Tips for writing a gender-neutral interview?
February 22, 2016 12:31 PM   Subscribe

I have been asked to edit an interview using they/them/their instead of gendered pronouns. Please give me your tips / best practices for clarity!

I write interviews as a small part of my work at a public library. We have a quarterly magazine, which features a different local artist on the cover each issue. I conduct an interview with the artist about his/her work, local issues, and libraries in general.

I am a published writer, and I am responsible for much of the library's "voice," in press releases, on the web, on social media, our email newsletter, and our magazine. I am a department head. This is all to say that although I have very supportive bosses, they aren't writers and don't have an answer for this particular question.

I recently wrote up an interview and sent it along to the artist for review. The artist was thrilled, but asked that I use a gender-neutral abbreviation of their name, and "use they/them pronouns." These were their exact words (as opposed to, say, "make the article gender neutral.")

As I'm editing, particularly because the artist also founded a collective, I'm worried about clarity. I fully support the artist's wishes and position, and am excited at the chance to practice this, but the traditional plural connotation of they/them/their is making this confusing to read.

Where possible, I'm changing the wording to avoid confusion. I'm finding I'd prefer to reuse the artist's last name an awkward amount of times, or resort to passive voice, in many cases. But that's not what the artist requested!

It's a strange mix: my pride in my work, my knowledge of our readership, the artist's wishes, my feminist identity and support of LGBTQ and transgender rights, etc. etc. etc.

Have you done this before? What are some tips for avoiding confusion? What are best practices?

Thanks in advance!
posted by Isingthebodyelectric to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Note: Per their request, this article refers to [artist] using "they", "them", and "their" as singular pronouns.

Anyone who complains that it's confusing is being disingenuous.
posted by Etrigan at 12:38 PM on February 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I was just going to edit to ask if adding such a note would be appropriate. Somehow it felt like a cop out - as though I should stand with the artist in this as a political statement!
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 12:42 PM on February 22, 2016

One of your points of confusion is that direct substitutions end up with unclear sentences like "They have been a force for art in our community since 2011" which could refer to either the artist or the collective they founded. I'd start by making a list of proper and common nouns that could be used for the person (eg full name, stage name, artist, founder, leader, activist, ...) and for the collective (proper name, collective, association, artists, community group, activists, ...) to give you more options besides just the pronouns.

That'll get you out of the cases that are genuinely open to interpretation, and I think you'll have to count on goodwill from the readers (along with an explanatory note like Etrigan's) to discourage willful misreading.
posted by aimedwander at 12:43 PM on February 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I'd err towards overusing "the collective," "the fledgling group," "the artist community founded in X Town" to refer to the collective and reserving "they" for the artist's pronouns.

I use they pronouns and when I made that clear to a journalist who was writing about me, they defaulted to using my name, which is. You know. Not the same thing, at all. I appreciate you not taking that road.

The Washington Post Style Guide now supports use of singular they pronouns, though as a "last resort."

Here is a well written article I enjoyed (and posted as an FPP!) about a subject who uses they pronouns.

I *personally* would prefer reading "Banana, who uses they pronouns, lead a summer workshop on gender diversity" in an article about myself than a disclaimer at the head of the article, but it's been done, I suppose.
posted by Juliet Banana at 12:49 PM on February 22, 2016 [12 favorites]

Best answer: the traditional plural connotation of they/them/their is making this confusing to read.

I'm a librarian who did her undergraduate work in generic pronouns and semantic analysis. It sounds like you're trying to do the right thing here, which is great. It also sounds like you have a lot of different contstituencies which may make this more difficult than it normally would. If the artist prefers to present as gender neutral, that is their express wish and it makes sense to do that to the best of your ability.If it were me and I were facing this same thing I'd basically decide that it was advancing my support of GLBTQ and transgender rights by acting as if this were a completely 100% ordinary request and that if there was blowback I'd handle it and make it my issue not make it look odd or offkilter by adding a disclaimer. That is, have a handy response for people "That is what the artist said they'd prefer" and prepare to have a short discussion about it but otherwise decide that making this work is your problem to solve. You can also decide to use some editorial license and have sentences that are something like this.

"They said that [the collective] would be presenting the new works of the group...."

instead of something like

"They said that they would be presenting their works...."

I understand that you're worried about clarity and while that's important it's also worth understanding that (misplaced) concerns about clarity (in the past) have been one of the things that's been keeping us stuck with generic he for so long, so think of this as doing your part of being the change you want to be in the world. You sound considerate and respectful and I'm sure you'll do fine.
posted by jessamyn at 1:00 PM on February 22, 2016 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, all. Jessamyn summed up my feelings about it, and Juliet Banana gave me perspective and a great example in that Vice article - I added a sentence similar to the first one in that piece, which kind of sets forth the rule early on without the need for an explicit note.
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 1:21 PM on February 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

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