Explainer: Quinn, CP Style and “they/them”

Featured image: Quinn becomes the first non-binary/trans athlete in Olympic history as part of Canada’s National Team. Flickr/Canada Soccer

Quinn, Canadian Press Style and the Singular “They/Them”

On July 21, 2021 in Sapporo, Japan, Quinn hit the pitch with the Canadian (officially) Women’s National Team to kick off the Olympic Soccer tournament against the hosts from Japan. At that moment they became the first non-binary/trans athlete to compete in an Olympic Games. Then on August 6, after a thrilling shootout against Sweden, they became the first non-binary/trans Olympic medalist and Olympic champion.

Quinn came out publicly in an Instagram post last September, when they began to use the singular “they/them” when others referred to them in third-person.

For them, coming out and requiring the singular “they” was firstly about mental health and accuracy. “I knew I couldn’t be presented in the media and to fans and on my team as someone that I wasn’t,” they told a Seattle-based writer (their club team is based in Tacoma, WA). “In order to continue playing sports and be in those spaces and be happy, that was something that I needed to do.” But they have a larger vision in mind: the original Instagram post was about educating and making space for others. “I want to use my platform,” they said on Trans Sporter Room podcast. “One of the reasons I came out was to use my platform and I’m hoping with my voice can help uplift other trans voices in our community.”

The CBC commentators intended to refer to Quinn as “they/them” for the entirety of the Olympic tournament, with mixed success. Most commentators stayed consistently true to Quinn’s preferred pronouns, but a few were notoriously forgetful. More to the point, those in charge of the broadcast had made the clear editorial decision to employ the singular “they” for Quinn and proceeded without (intentional) controversy.

Old habits die hard, and while there’s strong evidence for centuries-long use of “they” as a singular pronoun, the use of singular “they” as a Canadian journalism standard is relatively new. Our American counterpart, the Associated Press, hesitatingly introduced a “limited use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun” In 2017. But only two years later, CBC’s As It Happens informed us of Merriam-Webster’s groundbreaking inclusion of “they” as a singular pronoun for non-binary and transgender individuals.

The 18th edition of the Canadian Press Stylebook was published six months after the American AP Stylebook, in January 2018. It had a trickle-down impact on gender issues in Canadian sports broadcasting. Three sections in the CP Stylebook are relevant to Quinn and our respect for their gender identity:

  • “Sports…More than a game” (p 160), especially #1: “A sports writer who reports only what happens on the field…and ignores what takes place off it is being negligent.” In other words, all sports are connected to the human contexts in which athletes, coaches, staff and fans exist.
  • “Women in sports” (p 162) directly pushes for gender equality in reporting. This has been relevant in Canadian soccer reporting specifically for a while. The success of the Canadian women’s program is an attention-grabbing story for both on-field reasons (the success itself) and off-field reasons of gender equality and representation. Broadcasters will need to make a greater effort to expand this impetus for representation to non-binary/trans concerns.
  • The CP Stylebook itself suggests that expanded impetus by following the AP Stylebook’s introduction of a singular “they/them,” albeit meekly and with the qualification that this usage can be confusing: “confirm with the person how they [note its use here] wish to be described…” but “make generous use of the person’s chosen name as an alternative in order to foster as much clarity as possible.”

Finally, CBC’s own standards guide addresses the question in brief terms. According to their “Journalistic Standards and Practices” page, current in November 2021, they claim: ““Our vocabulary choices are consistent with equal rights. Our language reflects equality of the sexes and we prefer inclusive forms where they are not prohibitively cumbersome….When a minority group is referred to, the vocabulary is chosen with care and with consideration for changes in the language.” (See “Language, Respect and Absence of Prejudice.”)

Ultimately, real-world experience of speech is the best test of clarity or confusion, adequate representation or prohibitive awkwardness. Watching Quinn compete for Canada in the Olympics and OL Reign in the National Women’s Soccer League has borne the reverse of style guides reservations. In a soccer broadcast as in everyday speech, constantly saying someone’s name is the unwieldy and cumbersome option, which is why pronouns are the standard for every other player, and why they exist in the first place. Soccer fans who know Quinn’s story and the importance of the singular “they” can easily deduce its meaning from context, and those who need more time and more convincing receive the opportunity to warm up to it.

Published by Matthew Neugebauer

MA in Theology, Anglican, Star Wars #Prequelist, Toronto FC Supporter

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