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Tara Lipinski misgendered Timothy LeDuc on NBC. And we can all learn from it

Nonbinary Olympic athletes continue to face misgendering issues on NBC. Lipinski’s quick correction and apology offer hope.

Figure Skating - Winter Olympics Day 12
Tara Lipinski has been lauded for her figure skating commentary. On Friday, she mistakenly misgendered American figure skater Timothy LeDuc, who is nonbinary.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

NBC again misgendered a nonbinary athlete at the Olympics.

This time it was Tara Lipinski referring to pairs figure skater Timothy LeDuc several times as “he,” when LeDuc uses “they” pronouns. Lipinski was calling the pairs figure skating short program at the Winter Olympics, in which LeDuc and partner Ashley Cain-Gribble skated beautifully to a top-10 spot headed into the free skate.

The mistake happened after weeks of conversation in the media specifically about LeDuc’s pronouns.

NBC knew this ahead of time. The team calling the competition – Lipinski, Johnny Weir and Terry Gannon – have prepared for this. NBC has correctly used LeDuc’s pronouns on social media. Weir and Lipinski both used them correctly during the broadcast. And as NBC commentators had just misgendered an Olympian – Alana Smith – last summer, people involved was aware of the situation.

Everyone knew what to do and they wanted to do the right thing.

And still a nonbinary athlete was accidentally misgendered multiple times.

To be sure, I’m not throwing stones at Lipinski from my glass house. I’m not here to do that. I’ve personally misgendered LeDuc in the last month, and other people before that. I’m not infallible in this in any way.

Lipinski isn’t just another sports commentator. For years now she has been partners with Weir, who has ignored many gender norms on national television and social media for well over a decade.

Ahead of the broadcast I had tweeted that I knew Lipinski and Weir would be all over the proper gendering of LeDuc.

“I realize that I used the wrong pronouns for Tim,” Lipinski said on-air shortly after her mistake. “I will do better. Tim you deserve that.”

She didn’t mean to make the mistake. And to her credit she caught the mistake and quickly issued a genuine apology.

Yet, the mistake was made. Several times.

It speaks to the realities facing nonbinary people in and out of sports today, that even well-intentioned people who accept them and love them, who prepare for weeks to make sure they use correct pronouns, can still misgender them.

The nonbinary people in my life – Katie Barnes at ESPN, Outsports contributor Brian Bell and others – have been so gracious when I’ve made a mistake like this. Many nonbinary people understand that they/them pronouns are new territory for a lot of us. They’ve been forgiving.

I’ve gotten better with using pronouns, and I’m sure Lipinski has gotten better too.

Yet at some point, we just have to get it right. We’ve got to stop making mistakes like this. I have to stop making mistakes like this.

“Being accurately identified is basic respect for LeDuc,” said Ross Murray of GLAAD, “but also sends a message to the increasing number of youth who are are also nonbinary and seeing a role model on the Olympic ice.”

The simmering frustration over misgendering hit home for me with a tweet from Bell ahead of NBC’s broadcast of LeDuc’s performance.

What’s painfully ironic about Lipinski’s mistake is that it came when she was talking specifically about LeDuc bringing visibility to people’s differences.

“He said he wants to make space for people who are a little different, who don’t quite fit the mold, or what is seen as normal,” Lipinski said, before catching herself, “and he just hopes he can look back on... they just hope they can look back on their career and say I know I made positive change. Well, mission accomplished.”

Some people reading this will roll their eyes about “pronouns.” Yet one insight I’ve learned from my nonbinary friends is how much hearing and seeing correct pronouns means to them.

I’m not emotionally impacted by people using “she” or “they” pronouns referring to me. For nonbinary people, correct pronouns are deeply affirming, and incorrect pronouns can be deeply hurtful and invalidating.

It’s a lesson all of society can learn something from: I care about these people, so I do what affirms who they are.

Trailblazing isn’t easy. It always takes longer than we want. The frustration so many nonbinary people must feel when they see someone like them misgendered on national television has to be reaching a boiling point. It’s hard to see how more awareness and preparation could have been done in this case.

Yet trailblazing often involves people acknowledging an honest mistake, appreciating an apology and focusing on the next opportunity for visibility and education.

That comes Saturday when LeDuc competes in the free skate, again on NBC.

This time, NBC and Lipinski have got to get it right.