It’s LGBTQ Pride month and a good time to start using gender-neutral language if you haven’t started already. That’s words such as people, folks, everyone, they, them, and their, which do not indicate gender. It’s different from the expressions ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, men and women, sir, madam, and he-him-his-she-her-hers, which do indicate gender.
Why should you use gender-neutral language? Because not everyone identifies as either male or female. For some people, he or she, man or woman, and sir or madam do not fit. These individuals are “non-binary”– that is, they do not fit the either/or gender model.
Yes, it may be true that everyone in your social circle identifies as male or female. But the reason to use gender-neutral language is that not everyone beyond your circle does, and these people may turn out to be your coworkers, supervisors, employees, patients, customers, clients, constituents, volunteers, patrons, students, and students’ parents. In fact, they will become part of your larger circle if you work beyond the walls of your home.
I just finished reading a good starter guide on gender-neutral language: A Quick & Easy Guide to They-Them Pronouns, by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson. It’s written in comic-book style with Archie and Tristan as characters talking about why and how to use they/them pronouns and other gender-neutral language.
I recommend the guide, especially for its non-threatening, non-judgmental, clear comic-book explanations of why it’s important to learn about and use gender-neutral language. It also communicates poignantly about the life experience of non-binary people. For instance, it shows a day in the life of non-binary Archie, who is repeatedly assaulted with the terms girl, she, her, lady, woman, and miss. In character, Archie says, “Being misgendered all day is mentally exhausting.” They add, “To me and other people, being misgendered can make us feel all sorts of ways” with a panel image that includes these expressions: annoyed, frustrated, alone, invisible, afraid, exhausted, and wrong in my body.
Did you notice my use of They to refer to Archie in the previous paragraph? That’s gender-neutral language. Although it may feel awkward at first to use they to refer to one person, they is no longer just a plural. It has become a plural and a singular pronoun.
From the Amazon Look Inside feature for A Quick & Easy Guide to They-Them Pronouns, here are a few examples of gender-neutral solutions:
The book also recommends referring to a customer as they (but addressing them as you, of course). Not long ago I had a learning experience at Staples that I could have avoided if I had read this book. Someone at Staples had been helping me with a product, but I proceeded to the checkout counter and got help. The person who had originally been helping me called out, “Did you find what you needed?” I responded, “Yes, he helped me,” gesturing toward the cashier. The cashier gently corrected me, “They helped you.”
This primer belongs in your workplace. In a highly readable 64 pages, A Quick & Easy Guide to They-Them Pronouns will give you and your colleagues an excellent introduction to gender-neutral language and how and why to use it. It also gives sample dialogs for finding out whether a coworker uses the pronouns they/them/their. (Hint: It starts with stating which pronouns you use.) And it has plenty of examples of what not to do.
Have you read the book? How well does your employer communicate in gender-neutral ways?