Wikipedia Editor Temporarily Banned for Criticizing Use of ‘Tree’ as Pronoun

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The Wikipedia page for actor Keiynan Lonsdale became a battlefield in the fight over “preferred pronouns” due to a Twitter thread noting Lonsdale once suggested “tree” as his preferred pronoun. Despite doubts about Lonsdale’s sincerity, editors repeatedly changed the male pronouns on his article to “tree” this past week until an editor sought a compromise by removing pronouns entirely. One editor who criticized the move and denigrated the idea of “tree” as a pronoun was banned for a week.

Disputes over LGBT issues on Wikipedia have continuously moved towards greater restrictions on the speech of editors with the recently approved “code of conduct” specifically requiring the use of “preferred pronouns” on Wikipedia and affiliated sites.

Lonsdale is an Australian actor who played the Wally West iteration of the Flash in the CW television series about the DC comic book superhero. During a 2018 discussion on Instagram Lonsdale responded to a fan query about his sexuality by also referencing preferred pronouns saying: “I don’t want to go by ‘he’ anymore, I just want to go by ‘tree.’ I want people to call me ‘tree,’ because we all come from trees . . . I want to call my friends ‘tree’ and me ‘tree’ and everyone ‘tree.’ So, I think, like now, when people ask me what my preferred pronoun is, I’m going to say ‘tree.’”

Editors on Wikipedia have tried to add the “tree” pronoun to Lonsdale’s page on Wikipedia since then, and were repeatedly rejected. While Wikipedia guidelines currently expect editors to use preferred pronouns for transgender individuals in certain cases, non-standard pronouns or “neopronouns” have been contentious and editors have favored using gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” instead. Fighting over Lonsdale’s “tree” pronoun claims on his Wikipedia page intensified after a viral Twitter thread brought up the past comments and encouraged people to use “tree” as the pronoun for Lonsdale:

A flurry of people subsequently descended on the article to change the male pronouns to “tree” and established editors repeatedly undid these changes. Other than established editors undoing the pronoun changes the anti-vandalism bot account “ClueBot” also undid edits changing Lonsdale’s male pronouns in the article to “tree” after automatically detecting the edits as possible vandalism. The Twitter user who began the thread about Lonsdale’s pronoun comments praised those trying to change the pronouns on the Wikipedia article to “tree” and suggested editors were “transphobes” for undoing the edits:

With people continuing to restore the pronoun change, an administrator used his special privileges to lock or “protect” the article for a few days, preventing new accounts and unregistered users from editing Lonsdale’s page. However, the lock still allowed editors with more experience to edit the page and several such accounts also restored the pronoun change only for their edits to be undone as well. Administrator Molly White, known as “GorillaWarfare” on Wikipedia, increased the protection level on the page to lock out editors with accounts less than a month old or that have made fewer than 500 edits. White has also served several years on the Arbitration Committee, often likened to a Supreme Court.

Shortly after imposing the stricter lock on the page, White removed pronouns from Lonsdale’s article entirely, citing this as a compromise that would “avoid using the wrong pronouns” without using pronouns other editors would reject. White also added Lonsdale’s pronoun comments to the article. In explaining the move, White took Lonsdale as sincere and rejected using a gender-neutral alternative such as “they” claiming it was not appropriate “for those who have specified different pronouns.” Editor “EEng” objected to this remark by disputing that Lonsdale was even serious, noting his PR representatives consistently used male pronouns, and added: “The idea that tree is a pronoun is, bluntly, idiocy.”

In the ensuing conversation, White repeatedly suggested Lonsdale was sincere in which case she argued the “tree” pronoun should be respected and if “tree” would not be used as a pronoun then no pronouns should be used. When White argued to another user that avoiding pronouns was the only way to avoid potentially using the “wrong pronouns” for Lonsdale, EEng argued doing so means Wikipedia “makes itself look like a confederacy of dunces, and exposes itself to well-deserved ridicule” by seriously treating “tree” as a pronoun.

After a user suggested not using “tree” as Lonsdale’s pronoun was “transphobic” as well, EEng retorted that using “tree” as a pronoun “is lunacy. It’s stupid. Cretinism.” He further suggested those pushing it might be engaged in a hoax to discredit Wikipedia. EEng’s remark was then removed by White as “insulting” and he restored it with words such as “lunacy” and “idiotic” crossed out and replaced with “confusing and unhelpful” instead. White reported EEng hours later at a noticeboard for administrators claiming his comments violated policies on edits about living people by “ridiculing” Lonsdale and also stated they were “cruel to those who use various neopronouns.”

Half an hour later, administrator Harry Mitchell banned EEng’s account for a week and removed his comment on the discussion page for Lonsdale’s article claiming it violated the policy on edits about living people. Many editors and administrators immediately expressed support for Mitchell’s action in the discussion about the ban. Several others opposed the ban or called for its duration to be shortened, calling it an overreaction or defending EEng’s comments as criticizing the idea of Wikipedia using “tree” as a pronoun rather than attacking Lonsdale specifically. However, even editors calling for the ban to be lifted suggested he could be banned again if he resumed his comments.

EEng stated in response to the ban that he made his comments believing Lonsdale never intended “tree” actually be used for his pronouns, but also said he opposed using such claimed pronouns on Wikipedia. He did express support for using other pronouns, including “xe/xem/xyr” pronouns. Despite his comments, EEng has generally advanced a left-wing agenda. Last year he was among other editors pushing the agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement. Then, EEng sought to censor pages about the police shooting of Rayshard Brooks, which was criticized by the movement. EEng’s profile page also includes numerous inflammatory attacks on Donald Trump, including sexual euphemisms about his wife Melania, content which has not prompted any sanctions against EEng.

Dissenting opinions about LGBT issues on Wikipedia, including on how site policy should address preferred pronouns, have been increasingly stifled. Reporting EEng, White cited as precedent a 2019 controversy regarding a satirical op-ed in Wikipedia’s main community newsletter, which mocked rigid adherence to a subject’s claimed identity. The author claimed to “come out as a trans-biological explicate manifestation of the Multiverse’s implicate reality, made of the stuff of stars” and requested the pronoun “It” with capitalization among other onerous requirements. A self-identified non-binary editor attempted to have the op-ed deleted claiming it “attacks and defames minority groups.” The op-ed was eventually retracted, but remained viewable in the page’s history.

Last year, White, who identifies as queer, was also a prominent advocate for a proposal that banned profile pages from expressing opposition to gay marriage, including statements that simply expressed support for marriage being between a man and a woman. That decision prompted widespread outcry from Christian and family organizations and prompted one Christian administrator to resign. Wikipedia’s owners, the Wikimedia Foundation, last year also proposed a code of conduct for Wikipedia and other sites it owns requiring use of preferred pronouns and otherwise advanced a left-wing identity politics agenda, including prohibiting use of “harmful” symbols. It was approved in February.

Such restrictions depart significantly from standards applied by Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee in a 2013 case regarding WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning coming out as transgender. At the time, several editors were banned from transgender disputes for “discriminatory speech” because of vulgar and sexualized comments about transgenderism, but not editors who made harsh critical comments. One editor was only banned from the topic after admitting he was a white liberal pretending to be a Black conservative and made the comments to prove Wikipedia would tolerate them. A year later, the editor was one of several pushing a left-wing agenda on articles about the GamerGate anti-corruption movement in gaming.

Increasing restrictions on editors due to left-wing identity politics follow a push by activists and corporate media for Wikipedia to resolve “inclusivity” and “diversity” issues on the site. These efforts regarding a claimed “gender gap” have been suggested by one study to have created a pro-women bias, a phenomenon the study argues could be replicated with any “diversity” agenda. Bias from administrators is a factor one academic analysis suggested as contributing to an observed left-wing bias on Wikipedia generally, a bias other studies and analyses have identified and that has been regularly criticized by the site’s co-founder.

(Disclosure: The author has previously been involved in disputes on Wikipedia with some parties referenced in this article)

T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.

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