As of this writing, it appears that another open-source project lead has rejected a proposal to replace gendered he language with they, citing vague concerns about “politics.” (Please refrain from contacting the project about this; it’s counterproductive.)

At Oxide, one of our core values is empathy: the ability to understand others’ perspectives. I believe empathy is essential in our professional lives. While we are naturally inclined to empathize, applying it effectively is a skill that requires ongoing effort. (I certainly haven’t always been perfect at it!)

Furthermore, leaders must especially exemplify empathy, setting standards for their organizations.

It should hopefully be evident that rejecting the use of they language lacks empathy, in addition to being historically inaccurate. Shakespeare, for instance, used they as a singular pronoun, even when referring to individuals known to be male. In Act IV, Scene 3 of A Comedy of Errors, he writes:

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

The dual usage of “he” as both gendered and gender-neutral has historically been used to exclude women and nonbinary individuals. For example:

[…] although grammarians had insisted for centuries that masculine pronouns could be gender neutral, the masculine pronouns in the various state voting laws were typically interpreted to exclude women.

If you’re an open-source project lead and receive a proposal to use they language, please understand it’s not an attack on you or your project. Try to empathize with the person making the suggestion and consider the historical context, including the gender disparity in our industry and how he has been used to discriminate against those who aren’t male (even if you don’t personally do so).

I also want to emphasize that brigading a project, even with good intentions, is unlikely to be helpful. As much as possible, try approaching this issue with empathy as well. (In this case, reaching out to the project lead privately might have been more effective.)