In one example I came across, a post mentioned intersex. However, it also included a term used in older literature. I guess this was aimed at readers who only know the old term.

NOTE: Please avoid repeating any unwanted term in this Meta discussion, if you do not have reason to do so.

NOTE: I suggest thinking about an intersex person reading this Meta discussion. Think about not putting off him/her/them from using this site :-). That wouldn't be very nice. Thank you.

Being respectful means calling people by the name they give you. When you call people by a name they have asked you not to, it shows disrespect. There is a well-known phrase about it: "calling names", or "name-calling". The phrase is known in Stack Exchange as appearing in the old "Be Nice policy" (2014), and in the current Code of Conduct (2018/2019). The same concept has been mentioned on this Meta site.[a][b]

How should we minimize the harm caused, by posts which use an unwanted term?


  1. What is the "unwanted" term?
  2. How can I stay neutral when writing about how intersex people are treated?
  3. A specific case

1. What is the "unwanted" term?

Intersex media guide by interACT [PDF download]

Avoid: “Hermaphrodite”. This term is outdated, medically inaccurate, and is considered derogatory.

Intersex - Language (Wikipedia)

Until the mid-20th century, "hermaphrodite" was used synonymously with "intersex".[41] The distinctions "male pseudohermaphrodite", "female pseudohermaphrodite" and especially "true hermaphrodite"[97] are terms no longer used, which reflected histology (microscopic appearance) of the gonads.[98][99][100] Medical terminology has shifted not only due to concerns about language, but also a shift to understandings based on genetics.

Currently, hermaphroditism is not to be confused with intersex, as the former refers only to a specific phenotypical presentation of sex organs and the latter to a more complex combination of phenotypical and genotypical presentation. Using hermaphrodite to refer to intersex individuals is considered to be stigmatizing and misleading.[101]

Please note my argument does not treat one or another organization as authoritative in all respects. The authorities are that

  1. Some number of people tell us they absolutely do not want to be grouped under this old term.
  2. Medical language (and understandings) have changed. Where current medical perspectives are relevant, they can be explained without the obsolete term.
  3. There is better alternative language that can be used.

2. How can I stay neutral when writing about how intersex people are treated?

There is no such thing as "true neutral". Whatever you do, or whatever Christianity Stack Exchange asks users to do, it won't be that. More specifically: I claimed there is some better language than the unwanted term. I used the term intersex people to name a category of people. Is that the "correct" language? Is using any alternative phrase "offensive"?

Language is not quite that simple.

interACT Statement on Intersex Terminology

This statement outlines interACT’s position on the language used to describe intersex persons and their traits. [...]

interACT believes that people born with intersex traits ought to have the autonomy to use whichever term, or terms, they prefer when speaking about their own bodies and experiences and interACT will not prohibit, monitor or criticize the terminological preferences of people with intersex traits.

I want to point out something about that last paragraph. If interACT had used intersex people there, it would have worked against the point of that paragraph. While some interACT documents prefer to use intersex people throughout, other documents switch between these two phrases tactically, to more effectively convey understanding.

I don't think it would be a good tactic to force a strict dichotomy, where all language is either "offensive" or "correct". I look at our guidelines - again, this goes as far back as 2014. Emphasis mine:

Bigotry of any kind: Language likely to offend or alienate individuals or groups based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. will not be tolerated. [...] (Those are just a few examples; when in doubt, just don't.)

There is never a strict guarantee to avoid offence. Choosing individual words is one of the least things we can do.

Some people may be unhappy when they feel others are using their experiences for an argument, no matter what language is used. No matter what the cause is.

If the lack of a guarantee makes you uncomfortable, I ask you to also consider the full context of the quotes in part 1. Consider the relative importance of your own discomfort.

3. A specific case

Which sacraments can an intersex individual receive in the Catholic Church?

This example causes me to think there is room for improvement. Currently, there is an answer here that goes through the 1917 Code of Canon Law. It discusses implications, for people the church identified using the now-unwanted term. The answer uses the unwanted term in its own words, including in each bold section heading. The content does not explicitly mention intersex. There is no mention that the term the answer uses is unwanted, or even outdated. And that context is not provided by the question, either.

3.1 What did you try?

"When appropriate, describe what you’ve tried" - that's what Meta told me today, when I clicked the Ask Question button :-). Note, this Meta question is not a complaint about how people reacted to me personally. In that respect, I am not trying to be scrupulously balanced :-). I am offering selected highlights, and trying to avoid attacking anyone here.

I didn't have an edit suggestion for the author of this specific post. It's not a nice simple case, where I know how to suggest removing or replacing a word. In a context where Wikipedia-style rules applied, I imagine I might know how to edit to improve the content. However, in the Stack Exchange system, I also need to make sure to match the intent of the original author.

To be honest, without the author's agreement, I don't really like any of my ideas about what to do. That includes the idea of doing nothing, and letting this use of the unwanted term stand.

Sometimes post authors agree when the issue is pointed out, or at least agree using the unwanted term is a distraction which can be removed. In this case, I don't have a response from the post author.

In this case, my comment was also removed. I believe this was reasonable: I don't see leaving this argument on the main site as a good resolution. As a general rule, main-site comments are for suggestions on subject matter. Suggestions invoking site rules belong elsewhere.

So I asked a moderator about this answer. In reply: I was asked to keep in mind this site is about religion, not biology or interpersonal skills, so the verbiage may not be consistent with other worldviews.

3.2 My specific reaction

[... in disagreement with the moderator above]. Of course we can write about the worldview of the largest church in the world. Of course it is not consistent with some other worldviews. What we should judge is the way we ourselves write, including the way we use an unwanted term. Is it consistent with "Be Nice" policy? Or do we noticeably fail to meet that requirement?

From other Meta sites, I saw two posts that I thought worth looking at. On the Meta for Stack Exchange as a whole, there is a question about quoting vulgar language. A member of staff says the company ban on vulgar language has a limited exception for necessity. (Just as I phrased the warning NOTE at the start of this question). This is for "valid questions where you're actually talking about something that contains profanity".

Secondly, ELU.SE must deal with a similar issue. See the section titled "Questions which are actually about offensive language". They emphasize use/mention distinction.

As I understand it, you may not post: "The evil heretical Sourcejedi Church has been excommunicated by the Stack Exchange Church". A post should not call people evil heretics.

What you might do is carefully explain the view of group X, that group Y are evil heretics. A more acceptable post might be: "According to the Stack Exchange Church, the Sourcejedi Church are evil heretics, and they have been excommunicated".

That would apply to any Stack Exchange site. It still applies if worldview X says that "evil heretic" is their formal term, that they should be free to speak in any way they believe.

My heretic-based example is related to the example(s) of this other unwanted term. One difference in my fictional example: the writer would probably know they would offend the Sourcejedi Church. In my real example, I suspect the author was not aware there was an issue. Nevertheless, the issue exists. I will not make lists of potentially offensive words here, but this is hardly a unique situation. (As an analogy: if an S.E. poster was aware that swear words would get edited out, they would probably have preferred to choose their own alternate wording. Then they would not have included them in the first place.)

Some people are repeatedly saying that calling them this way is not being nice. They are asking other people to stop doing it. In each instance, we either choose to accept that, or to discount it, for the sake of some competing need.

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  • The two terms are not synonymous, so before instituting any ban, I'd like to know if there is acceptable terminology that can distinguish between easily noticeable physiological signs of intersex sex organs etc, from potentially undetectable (except from a DNA test) genetic intersex conditions. – curiousdannii Mar 10 at 13:39
  • @curiousdannii I do wonder whether simple "euphemism" would actually reduce the hazards in the linked example. // I have a similar worry about adding a simple warning. You could let readers know, and caution against casual repetition. But how would the warning explain a distinction between that, and what the rest of the post does? // So I invite suggestions. It's a question (and a problem statement). – sourcejedi Mar 13 at 16:43
  • To answer directly: I haven't noticed one. Various complaints against the unwanted term go "it usually suggests to people that someone has all the organs of males and females—but that is not physically possible." That matches the zoological definition. But it's a more narrow set of humans than you defined (indeed, a set of zero :). Old medical definitions relating to the term are different again as they all reference gonads, which are not necessarily "easily noticeable", and are not necessarily associated with anything else that is. – sourcejedi Mar 13 at 16:43

Before I pull the rug out from under your argument I'd like to thank you for your well written and eloquent post. We need more like these on meta, written without judgement and from a place that goes towards understanding.

Now for the rug pulling.

You say that the term is antiquated. According to whom is it antiquated? Who antiquates and de-antiquates words? By whose authority was the word antiquated?

We have one hard and fast rule about matching questions to answers on this site. And we have one hard and fast rule about no Broad Truth questions on this site that only result in opinion based answers (possibly based on an interpretation of Scripture). What this leaves us with is the requirement that the highest authority, the absolute truth as it were, is the authority that is used to answer those questions.

So if you can ask "According to the Catholic Church is it OK to be gay?" What you mean, to Catholics is, whether or not it is OK to be gay. So answers have an obligation to convey said truths of the Church using the words of the Church.

If you ask "According to the Westboro Baptist Church are all the gays going to Hell?" you may cite some fairly stinging words. I wouldn't care to redact those words (I wouldn't even remove the the from the question) because they're the words that possibly convict the Westboro Baptist Church of intolerance and hate. Are you truly going to remove those words and make them look like Girl Guides?

I answer that to edit answers to fit modernity is to raise all questions to the level of a Truth Question, which is specifically off topic for the site.

Now, what you must realize about this site before you continue down this track. We are a community of vary different sects, believers and unbelievers. I've always said this is, "the website for Christianity and all her heresies", if you hit upon one word that raises your hackles, I've hit a thousand insults to my Spiritual Mother, to the Holy Father, to Our Blessed Lord in the Eucharist to the Church, that have to be considered equally abhorrent to the sensitive soul as the one you've stumbled upon.

Lastly, and I can say this because I know he almost never visits meta, that person whom you raised an issue with, does, in fact, commonly post things that are old fashioned when it comes to Catholicism. But as G.K. Chesterton wrote:

It is true that I am of an older fashion; much that I love has been destroyed or sent into exile.

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  • If I look into the first hard rule - did you mean "matching answers to questions" instead? I don't know how I should interpret "matching questions to answers". – sourcejedi Mar 10 at 17:05
  • @sourcejedi the question to answer matching property is commutative, so it doesn't much matter which way I write it. – Peter Turner Mar 10 at 17:25

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