If we truly care about creating a more equitable society in which a person’s individuality is not reduced to their sex and/or gender, than our language should reflect that.
Writing with Gender-Inclusive Language
A brief guide to writing tactfully as our language evolves
By Carlisle Huntington
Language is a fluid and ever-changing system. It’s a practical tool that reflects our culture, and if our cultural needs are changing (and they clearly are) why shouldn’t our tools change to match them? Last year alone, more than 2,000 words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary. But when it comes to adopting gender-neutral language, many people in our society are resistant to implementing it. Oftentimes, conservatives argue that gender-neutral language isn’t grammatically correct. We feel that this viewpoint is a form of suppression under the guise of grammar policing. To counter that suppression, we’re offering this article as a brief introduction to using gender-inclusive/ gender-neutral language in writing. This is a beginner’s guide – the bare-boned basics– and we hope it serves a starting point rather than a destination to inclusivity in writing.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, though, it’s important to remember that addressing this topic is a delicate endeavor. As The Radical Copy Editor so eloquently put it in the introduction to their “Radical Copyeditors Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People,“
“A style guide for writing about transgender people is practically an oxymoron. Style guides are designed to create absolutes—bringing rules and order to a meandering and contradictory patchwork quilt of a language. Yet there are no absolutes when it comes to gender.”
Now, let’s begin!
RULE # 1: Put the person before the gender-identity
This is an attitude that extends far beyond the issue of gender. A human’s person-hood should be emphasized before anything else. When writing about a person with a marginalized identity (or anyone, really), try and ask yourself, do I need to mention their gender identity? Is it relevant to the situation? If the answer is “yes,” still try to ground your writing in someone’s humanity before their gender-identity.
Remember that words like “transgender,” “non-binary,” “genderqueer,” “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual” are adjectives. A person isn’t just “a transgender,” they’re “a transgender individual.”
*This is the official policy the Associated Press, Reuters, and New York Times. For more information on how these major publications write about gender and identity, see GLAAD Magazine’s Media Reference Guide.
RULE # 2: Pay attention to pronouns
This one is a no brainer: ALWAYS use a person’s stated, preferred pronouns. This includes, the singular use of they/them, which has officially been adopted by both AP and Chicago style guides. Other gender-neutral pronouns include “Ze/Hir” or “Ze/Zir.” While these pronouns are gender-neutral, a person who goes by these pronouns may identify as male, female, both, or neither. They’re designed to eliminate gender from the equation. You can read more about ze/hir pronouns in the article, “Ze Pronouns” published online by myprounouns.org.
Consider using the gender-neutral “Mx.” which has been used by the New York Times in the past. While The Times hasn’t officially adopted the term, claiming it “remains too unfamiliar to most people,” it may gain familiarity if more writers adopt its usage.
RULE # 3: Stop using outdated and/or derogatory language
Many people continue to use outdated terminology despite there being plenty of gender-inclusive or gender-neutral terminology at our disposal. While many of these terms were considered neutral in the past, they now carry negative or derogatory connotations. We recognize that the ability to stay up to date on this kind of terminology is, in many ways, indicative of a certain status of privilege, (such as access to the internet, education level, etc.) but if someone informs you that the language you’re using is hurtful or offensive to them, it’s important to seriously consider changing it. As a society – and as individuals – we must remain teachable. We’re not here to shame others or to police language, but we feel it’s worthwhile to learn how to be more compassionate and precise communicators.
Keeping the above guidelines in mind, here’s a chart outlining basic do’s and don’ts to writing with inclusivity, inspired by an article from GLAAD Magazine.
|Avoid writing …
||Write this instead
|Transgender individuals are people first.
“A transgender person”
||It adds unnecessary length to the word and can cause tense confusion and grammatical errors.
||“A transgender person”
||It reduces being a transgender person to “a condition” and is often used by transphobic activists
|“Sex change” conflates sex with gender. These terms imply that one must have surgery to be a transgender person or to have fully transitioned. In most contexts, it’s better to avoid discussion of surgery altogether, as it’s an extremely personal subject.
“Born a man”
“Born a woman”
|These phrases are reductive and overly-simplify a very complex subject. As mentioned above, a person’s sex is determined by several factors, and a person’s biology does not trump a person’s gender identity.
||“Assigned male at birth”
“Assigned female at birth”
“Designated male at birth,”
“Designated female at birth”
|While some transgender people may use these terms among themselves, it’s not appropriate to repeat them in mainstream media unless (1) it’s in a direct quote or (2) you are a part of the community in which the terms apply.
These terms refer to a transgender person’s ability to go through daily life without others making assumptions about gender. However, the terms can be problematic because they imply “passing as something you’re not,” and “stealth” connotes deceit.
However, a transgender person living authentically – without their gender being questioned by others – is not being deceptive or misleading.
|“visibly transgender” “not visibly transgender”
About the Author
Carlisle Huntington is a junior at the University of Puget Sound, majoring in English and creative writing. She writes for University of Puget Sound newspaper Puget Sound Trail. When she’s not writing, she’s planning the next creative event for her local campus community. She’s the head of the UPS English Department Event Planning Committee and she oversees the UPS English Film Series, Holiday Book Swap, and Campus Book Club. Her Other hobbies include crochet, embroidery, and boiling her entire identity into a pithy paragraph.
A note from the publisher: Blue Cactus Press cares deeply about cultivating inclusivity in our community, and we want to be as mindful of that in our writing (and actions) as possible. We hope this article inspires dialogue about community, inclusivity, and evolving language.