Originally posted on September 24, 2018 by Sarah-Louise Benjamin on Medium
It seems fitting that this year’s National Inclusion Week should fall in a month where India’s Supreme Court finally decriminalised homosexuality by repealing Section 377 after 157 years. LGBTQA+ people around the world have been waving their rainbow flags, dancing to their favourite anthems and crying victory, but the more cynical among us have been pointing out how important it is to remember that tolerance is not the same as acceptance and that refraining from active persecution is not the same as acknowledging a person’s equality and rights.
Words play an important part in conveying the acknowledgement and acceptance of equality — and I don’t just mean the letter of the law. We’re all familiar now with firefighters, police officers and postal workers as alternatives to the 20th Century’s army of rigidly gendered public servants. I still remember adults around me in the 1980s getting uptight about the use of Ms. to replace Miss or Mrs and allow women to keep their marital status private. Here’s a New Statesman article on the history of that usage if you’re interested.
Equality of language comes in many forms — and the way a particular group feels about how they are addressed might not always be as we expect. According to this article by YouGov, the majority of millennial women are happy to take their husband’s name on marriage. Thanks to the likes of Lena Dunham, however, they don’t mind being referred to as ladies the way their First Wave Feminist mothers and aunts did. But they do insist that we acknowledge their adulthood by refraining from calling them girls — The Guardian and Mayim Bialik both offer good explanations as to why.
Where many of us are struggling at the moment is with the humble pronoun. Having grown up in a world that acknowledged only two genders, it can be hard to adjust to a society in which we are currently aware of around 71 ways to identify — check out this handy glossary. For those of us indoctrinated from an early age that he is not she and they are multiple, the fact that many trans, genderqueer and non-binary people are asking us to make use of a singular they can seem, in a word, transgressive. A travesty, to echo the grammatically apt but rather unfortunate French word for cross dressers, which was ably reclaimed by bilingual comedy legend Eddie Izzard in one of his shows (which I can’t link to here thanks to copyright law!).
Because yes, language can be reclaimed. Queerness can become a badge of pride not an insult. And pronouns can embrace both singularity and plurality. As the great Patti Smith would say, People Have the Power.
And not just that. Language — the English language at least — is as flexible and fluid as the gender spectrum. Ironically, the plural usage of they is one example of such flexibility. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375 — and insistence on its plurality to the Age of Reason. And that wasn’t the first time English deviated in this way — you was always plural until the 17th Century when thee and thou fell out of fashion — except in Gods Own Country of course. So, what’s to stop us from doing it all over again? Merely our own inhibitions.
Inhibition has a lot to do with our approach to gender diversity and the language and terminology that surround it. Asking someone about their gender — how they identify, which pronouns they like to use — is something few of us were taught when learning basic conversation as children and it’s easy to feel sheepish about it. It feels a step too far, a little too personal, an uncomfortable conversation we aren’t supposed to have.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of information out there to help us overcome our inhibitions — GLAAD’s advice for trans allies is a great place to start. And this doesn’t just go for gender. Many people can struggle when it comes to understanding how sensitivities vary across different cultures and regions, or even how to address issues around race and disability using the appropriate language.
Equality is housekeeping. Inclusivity is the next frontier. Even male feminists are rejecting the use of guys to address a group of people on the grounds that it either excludes women or somehow absorbs them into the world of men. And yet, few alternatives match up. Folks is too…well, folksy, unless you’re Ned Flanders. Ladies and Gentlemen might be the title of my favourite George Michael album, but excludes anyone who identifies as neither lady nor gentleman. Colleagues and comrades are not context agnostic. Couldn’t we simply take matters into our own hands, agree that guys is now gender neutral, and claim it for equality?
We all have our struggles. Where I personally stumble is with newer honorifics and pronouns such as Mx and xe — you can get the New York Times’s take on them if you haven’t encountered them before. My spirit is willing…but how the hell do I pronounce them? What are they short for? The answer is that none of this matters. Ultimately, what’s important is making those whom history has excluded feel at ease in a world that is theirs as much as it is anyone’s. And employing the language necessary — by any means necessary — to do this.