The happy case of pronouns and HTML

The thing about the internet is, we own its definition, expression and message. That’s the royal we, the hard-to-pin-down collective we all together form. I love so much when this amorphous sprite of unity coalesces suddenly to correct an inequality. On Dec 15, Alice Boxhall noted a disparity in the use of gendered pronouns in the WHATWG HTML spec.

After reading this I thought, “Well certainly this spec must be in a public repo somewhere.” So I found the repo and proposed a Pull Request to swap all the male pronouns for female pronouns. It was done with some good amount of cheek given that some of the changes introduced inconsistent gender pronouns for known historical figures, such as Nero.

I wanted to point out just how imbalanced the situation was. Within hours, Philip Jägenstedt and Ian Hickson had reviewed the Pull Request (and I immediately regretted my cheekiness =D ). The comments they proposed were constructive and much to my delight, the PR itself was greeted with enthusiasm. Hurray internet!

I promised to review the comments and update the PR later that evening. In those ensuing hours, Ⓣab Ⓐtkins-Ⓑittner jumped into the fray and proposed changing the male pronouns to gender-neutral pronouns: they, them, themselves.

And I must say, I much prefer neutral pronouns to gendered pronouns. They (should?) offer fewer contentions for debate and overall, my gender-queer nature just prefers to avoid the issue of gendering where possible and especially in technical documents.

I closed up my PR and encouraged Tab to reopen their PR, which they’d closed thinking mine, having come first chronologically, had super-position (I assume).

And there the issue sat over night from my perspective. In the passing time, Simon Pieters proposed changing the gender pronouns of the “Fisherman” example.

We ultimately got two commits — c3c407 and 24ce41 — and a to-be-committed PR — PR#409 , a continuation of PRs #405 and #407 — that begin to correct the imbalance of gender representation in the spec. Representation in academic and technical documents will always involve debate and negotiation. Critically, a community that is willing to acknowledge and act to correct the discrepancies is one that will adapt with our evolving understanding of gender and gender expression.

I’ve not worked with the HTML crowd before this interaction. My experience has been wholly positive and for this I thank the folks involved. The engagement and respect is truly appreciated.