Gender-neutral language is vital

The 14th of July was International Non-binary Day. During this time, I reflected, even more so than usual, on the use of unnecessarily gendered language in society and the hurt it causes.

Phrases like he or she, his or hers and ladies and gentlemen erase non-binary identity. They make sweeping assumptions that everyone they are describing identifies solely as a man or a woman. We will have all come across binary statements like this in our everyday lives: in lectures, in the media, in conversation.

Language that is not inclusive of non-binary people and their identities should be eradicated.

One particular example that really confuses me is where people are talking about a hypothetical person and say he or she. Not only is they easier to say, it is inclusive of everyone and is still grammatically correct in a singular form. Inclusive language is so important for the self-esteem and freedom of everyone. Not seeing yourself being represented in other people’s language is really hurtful.

As LGBTQ+ activism group Stonewall point out, lots of people already use they/them pronouns to describe people who they don’t know. They/them/theirs are the most common non-binary pronouns but there are many others that individuals may prefer. The only way to know an individuals’ pronouns are to ask them and listen to what they say. Introducing yourself and your pronouns is a great way to normalise discourse about pronouns and can really help make the environment more open. About to send an email or post something describing a friend or colleague? Normalise asking what pronouns they want you to use, even if you think you already know the answer.

When not dealing with an individual but a group or unknown person, gender-neutral language is best. Instead of ladies and gentlemen, go with everyone or guests. Instead of he or she, go with they. These linguistic changes are really important, whether they are directly being heard by non-binary people or not. This is because it opens up people’s perceptions, helps to increase visibility and reduce bias.

Shaping common language use to better represent all of society isn’t exactly a new concept. For instance, if you pick up quite an old textbook, you might find the the authors always use masculine pronouns in examples. Newer texts have a mixture of masculine and feminine pronouns to represent women as well as men. However, not enough texts use gender-neutral pronouns.

With the increasing visibility of gender-neutral pronouns, through use on badges or in email signatures, I hope that there will be an overall increase in gender-neutral language, in order to represent everyone in society.

Change your mindset, educate yourself and become a better ally.

Photo courtesy of Sharon McCutcheon

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