By: Kathleen Morrison
As LGBTQ activism and awareness has increasingly entered the mainstream, activists and educators have pushed for using more gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language in education, the workplace, and everyday life. For those who want to adopt this type of language, but have questions or feel unsure about how to go about it, you’ve come to the right place!
First, let’s start with gender inclusivity. Being inclusive, by definition, means being open and welcoming to all. Applying this to the context of gender, inclusivity refers to creating spaces where anyone of any gender can feel included and welcome, resisting assumptions of gender identity, and making room for trans and non-binary gender identities in conversations and narratives. One example of a way to do this is by using gender neutral and gender inclusive pronouns.
Many people struggle when confronted with using gender-neutral pronouns, but it is important to remember that we already use a gender neutral pronoun when we do not know the identity of the person we are speaking about. Upon finding a wallet on the ground, you might say, “Someone must have lost their wallet!” In this case, “their” refers to a single person with an unknown gender. Adopting they/ them pronouns makes space for people who do not identify with she/her or he/him pronouns and works towards de-stigmatizing people with trans and non-binary identities. Using this kind of language resists assumptions about a person’s gender based on appearance and instead encourages understanding gender as something that is self-identified.
Gender-inclusive language becomes especially important in sexual health education. LGBTQ youth, and particularly trans youth, often face discrimination and obstacles when trying to access healthcare. Many healthcare providers do not understand the needs of trans and non-binary youth, or are insensitive to the challenges they face as members of marginalized communities. As educators, it is important to empower all students to seek out services and resources, so they can meet their needs. Teens who do not hear their identities reflected in their sex education will not want to, or even know how to, access the healthcare they may need, which is inherently problematic.
Ensuring that LGBTQ identities are included in conversations around sex education lets students with these identities know that this information also applies to their lives and their bodies. In classroom settings, maintaining gender neutral pronouns and focusing on anatomy over gender not only includes trans and nonbinary students in the conversation, but also helps to deconstruct gender roles for heterosexual and cisgender youth. For instance, referring to “bodies with vaginas” instead of simply saying “women” includes transmen in discussions about vaginal and uterine health. Saying “penetrative partner” and “receptive partner” rather than “man” and “woman” helps normalize sex and relationships that aren’t cisgender and heterosexual. Rather than speaking to just the cisgender and heterosexual students in the room, the conversation opens to include students with varying identities who may be interested in relationships with others of varying genders. In this way, educators and teachers can expand who they are reaching with their knowledge and help students make the best choices for their health and their bodies.
Using new and different language can be challenging at times. Remember: it’s ok to mess up! We are all learning together. By changing the way we speak, we can enable learning by making our classrooms and workplaces more welcoming and inclusive places for people of all identities.