For about two weeks, I’ve been working on a profile of Josie Herrera, an MU Homecoming candidate who identifies as gender queer. And it’s been a huge learning experience for me, both as a journalist and as a person. But I wouldn’t say it had a happy ending, exactly.
First things first: gender queer, for Josie, means not identifying as a man or woman, but instead somewhere in the middle, with parts of both. Josie was born female, but feels more comfortable in masculine settings. So when Josie decided to run for Homecoming Royalty, it was as a king, not a queen. That was cool with Mizzou (which is amazingly progressive for a school in the Midwest, I think), so Josie’s a king candidate.
As far as anyone knows, a person who identifies as something other than cisgender has never been a member of Homecoming Royalty before. And that’s why I wrote the story.
Writing about Josie was a challenge in itself. Because how do I, as someone whose sex and gender fit neatly into American social expectations, even begin to understand what it’s like to wake up one morning feeling strange in my own body? To live 20 years as a woman, and then realize that maybe that isn’t what I’m really comfortable doing? That’s a feeling that I will probably never experience. And I’m lucky to not have to face that. Josie does, and is coming-out in that way on a national stage as a Homecoming king.
On top of that, Josie prefers the pronoun “they,” and that’s a problem. So I was stuck between honoring how Josie wants to identify, and reader clarity. “They” is plural and grammatically incorrect to use in reference to one person. But it’s what Josie wants. But will readers get it? Will it be too confusing; will people just leave the page when faced with relating a plural pronoun to a singular person? I didn’t know. My editor didn’t know.
We ended up taking the discussion to the morning budget meeting, where writers and editors discuss stories and other things. The general consensus was to use “they,” even if it meant some grammatical confusion. Some people said it was incorrect, but ultimately we had to respect what Josie wanted. We did the best we could to use Josie’s preferred pronoun while avoiding reader confusion. Liz talks about that process in this Dear Readers piece.
I’ve never been as careful with a story as I was with Josie’s. And I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous for it to be published — my heart was pounding from the moment I woke up on Thursday (when it went up online) until I went to sleep late that night. At that day’s budget meeting, we looked at and talked about my story.
My editor asked me to explain why I was so worried, and I said I was terrified that I would be offensive in a way that I wouldn’t even know was possible. Call me a member of the “liberal media” or whatever, but I’m an ally to the LGBTQ community. And I never want to be another obstacle to people who already deal with unfairness and prejudice and other bullshit on a daily basis. I’m not here to add to anyone’s struggle.
There were hardly any problems with the online story. There were a few clarifications we needed to make, but nothing exploded, and I figured the worst of it was over.
That night, the print side of the newsroom was putting together Friday’s issue. Josie was the front page story. I stayed in the newsroom until around 9 p.m. to read over headlines and things like that. I was even on the phone with the page designer at 11:30 p.m., answering questions about transgender vs. gender queer, and if the more general term, transgender, was entirely correct to say in a headline without further explanation. I was running everything by Josie in the middle of the night. When I went to bed, I knew what all of the headlines said, I knew what the subheads said, I knew what the graphic said, I knew what the photo captions said, and I knew what I had said in the actual body of the story.
I kid you not — I had a nightmare that night that when I went to grab the paper on Friday, the headline had turned into something very gendered, like “Herrera says she is excited about her run for king.” Then I woke up, and I had a text message from my editor asking me to call her.
And, somehow, the eighth word of the first paragraph was “she.” And that paragraph was in larger type than any other body type on the page. And “she” just jumped right off the page. And it was directly under my byline, even though I never wrote that word. Story by Molly Duffy. She. She. She. And I don’t think I’ve ever been more frustrated than I was on Friday. I cried and screamed and hit things, and when I walked into the budget meeting on Friday, I swear it got dead quiet and when I finally looked up from my coffee, half the room was staring at me. I’m usually one to look on the bright side. That was not happening on Friday morning.
It was just that one sentence. Everything else was fine and untouched, like it was supposed to be. Later in the story it even uses “they” and explains why. But in the fucking first sentence, it’s wrong. Thankfully, no one touched the online version of the story, at least.
I know that the change was done at the last second and in a grammatical sense. Someone thought a sentence was awkward and tried to fix it. The change did not at all have a political or hateful intention. And I’m writing this blog because I don’t know how else to tell people that NO ONE meant to refer to Josie as “she” against their wishes. The answer that came from every discussion we had about the pronoun was to use “they.” At the very least, to never use “he” or “she.” But somehow we printed “she.” Everyone in the newsroom wishes that did not happen. No one wanted to say “she.” And damn it, I don’t know, I guess you can talk to 30 people in a room and collectively agree what to do, make that decision as clear as possible to everyone who could touch the story, and still end up with a stupid mistake.
I’m sorry is the point of this whole thing. I’m sorry, and this is how that mistake happened. To be completely honest, I’m still not completely sure how/when the wrong pronoun was added to the first sentence. But it wasn’t on purpose.