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  • Writer's pictureMaxwell Benner

Gender inclusive language

The gender-neutral nurse's bathroom has always had two warnings pertaining to where menstrual products should be disposed of: one on the toilet paper holder and one on the trash can, stating:

I mentioned it to my best friend; after spending every second together, we ran out of interesting things to talk about. To my surprise, he was slightly annoyed with the writing and suggested that the words "ladies" should be changed to "AFABs" and "feminine products" changed to "menstrual products." The basis of his opinion was that it doesn't make sense to have that message in a gender-neutral bathroom worded in that way. This situation has made me question… is inclusive language actually important? What even is inclusive language? Why should I care?

What is inclusive language?

The name really says it all. Inclusive language is words and/or phrases used to avoid discriminating against specific groups of people. In this article, I’ll be more specifically exploring inclusive gendered language.

An example where inclusive language can be used:

“I really admire mothers; I can't imagine carrying a baby for 9 months.”

In this statement, the person speaking is attempting to give praise to people who give birth, or in other words, AFABS (Assigned Female at Birth). Since the word mother is heavily gendered meaning that it only refers to women, by saying this you could be excluding nonbinary and trans parents that choose to carry. The point of the statement is to give love to birthing people and has nothing to do with gender. If the statement was purposely specifically talking about women who are mothers that would be a different scenario. So, it would be more correct to use:

“I really admire birthing people; I can't imagine carrying a baby for 9 months.”

Another example where inclusive language can be used:

“Although we don’t know who wrote this passage, your assignment is to write an essay on what you think his message was.”

Assuming that the author is unknown, there’s no reason to refer to them as “his”. By doing so, the speaker is subconsciously and subtly displaying that they assume that literature is written by men, a common misogynistic ideology. The point of the statement is to instruct students to try to understand an author’s message and has nothing to do with gender. So, it would be more correct to use:

“Although we don’t know who wrote this passage, your assignment is to write an essay on what you think their message was.”

So... is gender-inclusive language actually important?

My direct answer is yes. The opposite of gender-inclusive language could be considered plain gendered language. In my examples above, the first quote of each example would be considered gendered language. The only instances in which gendered language benefits people is when it's situationally set up to give someone "gender euphoria," but using gendered language in general terms has no real purpose.

Gender euphoria is simply the happiness an individual gets from being validated in their gender identity. It isn't limited to trans people; cisgendered people can feel it too - in a similar sense. When cis men feeling their masculinity invalidated often leads to chaos, danger, and anger. They long for gender euphoria/reassurance. Everyone does. I don't think gendered language should go away completely. As a man, I really deeply enjoy terms like he/him/his, gentlemen, sir, brother, boyfriend, son, nephew, Mr., boy, and man. It makes me feel a particular kind of happiness nothing else can give me. So yes, gendered language is important in some scenarios. When speaking 1 to 1 is a great time to use gendered language (as long as you already know what the person identifies as). Nonetheless, in most situations when addressing a group of people, it makes more sense to use gender-neutral language because it's the most comfortable and the least likely to exclude/misgender anyone.

For example, addressing a room with “ladies and gentlemen '' doesn't give anyone euphoria, it only invalidates nonbinary/non-conforming people. Saying “everyone” serves the same purpose and does just as well.

Another example, is Jeff Probst, the host of Survivor, for many many years would request the contestants to come to him by saying, “come on in, guys.” A contestant, Richard, expressed his discomfort with the usage of the word guys. He thinks that it's time that the expression changes to exclude gendered language. Jeff immediately agreed, replying, “That’s a great point. And I gotta say, I love that you thought about it more… I’m with you. I want to change it. I’m glad that was the last time I will ever say it.” “Come on in, guys,” benefits no one and could be easily changed by just taking out the word guys. Although my perception of the word guys isn’t gendered, that doesn’t mean that everyone has the same connotation for the word. If that brings people like Richard some amount of discomfort then why shouldn't we change it? It has nothing to do with me or my beliefs on gender and benefits other people. I think it's a wonderful thing that we can progress toward a more accepting society.

The most common reasons people have for being against the usage of inclusive language are “things have always been this way," they don't understand its importance, and/or subconsciously, they’re afraid.

The excuse that things have always been this way is unacceptable in any situation. When I hear this viewpoint in this argument it’s usually referring to the usage of they/them pronouns, “They/them is plural. It's not grammatically correct to use it for one person.” I've seen multiple instances where teachers at Rustin, for instance, have said that. The English language has gone through an immeasurable amount of change throughout its existence. We no longer talk in olde English using words like thou, jargogle, brabble, or bumfuzzle. As time goes on English will always shift into becoming something new. New words will get made; old ones will fade away, be reclaimed, or be reinvented. The next major change our language will go through (or already has gone through) is reinventing they/them to be used more often in a singular context more often. We’ve always used they/them to refer to someone we don't know the gender of yet. “Tell them I said hi,” a simple sentence that's not new at all. The English language has never always been something concrete. It will always change. Things have not always been any particular way.

My sentiment of ‘it has nothing to do with me and helps people, so let's do it’ brings many conservative people great disdain. It's difficult for people to change small things because no one wants to go out of their comfort zone. It's scary. In fear of things messing up their contentment with society, people don't want to go out of their way to go toward a different, possibly better future. It's hard to get people to change. Most of the time we just want to be left alone and continue living how we want to. It takes more effort to change than it does to stay the same, which leads to a lot of arguing on both sides. On top of that, it's extremely difficult to articulate why inclusive language is important and how restrictive the trans experience can be. People against the use of inclusive language often are because, stubbornly, it's near impossible for them to understand how it helps people, because it doesn't help them. Giving sympathy can be draining, and like most things, it's easier to just stay the same, unsympathetic.

Why should I care?

It’s our individual job as people to make sure that we hurt the least amount of people we can. And if we can do so with such minor things like shifting small parts of language, then I don't see why we shouldn't. If calling a gender nonconforming person they/them, speaking about a group of people inclusively, or addressing a room using genderless language gives anyone the same pure joy that I get by being validated in my male identity or avoids making anyone feel excluded, then I only want to do that for the rest of my life. It’s important that as a society we grow to become more inclusive of the growing vast identities we as humans are so beautifully capable of feeling.

If you're interested in adapting to having an inclusive language vocabulary, make sure to introduce yourself with your name and pronouns, so others will know how to refer to you; when making statements that have nothing to do with gender, use genderless language; and don’t assume how anyone identifies.

I think that little things like the heavily gendered message in the nurse's gender-neutral bathrooms should change. We live in a society where it's much more common for people to identify as other things than women and still menstruate. Due to anxiety and safety, many of our trans students have to only use the nurse's bathrooms. So the message is in a spot where the most amount of trans people will see it, ironically. On a technicality, trans people that menstruate can dispose of the waste wherever they want, since it only says ladies. Although I say this jokily, changing it would be good for that reason too. Adjusting the phrasing increases inclusivity and doesn't take away from the actual content of the message.

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