The power of gender-neutral language

June is Pride Month, and this year marks the 51st anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Inn Riots which bears great significance in the Gay Rights and subsequently the LGBTIQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer) movement. The riots acted as a catalyst and highlighted the on-going societal oppression of the gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and queer communities.  Whilst the Stonewall Inn Riots didn’t start the gay rights movement as such, they certainly spurred generations of LGBTIQ+ political activists that still play a large role in our society today. In South Africa Pride Month is particularly pertinent due to the on-going violence and persecution members of LGBTQI+ community still face on a daily basis.

The good news is however, that there are many ways to show support (some big and some much smaller) that have a very real impact on the lived experience of those whose sexual orientation can be classified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or pansexual, or those who identify with a gender that differs from the one that they were born with (transgender). It’s important to note that terms like non-binary and genderqueer refer to people that don’t adhere to the construction of either male or female genders. Intersex on the other hand refers to people who are born with both male and female biological or physical characteristics. Once again understanding the differences between the terminologies and using them appropriately contributes to making all societies as inclusive as possible.

Language plays an integral inclusionary or exclusionary role in society, but as it also turns out – has an impact on the way that we think. If we think about it, most of the languages that we use on a daily basis contain specific gender references. Whether we are addressing someone by their assumed titles based on their outward appearance such as Mr or Mrs, or our continuous use of gendered pronouns such as he/him or she/her. We even distinguish between men and women who work within the same profession, such as chairman and chairwoman, waiter and waitress to name a few. What we also know is that gendered languages also carry different connotations, and ultimately have an impact on the way in which we may perceive things. There are many languages worldwide that assign objects to either a masculine or feminine classification such as French, German and Spanish. There is a seeming correlation between countries that “speak more gendered language and have less gender equality.” According to Cognitive Science Professor Lera Boroditsky, “even what might be deemed frivolous aspects of language can have far-reaching subconscious effects on how we see the world.”

English from a linguistic perspective may not have the same indentured gendered language in comparison to other languages, however we still largely rely on gender indicative words when addressing or referring to other people. So, how can we change this in order to ensure that we are not making too many assumptions about the person we are addressing as well as making the on-going narrative an inclusive one? Well, it starts with practicing everyday – by swopping “they” for “he” or “she”. The definition of the word “they” has also changed over the past few years to also encompass a “single person whose gender identity is non-binary” according to the  Merriam-Webster Dictionary. In fact, there are loads of alternatives that can be used in place of gendered pronouns, titles, labels and occupations and the internet is full of useful guides and lists of these terms if you need a bit of guidance. At the end of the day language goes a long way in building respectful and inclusive societies no matter what the age, gender, race, sex, sexual orientation or identification of those who are a part of it.