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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