Best practices for sites which provide pronoun fields?

On Monday, 28 March 2022 at 10:05 a.m., @mattdm wrote on the Fedora DEI mailing list:

On Ask Fedora and Fedora Discussion, we have a profile field for pronouns. It is an open text string where people can provide what they want.

I have noticed that many people have, somewhat confusingly, given their first name or username here. Others have given what I suppose they think are clever responses, which are generally (as my kids say) more cringe than cute.

I am thinking that it may be best to have a limited-option dropdown, with these choices:

  • [blank]
  • she / her / hers
  • he/ him / his
  • they / them / theirs
  • other (see profile)

… with the last option for folks who sincerely use neopronouns, or if someone really wants to use their profile space to go on about their personal beliefs on the topic for some reason.

Your advice is appreciated.

On Monday, 28 March at 10:14 a.m., @riecatnor replied:

Hi Matthew, Thank you for raising this topic with the DEI team- we have a call later today and I have added this to our agenda.

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In the meeting today, I mentioned that I participated in discussions for the MusicBrainz Community when they reviewed the gender labels for recording artists and musicians. It was a long discussion and at the time it was contested. The option the community landed on was having preset options for data consistency, but also to have a free-form text for people whose pronouns fit outside of that.

The free-form text gives the most freedom but also comes with a hidden moderation burden, a burden that can be difficult to catch since pronouns are not featured prominently outside of someone’s individual Discourse profile.

In this context, I personally suggest using the preset options suggested and letting someone use the profile to specify other pronouns. As of now, the profile description features the same amount as the current pronoun field in the Discourse profile. So it seems like an apt replacement and preserves a degree of moderation capacity.

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Thanks for having this discussion. :slight_smile:

Could you please explain this a bit more; I’m having difficulty parsing because of how things are called “profiles”, I’m a bit lost on your suggestion. :+1:

Hi @mattdm, any other follow-ups you had for this thread?

Ah! We mean the user profiles that appear on the Discourse profiles for Ask Fedora and this website. If you click on my profile picture, you will see a profile preview. By clicking on my name in the preview, you can see my full profile.

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I was hoping to see more feedback from the DEI team. In absence of that, I’m inclined to go ahead with limited options as above.

Thanks for clarifying. :slight_smile:

Is there more discussion on this point? It’s new to me, I had been under the impression free-form fields were generally not an issue for pronouns, but I’m reading this as: “people write inappropriate things in this field that need to be moderated”. Is that a correct reading?

To clarify, this point is important for MusicBrainz (an online database for queries), and not as important for Fedora forums, correct? As in, we don’t actually need structured data from pronouns for any purpose?

@mattdm I don’t know about on Ask Fedora, but on this site the help text may actually encourage witticism in this regard:

How should people refer to you?

Maybe an option could be to change that language to something more like:

Which personal pronoun should people use to refer to you?

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Sorry for the limited interaction…
My thoughts were inline with the meeting discussion of “using the preset options suggested and letting someone use the profile to specify other pronouns.”
so +1 to your idea

As a marginalized minority myself I find it the little hypocritical to prescribe specific approved pronouns as receiving higher credulity than others.

If you’re really trying to be diverse you have to simply accept whatever pronouns a person wants to use.

Forcing people to identify as he she or them instead of the product of their choice is hateful. Even if it is unintentional. It marginalizes vulnerable communities.

The field should remain free form text. Or it should be removed completely and people can use their profile to declare a pronouns if they so choose.

Calling someone’s pronoun choice “cringe”, frankly, is hate speech.

Hey, Thank you for your input :slight_smile:

I am guessing there is a little confusion here.
Matthew is not calling people’s pronouns cringe but trolls who use the opportunity to use the free form to come up with something funny (they often claim it’s clever and funny)

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You can read exactly what I wrote as quoted by Justin in the top message here. I am not referring anyone’s actual pronoun choices.

@b3y I see that you’ve used the free-form field to write “Use whatever pronoun you want to describe me. As a rational adult I’m not going to complain about your choice of pronoun.” This isn’t what I was referring to, but I also do not think this is a good use of the field. Rather than simply describing the way in which you would like to be referred to you’ve introduced a judgment which can be read as implying that people who do care about such things are not “rational adults”.

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That field, in any system, is for people to express their identity… Then it is inappropriate to limit that expression to just a subset of “approved” identities.

“Approved” by whom? It could be read such that someone is more qualified than the profile owner to arbitrate what is a legitimate identity and what isn’t, and that’s … problematic…

And we must be careful to remain cognizant that any use of (most uses of) fields like these “can be read as introducing a judgement”. Judgements by the operators of the systems, and judgements by the users of the fields, whom may agree, or may not…

If we say we want diversity, we need to welcome this diversity of viewpoint, as well.

Bottom line:
These fields introduce social tension, and sew unwelcomness, which does not further the productive community for which the various forums were formed. These fields are a value judgement by themselves which distracts users from the shared community purpose of the forums. And that is "a bad thing"™️.

I would posit that the purpose of Fedora isn’t to explore human sexuality and sexual identities. So it seems inappropriate that such is featured so front and center. The profile settings don’t even ask if we identify as a KDE or Gnome user. Firefox or Chrome. Wayland or X11, or any other if the dozens of things more germane to being a foss user.

I actually did a survey of the pronouns used with the free form field as used inside RH in our directory, and posted the result on the pull request, see As a registered user, I want to record the pronoun I use so people use the right one when discussing with me · Issue #220 · fedora-infra/noggin · GitHub

The result back in the day was that the free input form resulted in more people adding “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” type of text, or more people confused by the form itself (eg, as I said, some folks understood this as the place to add title, like “doctor”, and there is culture and language where pronouns are different).

I doubt the results would be different now and be different in Fedora (in fact, i would expect them to be even worst, because at least, in RH, there is a HR department and a clear mandate to comply or not get paid) , so protecting people from mockery by restricting is a unfortunate tradeoff that is needed.

By “more people”, it was “I found 50 to 70 people clearly misusing the system” vs “1 or 2 people using it for neo pronouns”, on a sample of 3000 users, just to give a idea of the amount of moderation needed. RH was around 16 000 peoples at that time, I think there is at least 2000 Fedora contributors, and a lot more people having a account.

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Gender identity is not comparable to choice of desktop software or web browser.

I am not proposing limiting to just an approved “set of identities” — the “other” option will remain. Diversity of viewpoints is also welcome, and I am happy to engage constructively on this. I recognize that not everyone will want to use this field, which is why I also suggest the ability to leave it blank.

In addition to helping Fedora be more welcoming to trans people — and let me be crystal-clear: trans people are welcome in Fedora and that isn’t up for debate — it helps people from different cultures and languages. Here’s a true story: when I started at Red Hat, video calls weren’t common. My boss at the time (in charge of all of Red Hat Enterprise Linux) was Denise. Red Hat has a large engineering office in the Czech Republic, and when she first visited there, a large number of people were surprised to learn that she was a woman — they knew “Dennis” as a male name, and just assumed that this was a variant of that. And conversely, there are many names from non-English-speaking countries where I have no idea whether they are traditionally attached to a particular gender. While not everyone cares, it’s generally rude to misgender someone, and this helps.

And of course that’s not even considering that we don’t require real names here, and aliases and usernames can be very ambiguous. If you want that, that’s cool — but if you don’t, there’s an option.

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Assuming positive intent also helps. I think we would all have a lot more peace, harmony, and productivity if we all got in to the habit of not trying to be upset all the time.

Being that we can nevercontrol other people’s words and actions as well as we can control our own feelings, the later makes more sense.

I’ve had people assume the incorrect gender for me because my name does not indicate one gender or the other. As well people have assumed the wrong gender for me because my marriage/spouse is not a the common orientation.

Unless the speaker is specifically calling for harm upon me or intentionally using my gender identity derogatorily, I have no business getting upset. And it brings great peace to not even “correct” them because unless they’re my doctor it truly doesn’t matter.

Asking folks to assume good intent can actually undermine diversity & inclusion. Here is one article, but there are more on the topic.

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Thanks, I’ve read that before addressing this discussion actually, and a couple others linked from pagure. It’s well written. But it’s an opinion.
They name the very website that hosts it “The Bias” for what that’s worth. No doubt there are just as many opinion pieces that disagree or have other takes on the matter. And that’s okay. And it’s neither very diverse nor inclusive to impose one person’s opinion over another.

Here’s my take, based on experience: “assume good intentions”, as you explain, is a good attitude to have and approach to take when interacting with others as a person. As a project, though, well, the fact is there are people with less than good intentions, and we do encounter them.

From an organizational perspective, rather than “assume good intentions”, it might be better to say expect good intentions. That is, everyone who is participating in the project has a duty to interact in a positive way. That’s part of the “pledge” in our code of conduct.

But, “intentions” are an internal matter: we can’t see them, and of course bad actors commonly claim good intentions. Sometimes, they may even have good intentions. So, instead, we need to focus on impact — what happened and what resulted. No matter what you intend, what do your actions and words do? How do they affect others and the project?

With that in mind, returning to the topic at hand: Some people using the free-form field for objectively silly things may have good intent — or at least, neutral intent. Or using it overtly to make a statement of opinion about the practice. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s not what the field is for. [1] And the impact is that when the field is misused, it can’t serve its intended purpose.


  1. You can put whatever you want in your profile (within the bounds of the site rules, of course) — that’s what that is for. ↩︎

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In any case: this discussion has been open for several months. Thank you everyone for your feedback. I have implemented the change.

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