Haasch: Start using gender-neutral language

Doing away with gendered language is a simple way to create a more inclusive space.

Palmer Haasch

Recently, I spent a weekend among the queerest group of people that I’ve ever had the privilege to be around — and by queer I don’t mean dictionary definition number one or two (“strange, odd, peculiar”) but rather number three: queer, as in “a sexual or gender identity that does not correspond to established ideas of sexuality and gender”. 

As a queer individual, it was both relieving and affirming to be around other LGBTQ people and be able to freely discuss LGBTQ topics. However, one of the most striking changes I noticed while interacting with solely other queer people as opposed to my primarily cisgender and heterosexual peers was linguistic in nature. Everyone was using gender-neutral language without even having to consciously make an effort to do so.

It’s easy to miss the fact that the language we use is often heavily gendered. Phrases like, “hey guys” or “ladies and gentlemen” are commonplace but rely on notions of gender in order to produce meaning. Furthermore, this kind of language is commonplace almost to the point of mundanity. Personally, I know that I still use gendered language on a regular basis. I say “you guys” probably multiple times a day without even thinking about it because it’s so ingrained into the way I speak and popular vernacular.

Although simple phrases like “you guys” or “his or hers” seem like they’d have little impact, they are by nature exclusionary of multiple genders, most commonly those which lie outside the gender binary. Using gendered language like the examples I’ve given not only reinforces the existence of a binary (think “his or hers”, “ladies and gentlemen” or “men and women”) but further excludes those who fall outside of it. And moreover, the number of people who fall outside the gender binary is extremely significant. Along with the fact that approximately 20 percent of youth ages 18-34 identify as LGBTQ, 12 percent of those ages 18-34 identify as not cisgender, or not with the gender that they were assigned at birth, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation organization. And even if the non-cisgender population wasn’t as large as it is, people still deserve to be included in day-to-day language. 

In any case, modifications to our regular language are incredibly simple. Start by identifying one gendered term that you use frequently. For me, it’s “guys”, whether I’m greeting friends with a quick, “hey guys” or saying something along the lines of, “wait for me, you guys” as I rush out the door after my roommates to catch the bus. After you’ve identified a term or phrase, choose a gender-neutral replacement. One of my favorite is “y’all” — it’s warm, inclusive and quick to roll off the tongue. Although it was odd to say at first, habit quickly set in and now it’s something that I say on a regular basis, making my language more inclusive in the process. 

As this year’s Trans Week of Awareness wraps up and as we celebrate Trans Day of Remembrance Monday, Nov. 20, it’s important that we work to make our language and by extension public space more inclusive for those who fall outside the gender binary. Using inclusive language like I’ve mentioned or even making “they” or “them” your default pronouns is easy and impactful – and there’s no reason why y’all should delay making a change.