Gender Inclusive Language and Why It Matters
Language has the power to make others feel included, seen and empowered. But for that to be a reality, we have to actively and attentively change the way that we communicate. Gender-inclusive language is not something that has been normalized or taught in our educational system, so it is up to us to UN-learn gendered and exclusionary language.
But, why does this matter? Words are just, well, words. Not so much. It matters because sexism is deeply engrained in our society. It matters because not everyone identifies as exclusively male or female. It matters because our daily language in America often makes people feel as if their gender is not valid.
In order to fully understand this, it is important that individuals take some time to unpack the concept of gender. There are three main components to gender: these include sex assigned at birth, gender identity and gender expression. Anytime a baby is born the doctor labels it either male or female, based on external genitalia of the baby. Yet often times, babies do not neatly fit into the boxes we’ve defined as “male” or “female”. 1.7% of the population is actually born intersex, meaning with a combination of male/female biological characteristics, such as chromosomes or genitalia (United Nations).
Adults often assume that the gender identity of babies will align with the sex they were assigned at birth. But sometimes a person’s internal sense of gender does not match with the sex they have been assigned at birth, making a person “transgender”. For example, perhaps they were assigned female at birth (AFAB) and identify as male, or they were assigned male at birth (AMAB) and now they neither identify as male or female but instead as “non-binary’, or a little of both.
The third component to explaining gender is understanding the importance of how a person communicates their gender, gender expression, (i.e. dress, speech, mannerisms, social behavior, etc.). For example, you can have short hair and a deep voice and identify as a girl or have long hair and wear skirts but still identify as a boy. Individuals know their own internal sense of gender and we must trust them on this, and allow for individuals to express their gender however they would like.
The first step to using gender-inclusive language is to never assume someone’s gender based on how they express or present themselves. Two simple ways you can do this are through becoming familiar with pronouns and consistently using gender neutral language.
Incorporating gender-inclusive language into your personal and professional life may not be easy, but it is important to put in the effort to change your habits. It may not seem like a big deal, but it truly can mean the world to a person who is transgender or gender non-conforming. Remember, practice, practice, practice!
We all use pronouns, whether we realize it or not. Most people who identify as women, use “she/her/hers” pronouns. For example, Susan is making some coffee in the kitchen. She put creamer in her coffee. Sometimes, people who identify as “non-binary” use pronouns such as “they/them/theirs” and it is incredibly important that we honor these pronouns because this validates this person’s identity. Just because someone presents as stereotypically “female” doesn’t necessarily mean that they use “she/her/hers” as their pronouns. Some key things to keep in mind:
- Sometimes people just don’t want to share their pronouns and that’s fine. Usually it’s safe to use they/them/theirs unless that person tells you otherwise.
- If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, simply ask politely! It may feel awkward at first but it shows that you care and validate people of all genders.
- If you make a mistake, don’t make it a huge deal. Just apologize quickly, correct yourself, and move on.
- Hold those around you accountable for their language. Just because a person who is transgender isn’t in the room, this doesn’t mean it’s okay to not respect their pronouns or identity.
- Practice makes perfect! You can give a house plant a name and pronouns. You can be practice using they/them/theirs pronouns for everyone you meet until you know their correct pronouns.
Gender Neutral Language 101:
Not only is it important not to assume the gender of another person, but you should also not assume the sexual orientation of a person or the gender of a person in a particular occupation (i.e. doctor is male and teacher is female). Some things to keep in mind:
By Alayna Shaw, Corps for a Change Program Coordinator