LGBTQ+ Matters – Gender Neutral and Inclusive Language Use Across Contexts
“Inclusive language is a collaborative communication style — not only a list of terminology. It signals to historically excluded people and communities that they’re safe to be themselves, that we’re working to create greater equity and supporting them to flourish. Inclusive language is transformative. It has the power to amplify diversity, equity, and inclusion. Inclusive language can be compassionate, powerful, and authentic — and it’s never been more important. It’s a conversation that’s dynamic and works closely with the people we’ve typically excluded from that conversation. It’s centered in understanding the history of where certain words and phrases originate and requires both empathy and bravery to confront our implicit biases.” (Minkie, 2021).
These words shape a rich, full definition of what inclusive language for many people mean across many contexts of life. This definition informs the framework for this article’s specific focus on gender neutral inclusive language and its vital impact on the well-being of LGBTQ+ folks.
Language matters: it has power to shape society, narratives, and lives, to tear down or to build up hearts and hopes, to shape or challenge beliefs and biases. Stereotypes, subtle discrimination, and negative messages carry destructive power; mindful, inclusive language holds collaborative, transformative, liberational, affirming power.
As the opening quote implies, using inclusive language is less about following a list of rules and more about a spirit and style of relationship formed and nurtured through effective, equitable communication. Cultivating inclusive, mindful communication begins with a process of awareness around understanding our beliefs and biases and how that affects the words we choose, along with how those words affect others. As much everyday language has been formed around a gender binary (male/female only) model, it understandably takes conscious intention to shift and reframe word choices and phrasing.
Following are a few ideas on ways to shift into mindful, inclusive language.
Using language that assumes another person’s gender or pronouns (if that person hasn’t shared their correct gender or pronouns) may cause hurt, as can using language that erases some people’s genders through implying only two genders exist and theirs doesn’t or that only a specific gender is qualified for certain jobs or roles (mypronouns.org, 2017). To shift this language, practice becoming mindful of gendered assumptions (gender stereotypes about appearance, roles, or tasks) or presumptions about someone’s sexual or affectional orientation (e.g., asking a boy if he has a girlfriend yet). Doing so helps proactively avoid comments or phrases that may unintentionally be dismissive or harmful to trans and gender non-conforming people. Small changes can make a meaningful difference!
Another practice involves replacing “he”, “men”, or “mankind” as a universal reference. In this instance, a word such as “humankind” can be used instead, which affirms the humanity of everyone, all people of all genders.
Additionally, instead of “men and women”, words such as “everyone”, “all people”, “people of all (or every) gender”, or “women, men, and non-binary people” offer a more inclusive welcome (mypronouns.org, 2017). In place of conversational expressions like “you guys” or “ladies”, consider options such as “you all”, “folks”, or “hey, everyone”, keeping in mind that there’s still plenty of flexibility for what options feel most comfortable or preferable for individual communication styles. In conversations, meetings, or other situations, when referring to or calling on a specific person, instead of “man/woman” or “he/she”, consider using the word “person”. Examples of this might be “the person in the blue jacket” or “the person with their hand raised”.
The language of social courtesy is often gendered, such as “yes, sir”, “thank you, ma’am”, or “can I help you, ma’am?”, where “sir” and “ma’am” make gender-based assumptions about the person to whom they’re directed. Non-gendered and equally courteous options include simply saying “yes, please”, “thank you very much”, or “how may I help you?” Gendered language is often used socially to address groups of people, whether in meetings, classrooms, or letters written for a broad audience. In these contexts, instead of “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls”, a multitude of other options could be chosen from – friends, colleagues, friends and colleagues, co-workers, neighbors, honored guests or esteemed members, children, students, among others (mypronouns.org, 2017).
Parents and families may find it challenging to shift to gender neutral references when their children or
relatives come out as non-binary or otherwise gender diverse identities. The word “sibling” provides a gender-neutral option to “brother/sister”. Having gender diverse children myself, one favorite word of mine is “offspring” in place of “son/daughter”.
While this merely scratches the surface, hopefully it offers a solid foundation to help form inclusive, collaborative ways of communication and relationship! If you have further questions, please feel free to reach out for additional resources.
Minkie, K. (2021). Is the current inclusive language definition truly helpful? https://
mypronouns.org (2017). Inclusive language. www.mypronouns.org/inclusivelanguageTags: All Inclusive Language, Gender Neutral Language, Language matters for inclusivity
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Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
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