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The Power of Gender Inclusive Language

Gender is one of the most fundamental aspects of our sense of self. As a queer feminist mom raising two kids who were identified male at birth, and who (so far) identify as boys, I spend a lot of time thinking about visibility and affirming parenting practices. I’m encouraged that gender inclusivity is a topic that seems to be gaining momentum and acceptance (at least in some parts of the country), and at the same time, I am sharply aware of how much work there still is to be done.

From a parenting perspective, I’m especially concerned with the ways in which my kid’s educational, medical, mental health, and social environments address gender expansiveness. Gender expansive is an umbrella term used for individuals who broaden their own culture’s commonly held definitions of gender, including expectations for its expressions, identities, roles, and/or other perceived gender norms. Gender expansive individuals include those with transgender and non-binary identities, as well as those whose gender is in some way seen to be stretching society’s notions of gender. (Tip: Gender Spectrum is a really useful resource to learn more about terminology and find other resources!)


But even in this liberal college town, it is impossible to steer totally clear of ingrained bias, prejudice, and outright hostility.


My family and I live in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, one of the most famously progressive areas of the country. Northampton, Massachusetts, has long been known as the lesbian capital of America, with more lesbians per capita than any city in the county. I feel incredibly fortunate to be raising my kids in a community where we are surrounded by academics, young people, makers, and social justice advocates. Not to mention that being situated in a hub of five major colleges and universities has afforded us a virtually endless stream of babysitters.

But even in this liberal college town, it is impossible to steer totally clear of ingrained bias, prejudice, and outright hostility. Last week, I took my two sons, ages 4 and 8, to Famous Footwear to get sandals for camp. My older son wanted a pair of Nike slide-on sandals that were bright pink and black, and to his delight, the store had them in his size. When we got the register, the clerk pulled the sandals from their box to make sure they were a match, and when she saw the color, she raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. “Did you know these are pink?” she asked me, pointedly glancing sideways at my two rowdy boys who were chasing each other around a display of athletic socks. “Yes,” I replied, forcing a tight smile, as my 8-year old appeared beside me at the register and put his arm around my waist. The cashier leaned forward across the counter, and asked him, doubtfully, “You really want pink shoes?” I was stunned at her nerve, but before I could open my mouth to shut her down, my son did it for me. “Yup. It’s my favorite color!” he said with a grin, and in a flash, took off after his little brother again. The cashier and I completed our transaction in stony silence, and as I ushered the kids out the door and into the hot parking lot, I squeezed my son’s shoulder and kissed the top of his head. “I love the shoes you picked,” I told him.


When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.

Adrienne Rich

Photo by Zackary Drucker as part of Broadly’s Gender Spectrum Collection. Credit: The Gender Spectrum Collection. Made available to media outlets via Creative Commons.

It’s no secret that supportive and affirming parenting plays a powerful role in children’s self-esteem and mental health, whether or not they are gender expansive. It is also well-documented that a safe environment optimizes a child’s ability to learn. All kids deserve a safe school environment, free from bullying and violence. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness and knowledge base around creating school conditions where the gender diversity of all children is valued. A new report from the Trevor Project showed that just one accepting adult in the life of an LGBTQ youth can reduce their risk of a suicide attempt by 40%. These findings are particularly significant because most previous research has focused on the impact that supportive and affirming parenting practices had on LGBTQ children. This is the first data to show that any supportive adult, not just a parent, can have a significant impact, which has important implications for teachers and other school staff. The feminist poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” Educators of all kinds have an incredible opportunity to shape and support the experiences of young people.

An additional point to consider is that binary language also harms people who are cisgender and binary transgender. The gender binary uses terms that can be stereotypical and even oppressive. I’ve been part of groups of women who object to being called “ladies,” because of the societal implications of how “ladies” should act. The gender binary is what tells girls they aren’t good at math. The gender binary is what tells my son he can’t have bright pink sandals.


Take responsibility for educating yourself: don’t expect the queer community to take on the emotional labor of enlightening you.


Whether or not you have children in your life, you have a role to play in the creation of gender inclusive environments and communities. There are lots of meaningful things you can do to support gender inclusivity.

One of the easiest ways to start is to share your pronouns along with your name when introducing yourself. In American English, pronouns are tied to gender. Because pronouns are a “stand-in” for a person’s name, it is just as important to get them right as it is to call someone by the correct name. Because gender isn’t binary, and you can’t know someone’s gender just by looking at them, sharing our pronouns and encouraging others in our community to do the same is a way to be inclusive and respectful of all genders.

Additionally, you can avoid using gendered language to address groups of people. Instead of “ladies and gentleman,” try “everybody,” or “folks.” Use “parents” instead of “mother” and “father;” “child” or “kiddo” instead of “son,” “daughter,” “boy,” and “girl,” and “sibling,” instead of “brother” or “sister.” “Congressman” can easily be replaced with “Members of Congress,” and “mankind” with “humankind.”


Changing socialized habits and adopting new language doesn’t happen overnight.


And lastly, take responsibility for educating yourself: don’t expect the queer community to take on the emotional labor of enlightening you. As Lindy West addressed in her New York Times column, a lot of men responded with ignorance to the #MeToo movement, and the issues it raised around affirmative consent. “Rape is a women’s issue, right?” she wrote, sarcastically. “Men don’t major in Women’s Studies.” This arrogant “logic” extends to all marginalized communities around issues of race, disability, and gender. In the digital information age, and with the inescapability of social media, this is not even a remotely valid excuse: anyone with access to a computer can find books, articles, blogs and podcasts on any topic. Feminists, queer theorists, mental health professionals, and social justice advocates have already carefully researched and argued many of the points that people in privileged positions continue to feign ignorance over. If you want to be a real ally, know this: it is the responsibility of men to call out other men’s sexism, it is the responsibility of straight people to call out homophobia, and it is the responsibility of cis people to call out transphobia.

And remember that this all takes practice. Changing socialized habits and adopting new language doesn’t happen overnight. But the good news is that the more you work at it, the easier it will get, and the more you will encourage people around you to do the same. Practicing gender inclusive language is a rising tide that can lift all boats.


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