single-step, concrete, "do this 100% of the time and you'll be fine" template. Anything else invites more social interaction and potential for failure/disappointment than seems necessary for a content-focused Q&A site.

As such, I'm a big proponent of an auto-expanding pronoun tag (or similar feature), e.g. [they:@username], which draws from some newly added profile setting and renders he, she, they, ziy, etc for everyone based on @username's preference. This could further serve to accommodate changes to that preference over time, updating references retroactively.

This way you don't even have to know that person's gender but you get to address them properly anyway.

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    ...thereby subverting the very goal that is ostensibly at the heart of all this: making people feel embraced and respected for their identity. – Cody Gray Oct 23 '19 at 0:35
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    Automating the way you refer to people, to the extent that you would have a computer generate the reference, doesn't exactly scream "humanizing" to me. If this works, then we don't need it at all. Just go back to what has always been a core principle of Stack Overflow: focus on content, not people. – Cody Gray Oct 23 '19 at 0:38
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    @CodyGray As I see it, the point is that appropriately addressing people is in itself "humanising", even when we aren't "interacting on a more social level", as canon puts it. (By the way, I find this exchange very interesting -- it suggests deep questions about what exactly the content/people dichotomy has to do with pronoun usage.) – duplode Oct 23 '19 at 2:05
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    @duplode I agree to humanize if I have too, but I prefer to avoid it. I am not here to build a friendship. I am here to find answer to questions. I dont want to use SE like I would use Facebook or Twitter. If possible delete any information related to you and improve your [mcve]. – aloisdg moving to codidact.com Oct 23 '19 at 8:33
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    @aloisdg Addressing users appropriately is not a matter of building a friendship, or of using the site as a social network. It is something that occasionally comes up during by-the-book usage of, for instance, SE comment threads. While I understand the desire for a fully impersonal site, SE ultimately isn't built in a way that allows us to not deal at all with the fact that the content here is built by users interacting with each other. – duplode Oct 23 '19 at 10:56
  • @duplode yes and I am willing to do so. Pragmatically, we will interact and I am glad that SE try to lower the level of friction during this step. I would just hope that this would be a non-issue. – aloisdg moving to codidact.com Oct 23 '19 at 11:41

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