Inclusive Gender Language – What Still Needs Fixing

US culture today is finally shifting away from language that assumes maleness as the norm, but in some places it isn’t shifting enough, and in some places I believe it is shifting in ways that continues to denigrate both the feminine and non-human animals.


Where It Isn’t Shifting Enough

A common convention outside progressive circles is to write “he or she” or “his/hers” when talking about a single person of any gender. This doesn’t go far enough because it still puts the male first, and it does not acknowledge non-binary people. This male primacy has been so ingrained that when I worked as a textbook editor over a decade ago, the companies whose job it was simply to reprint pages with my edits incorporated actually disobeyed my instructions and consistently printed “he or she” when I wrote “she or he.” I couldn’t make even that small change from inside the system – let alone add nonbinary people – even when technically I should have had the power to do so.


An Argument in Favor of They

When I was younger, my first reaction to they as a singular was that it was too grammatically awkward, since it goes with plural verbs, and I wished that ze or something like it had become popular instead. I was converted when I found out the history, however. Originally, they was either singular or plural, like you, which also uses plural verbs even when singular. They was historically used for a single person of indeterminate gender until the 1950s, when grammar rules were changed to speak of any indeterminate individual as male. By using they now when talking about a person of indeterminate or unknown gender, we are just going back to its historical use, and it makes sense from there to also use it for a person who does not identify as either a woman or a man… and when writing both, as I just did, I believe it is best to rebalance the scales by putting the feminine first.


An Argument Against It

A convention I passionately dislike is using it to describe non-human animals whose sex is unknown… or even whose sex is known. Even if we do not know an animal’s sex, we know for sure that the animal is a living being, not an object. Calling animals it supports the objectification and abuse of nature, whereas speaking of them as living beings like ourselves helps shift culture toward also treating them that way. If you don’t know an animal’s sex, I would encourage you to call the animal they – or she. I believe after such a long time of assuming maleness and all the damage it has done, assuming femaleness can be both refreshing and healing to individuals and to our culture. It helps rebalance the scales. And it is far better to mistake the sex of another animal than to treat her like an object.


Let’s Not Throw Away the Feminine Again

I am all in favor of trans inclusivity … I am concerned when it is done in a way that throws out the feminine. For example, I have seen people working with incarcerated pregnant women and mothers and not wanting to use feminine words, even though the actual individuals in question all identified as women and felt that the carceral system was taking away their womanhood and motherhood, which they valued. Yes, it is always possible that some do not fully identify as women and do not feel safe saying so in jail, but that does not mean we should throw away feminine words. If we jump right from treating the masculine as superior to throwing away all gendered language, we are throwing away the feminine for two different reasons. For many people femininity is positive, and for many it is negative only because their definition of it stems from patriarchy’s warped, denigrated versions of the feminine and masculine. I believe our language needs to honor the full spectrum, especially what has been denigrated – both the feminine and trans or nonbinary. An example is to describe a population as “trans and cisgender women and nonbinary people.” For inclusivity that honors all, we must continue to include both feminine and trans/nonbinary language, and I believe this is far more important than avoiding the grammatical awkwardness of lengthy terms.

Wait – Isn’t This Politically Correct? … Actually, No.

We all want to use language that values all people and doesn’t offend anyone, but it can get difficult to navigate what is offensive and what is not. For instance, it is better to talk about a “person who has been incarcerated” or “people who use illicit drugs” than an “inmate,” a “convict,” or “addicts.” These last three terms dehumanize people, reducing their entire identities to experiences that others judge them for, while the first two terms emphasize their humanity and imply that being incarcerated or using illicit drugs are some experiences they have had, among many others, and do not define who or what they are.

So the same holds true for anything, right? It is always best to say “a person who…”? Actually, no.

Autistic people, for instance, are often offended when called “people with Autism.” So what’s the difference? When is person-first language the way to go, and when is identity-first language best?

The difference is whether the identifier in question is inseparable from the person’s identity. Autistic people, for example, cannot be separated from their Autism. Is an all-pervasive aspect of who they are. Calling them “people with Autism” implies that they are separate from their Autism, that their value as people exists outside of it, and even that the Autism itself is a negative with which they must cope, which reduces their value as a person – hence the need to add “with.” Calling them “Autistic people” asserts their value as Autistics, without implying a false separation from their Autism or anything negative about it.

People who have been incarcerated should be seen as human beings apart from their incarceration, neither their identities nor their value defined by it. Try doing this with elements obviously integral to someone’s identity, and it becomes clear how silly it would be to use terms like “people with Black ethnicity” instead of “Black people” or “people with Hindu beliefs” instead of “Hindus” or “Hindu people.”

Here are a few more examples of when to use person-first and when to use identity-first language:

Person-First Identity First
People living with HIV/AIDS Deaf people
People in conflict with the law Queer people
People who trade sex Asian people or Asians
People who inject drugs Muslims or Muslim people

*This post is based on “Identity-First Language” by Lydia Brown. Read her full, excellent article here:

We are Not Islands – the Importance of Describing Life Context

If you aren’t careful in your writing, most American readers will read it through the lens of our individualistic culture, the over-simplified paradigm that individuals alone are responsible for what we make of our lives. This predominant paradigm doesn’t take into account the social systems that give some people fewer choices, resources, and opportunities, as well as more risks, barriers to success, stress, health issues, and trauma.

People from oppressed groups are far more likely to have grown up aware of the truth – that people’s lives are shaped by how other people and social systems treat them, by what choices this context and their natures give them in response, and only then by what choices they make. Still, chances are that your readers will have the individualistic view to some degree programmed into their thinking by our culture, even if they have been working to reprogram it in themselves, and especially if they have had access to privilege. It is therefore important for mission-based writing to explicitly describe the systems that shape people’s lives. In addition to helping organizations address the barriers caused by these systems, this makes a critical difference to readers in the following three ways:

1. It Helps Shift Culture to Address Systemic Injustice

One of the first steps for addressing systemic injustice is to get it out in the open and develop a culture where we all explicitly acknowledge and talk about it. That means making a regular practice of intentionally countering the dominant individualistic paradigm. The more of us do this, and the more often we do it, the more thoroughly we will reprogram our own thinking, help others reprogram theirs, and influence others to continue explicitly contextualizing people’s lives within systems of oppression or privilege. Helping to make this thinking common practice helps shift US culture to a more accurate view that factors in both what is in an individual’s control and what is not. This culture change is necessary for both addressing the harms of injustice and ultimately eliminating it, and we are all responsible for being part of this change.

2. It Helps Shift Culture to Stop Blaming People for the Impacts of their Oppression

Describing life context fosters compassion by enabling people to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes and not judge them. For example, many people would judge a woman described as a high school dropout who has not been able to hold down a job, has three children by three different men who are not helping at all, and is struggling to get by on Welfare. But what if they knew that her mother struggled with addiction and due to racial bias, was sent to jail instead of rehab, and she was placed in foster care, where she was never left in the same place more than a few months before being moved again, so she developed a “tough girl” persona, and her life was peppered with racist microaggressions from foster parents, teachers, and social workers who didn’t think she’d amount to much? It’s no surprise then that she wasn’t motivated in school, and her need to be accepted, coupled with her lack of access to birth control, led to pregnancy by the age of 14. Stories like this are not uncommon, and once we unpack all the oppression so many people are up against, we can eradicate the trend of blaming them and instead admire their resilience, offer them support, and work to change the systems that are truly to blame for their situations.

3. It Portrays the Context and Impact of Your Work

Showing what the people you work with are up against makes the importance and difficulty of your work crystal clear, and it shows how deeply people can improve their lives by participating in your programming, or what a deep difference the systemic changes you strive for or achieve will make.

This draws donors and funders to support you and makes constituents feel more comfortable receiving your help, since they know you won’t blame them or look down on them in pity. It also helps donors and funders adjust their expectations. For instance, it could show them that if you are working with people struggling for survival amidst oppression, you cannot be expected to quickly solve all of their problems or mold them all into organizing leaders – but what you can do is invaluable.