The usefulness of gender neutral language

Simon Croft, Director of Educational and Professional Services at Gendered Intelligence, shares his thoughts on how using gender neutral language can help to make everyone feel included and how small changes to the way we address people can make a big difference. 

Gendered terms are some of the most common words we use – pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘she’, titles like ‘Mr’ and ‘Miss’ and honorifics like ‘Sir and ‘Madam’. Gender is also present in collective terms such as ‘ladies and gentlemen’, ‘girls’ and ‘lads’.

There’s nothing wrong with using gendered terms, once you know what a person’s chosen terms are. Before we have that information, then gender neutral, or to put it another way, universally inclusive, language is how to ensure we don’t misgender anyone.

Misgendering means referring to someone with a gendered term that doesn’t match their gender identity, for example referring to a trans woman as ‘Sir’, a trans man as ‘she’, or a non-binary person as ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’.

Many trans people find it extremely validating when their chosen gendered terms are used.  I can still remember how amazing it felt when people first said ‘he’ to me, even though it’s now over 20 years ago.  So using gendered terms correctly can be a really supportive thing.

Having other people refer to you with the correct gender is something that most people take for granted and therefore never notice.  If you aren’t trans (or someone who is regularly misgendered), it’s quite likely you haven’t noticed just how often other people decide what gender you are and then use corresponding gendered language, but if you make an effort to try and notice for a day or two, you’ll see how pervasive it is.

Once, after I’d delivered a training session where we’d spoken about the subject, my contact showed me back to reception where I handed in my visitor’s pass. “Thank you, gentlemen,” said the receptionist.  As we turned away toward the exit, my contact said “Gosh!  I would never have noticed that before…  I see what you mean!”

Misgendering is one of the most common issues trans people encounter.  For some people it happens multiple times each day, dozens of times each week, hundreds of times each month.  This has a cumulative effect.  It’s like being bitten by mosquitoes – one bite you can shrug off; a dozen is really annoying; a hundred and you’ll be feeling really unwell.

“I’m usually misgendered (miss / she / ma’am) and it’s exhausting and invalidating. I’m left in a position to either correct them which is awkward for everyone involved…, or to feel sad and invalidated…” Trans-masculine participant in a GI survey

It costs nothing, apart from a little effort and mindfulness, to change our language to be inclusive of everyone. This isn’t trans-specific – there are plenty of women who don’t like to be called ‘ladies’; plenty of ladies who don’t like to be called ‘women’; plenty of men who find ‘Sir’ too formal; plenty of people who find their first name too informal – it just shows we need to ask.

Universally inclusive language need not be clumsy. Changing ‘Good morning, ladies and gentleman” to “Good morning everyone” will go unnoticed by most people.  But the people who are not ‘ladies’ or ‘gentleman’, such as non-binary people really will notice the difference.

There are plenty of universal terms you can use.  A few might include: people, folk, everyone, colleagues, staff, workers, employees, clients, customers, beneficiaries, visitors, students, pupils, children…  If you need to talk about relationships, then terms such as sibling, parent, child and partner are very useful.  These terms include LGB people too – not assuming for example, that the partner of a woman is a man, or that parents are a male/female couple.

It doesn’t take long to come up with a set of universal terms that work for your particular setting – three or four people getting together for ten minutes is likely to produce a very workable list.

So our top tip is start with universal /gender neutral language, until you find out what gendered terms people have chosen.  That way, everyone is respected.

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Transgender Day of Visibility

On being visibly trans (or not)

One of our volunteers has written about their own difficult relationship to visibility for TDOV (Trans Day of Visibility), which is celebrated every year on the 31st of March. 

It’s a quiet night (or very early morning) in the summer of 2011 and I’m sitting hunched over a laptop I’ve borrowed (stolen) from my mum for the night, on an internet deep dive into all things trans. I scroll past the faces of young trans men taking their first shots of testosterone, waking up from top surgery for the first time, even just selfies they’ve taken showing how happy they are post-‘transition’, and it’s like I’m seeing a reflection of myself, or of what I wanted for myself, in the future.

Almost in the exact same moment I make the connection that I myself am trans, I quickly and hastily decide that it’s also a secret that I want to take to the grave. Oh, not that I thought there was anything wrong with being trans, instead it was just… Not something I felt like I should share. A simple preference about what I chose to share about myself, right? Looking back, I can recognise that what I was actually feeling was a severe amount of internalised transphobia, and an unhealthy dose of shame.

I was afraid of judgement, and what cis people would think of me, and how they would perceive me from there on, and, and, and……. The ‘ands’ were endless, and each one weighed down on me so much that I went about my transition as secretively as possible. I told my closest friends at school, and my family, then went to university far far away from home, where I socially transitioned all in one go, and god forbid any cis person suggest I was trans.

Whenever I hung around the other trans people I’d met at university, it was like a breath of fresh air because for once I didn’t have to hide a huge part of myself, but at the same time it was hard not to listen to the dark voice in the back of my head was whispering ‘careful, if you hang out with these people too much where people can see, people might think you’re trans’. Past self, you idiot, you are trans. And there’s nothing wrong with being trans. There’s nothing wrong with being visibly trans.

I was so terrified of ‘cis judgement’ and thinking of things from the ‘cis perspective’ that I’d forgotten to even view things from my own trans one. I was prioritising the thoughts and opinions of an imaginary hivemind I had dubbed ‘The Cis’ over my own well-being, and it was unhealthy.

But I couldn’t help but remember how happy and free my trans friends seemed – sure they had to deal with discrimination, but it wasn’t like my closeted bubble was entirely discrimination-free. And my cis friends were nice, accepting people, nothing like the ‘The Cis’ hivemind I’d formed in my mind…

Then Trans Visibility Day came round. I’d almost forgotten it was that ‘today’, but when I checked my phone I was stunned.I saw so many happy and joyful trans people of all walks of life all over my social media feeds, full of pride and absolutely radiant. It was like looking at a (much more diverse) recreation of that same moment that made me realise I was trans in the first place.

I couldn’t help but remember how earnestly I had wanted to one day post my own transition photos with pride. I wondered what my past self would think of how I had made it to a point where I was proud with how much I had grown, and how far the community had come, but I hadn’t posted a thing.

I couldn’t help but wonder where I would even be as a person, if the original members of the trans community had done the same as I had, and stayed silent about their experiences.

Transgender Day of Visibility: a day to celebrate trans lives, embrace our diverse community and even raise awareness of the struggles we still face. A day to make ourselves heard, so that not only cis people can listen and learn, but so the young trans generation can see a bright and happy future for themselves.

I was struck with a thought, a dream I’d had as a young trans man, of being settled on the beach on a hot summer day with my dream husband and our circle of friends, enjoying a barbeque and laughing as we all chickened out of actually swimming in the sea. I would have been shirtless, because of course, and my top surgery scars would be visibly on show (while of course sun-screen would be well applied).

Though I had no way of knowing, in my dream a young trans person would have seen that and felt a little more hopeful about being trans. It’s something I desperately wish I had seen when I was younger, and something that I wished I could give to a young trans person out there even more.

It would be perhaps too perfect an ending to this if I’d ended my TDOV by making my own post, officially coming out and ‘accepting myself’. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t. But I did reach out to my community. I made new friendships with trans people across the world, and even started volunteering with a trans charity. I’ve been more vocal about my support of trans issues, and managed to squash down that voice in my head that always made me so wary of what ‘The Cis’ would think. Maybe I’ll even add a trans pride patch next to the gay pride patch on my jacket.

To any trans people out there reading this who are in a similar situation to what I faced: I know that there’s safety in silence, and you should think about your own well-being and safety. But there’s also joy in being vocal. With visibility, you can help the world seem like a brighter place to a young trans person in need.

 

Gendered Intelligence responds to press enquiry

Today we received a press enquiry from the Times that makes further allegations about Gendered Intelligence and our relationship with the Tavistock and its gender identity service for children and young people. We recently addressed similar allegations made by the Sunday Times. Mermaids has also responded to this enquiry.

We are extremely disappointed that our professional relationship with the GIDS team has been called into question and that the experiences of trans and gender diverse young people and their families continue to be undermined.

We have a professional relationship with the GIDS team. Gendered Intelligence has attended GIDS family days in the past to take part in panel discussions for young people and families to showcase the many varied experiences of gender. These have also involved gender nonconforming people who aren’t trans and trans people who do not undergo medical transition

Gendered Intelligence has been working with young people and their families for over a decade. As an organisation, our aim is to ensure that all young people can feel safe and supported in school, at home and in public. We take our duty of care to all young people seriously, including safeguarding, and encourage other organisations to do so too. Our support of young people sits within an established and recognised youth work practice framework.

With the right support, young trans people can flourish. We recognise that medical intervention is not right for all young trans and gender diverse young people. Young people’s exploration and expression of their gender identity is valid at all stages, no matter where it leads. Equally, access to hormone blockers can be life-saving for some young trans people. Our youth groups provide a safe and supportive space where young people can explore these vital questions. We provide space where it is ok to be uncertain – this is particularly important for young people who are constantly asked to prove their gender identity to adults.

Fundamentally, it is discrimination, prejudice and lack of understanding that creates the biggest problem for trans and gender diverse young people. Over two-thirds of trans pupils are bullied for being trans at school. When young people come to our youth groups, they find recognition, understanding and validation. They leave feeling seen, with new friends and a sense of pride.

But we can’t protect young trans people from the outside world entirely. Our task is to work together to transform society so it not only tolerates but celebrates gender diversity in all its forms. That is the only way that we will make life safe for all young people.