English singer Sam Smith now uses they/them pronouns.
It’s a simple, but profound, statement that gives more crucial visibility to people living outside of the gender binary. Yet some of my fellow journalists — people entrusted to routinely break down complex topics — found it nearly impossible to write and say.
"After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am,” they wrote.
As a queer, non-binary journalist, I was thrilled — to see another high-profile person similar to me and in anticipation of the education and conversations on gender this would encourage. What later came across the wires from the Associated Press chilled my blood. In its initial report Friday, the AP referred to Smith as he/him throughout. The first line began: “Sam Smith has declared his pronouns ‘they/them’ ...”
I was in the room at ACES: The Society for Editing’s 2017 conference when the AP Stylebook — what many editors in the industry view as the “journalist’s bible” — announced it would allow for the use of the gender-neutral, singular pronouns they/them/their to refer to people. The crowd was ecstatic; finally, the stylebook would recognize the simple truth of how some people experience gender, not just the majority. Of course, the move came with a weak caveat: AP Style would prefer reporters to write around it, unless the person’s pronouns are necessary to the story.
Yet the AP did not follow its own style guide in the Smith report — a story that existed solely to talk about their pronouns. Crucially, many news outlets across the United States, and world, rely on republishing the AP and, given staff and time restraints, likely did not fix this obvious error.
The thought of this inaccurate report spreading made me sick. Not only did it delegitimize non-binary folks — part of a group facing discrimination from the government, in education and employment, housing and more — but also it failed to educate cisgender readers (people who identify as their gender assigned at birth) on Smith. In this, the AP and other outlets with similar reckless reporting gave credibility to people who purposefully ignore who they are.
While even Smith, like many of us, acknowledged there “will be many mistakes and mis gendering but all I ask is you please please try,” a written report is not casual conversation in which slip ups can be forgiven.
So, late Friday afternoon, I tweeted to point out what felt like a satire-level error:
I soon couldn’t look at my mentions.
As of Monday morning, the tweet had a minimum reach of over 4.7 million with over 24,000 retweets and over 116,000 likes — with thousands more on the rest of my thread. Strangers’ screenshots of my tweets took off on Instagram and Facebook, too.
In the flood, there were vitriolic, uneducated and misguided comments. While unsurprising, it still stung to see people debate Smith’s identity and therefore my right to exist. Other people sharing my post expressed pain and anger over being routinely misgendered, often putting them at risk for discrimination and violence. There was also confusion of how this error could occur, or what it even was.
So much for former co-workers’ and ex-managers’ insistence that LGBTQ issues do not have an audience.
In updates Friday, the AP opted to largely omit pronouns — referring to Smith by their last name and as variations of “the singer” — for most of its brief report and finally inserted a correction line. Still, its awkward phrasing to dance around pronouns does more to confuse the reader than using “they” and writing a brief explanation of pronouns and non-binary identities.
After all, we have a responsibility to make complex subjects accessible to readers. Journalism has legitimized and explained, at length, bitcoins before it has taken seriously LGBTQ people and our terminology.
Journalists often talk about giving a voice to the voiceless. This is where we do some of our most enriching and moving work. Yet it is also where we fail the most marginalized in our communities, using tired excuses that audiences won’t understand or will feel alienated by change.
If only LGBTQ readers were considered, too.
People who we would today call transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary and more have existed at least as long as newspapers, even if we have not routinely acknowledged them — outside of celebrities and big announcements.
We fail our readers in not reflecting our full history.
Even in this decade, Time magazine, with a historic cover of actress and trans advocate Laverne Cox, declared 2014 was the "transgender tipping point.” And in growing awareness of non-binary transgender people, states have started offering gender-neutral markers for government-issued identification.
Yet many journalists are still covering trans subjects as if they had never before appeared.
The public and the media know gender variances exist, and just judging by replies to my thread, many want and need to learn more. Let’s stop underestimating, and discounting, our audiences.
We are beyond debating the grammatical: leading dictionaries and style guides accept the use of the singular, gender-neutral “they” and remind us that it has been used in the English language — from well-known authors to everyday people — for centuries.
People who insist on miring us in this linguistic debate are either willfully transphobic or are suffering from a lack of nuanced, factual media coverage. Let us not perpetuate this cycle.
And, in the end, sussing out the linguistic merits of a person is not what matters. Grammar does not determine whether a lived experience exists. We do. The beauty of language is that it’s created by and for us. Its mainstream use can no longer write people out of existence.
Thanks to the rise of the internet and social platforms, marginalized groups have more immediate ways to call out these shortcomings.
It’s our job to listen. It costs nothing to learn and respect how someone identifies.
So, we must adapt and bring LGBTQ people into our newsrooms, notebooks and publications for myriad reporting topics. Many of us are already here.
Give weight to our worlds, words and work. Trust us.