Content Warning: This post contains an analysis of harmful views and language towards trans people that may cause harm to engage with and read. Please read with your capacities in mind and to disengage if you start to feel activated.
For peer chat support, please contact LGBT Youthline or Trans Lifeline. There are extra resources below as well so please feel free to skip this segment and scroll to the very bottom of the page.
At Brood, we talk about this a lot — the language we use is a powerful tool. Language changes over time, which means the way we use it does as well. It carries a lot of weight and power, and plays a key role in cultural and social attitudes. When used affirmatively, gender neutral language can work towards eradicating gender biases, promote gender equality and work towards moving beyond binary language and thinking.
To read more about the language we choose to use at Brood, click here. We believe the next step in doing this work is education as a platform for change. To do so, Anna will walk you through defining and dispelling harmful myths — about using more queer inclusive language.
Noun. Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists.
Don’t be deceived – just because you see the word “feminist” in this acronym doesn’t mean they’re fighting the good fight. TERFs, I personally argue, are the antithesis of what an intersectional feminist is. They believe that trans women are not “worthy” enough to be protected, advocated for, and consider them “not real women” or “pretending to be women”. They also create false narratives that trans women, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and genderqueer folks are harmful to society and community because of their identities. This could not be further from the truth.
If anything, it’s the TERFs who are creating harm to society and community and are putting trans people’s livelihoods on the line because of their own pedagogy and ignorance.
All trans people want is to live and to be healthy. Why such resistance? Trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people deserve to LIVE – and more than this, deserve to be HAPPY and SAFE. TERFs don’t get to be in the way of that.
Often, TERFs will target me in the birthing space because I’m adamant in using gender affirming language in my practice. Unfortunately, TERFs are everywhere, they’re even your doulas – and a lot of the time, you won’t even know that they’re trans-exclusionary. The birth world is a huge example of how TERFs create false and harmful narratives.
Below, I’ve listed some of the most common sayings of resistance to gender affirming language and breaking it down to the truth. If you find yourself in an internet (or irl) fight with someone spewing any of this hateful discourse – you have my permission to copy and paste anything in this blog as your response.
Myth: Gender neutral terms take away from sacred womanhood and women’s journeys.
Fact: Gender neutral terms add to the diverse experiences of birth because birthing does not only belong to women.
Whether you like it or not, people who are not women give birth. Men give birth. Non-binary people birth. Gender non-conforming people birth. Though, their birthing experiences don’t actually impact women. You can still birth as a woman and your experience is still sacred and your womanhood is still valid. But, so is the queer experience and your resistance to gender neutral terms won’t change the fact that people who are not women give birth and will continue to give birth. Gender neutral terms just affirm this experience for them.
Myth: Gender neutral terms erase women.
Fact: Gender neutral terms add to the spectrum of identities, validate a person’s identity, and affirm their experiences. It has nothing to do with women.
Calling someone a “pregnant person” or a “birther” instead of “mother” doesn’t erase women or motherhood. Don’t want to be identified as “pregnant person” or “birther”, okay! Use whatever terminology feels good for you. Want to identify as a mom? Okay! But if you can have agency in how you want to identify, then so can queer folks.
When I write general pieces, posts, or address the public, I will always use gender neutral terms because I’m aware that people who don’t conform to gender binaries exist and are valid in their identities and I want to make it known that I respect and see them for who they are. If you choose to gender your language as you move through whatever space you’re in knowing that queer and trans folks exist – that’s your prerogative. It will just indicate that you are not a safe person for queer and trans people to be around.
Myth: Gender neutral terms confuse people too much.
Fact: People can learn to use gender neutral terms, but choose not to because of ignorance.
Learning a language can be difficult and can take time. How many of us have tried to learn a different language or dialect other than our original tongue? Did this take away from our existing spoken and learned language? No. It just expanded what we know as language. Same with gender neutral terms. We can all learn it – it might be sticky at first – but it’s not impossible. People choose not to learn because of ignorance, not confusion.
Myth: Gender neutral terms are harmful for a baby/child because it’s too confusing and people will make fun of them if they use this language growing up.
Fact: Children growing up with an expansive view of gender grow up to be more open-minded about the identity of others than those who only see gender as a binary.
Children learning gender norms and gender roles are more harmful for kids to grow up with than to grow up with an expansive view of gender. In fact, breaking gender stereotypes actually bring out a child’s full potential. Think about it this way, the way we live within this binary system of “boy = strong” and “girl = submissive” has not been benefiting anyone but the patriarchy. When children grow up with an expansive view of gender, not only do we break the binaries, but we also break the expectations of who and what children can be. Isn’t this the goal?
Myth: Gender neutral terms shame people who call themselves “mom” or “dad”.
Fact: Gender neutral terms don’t affect anyone who calls themselves “mom” or “dad”. The only people shaming are the people onto themselves.
Literally no. No one said that you can’t call yourselves mom or dad or that you need to be ashamed of it. Call yourselves whatever you want – but don’t blame any sort of shame you feel to the fact that gender neutral terms exist. Just like how some people teach their children to call them by their first names, it’s the same as teaching children to call them by a term that feels good to them. No one is taking “mom” or “dad” away.
Myth: There is no such thing as a singular “they”.
Fact: Who said that? Did they also mention that they were wrong? See what I did there?
Mirriam-Webster’s Dictionary would disagree with you. So would APA style. Oxford English Dictionary even wrote a whole brief history on the singular “they”.
Myth: It’s embarrassing to ask someone how they refer to themselves as.
Fact: It’s quite respectful and loving to check in with how someone identifies so that they aren’t misgendered in a space. It only feels embarrassing because we’re not used to asking folks, but eventually it will get easier.
Any feelings of embarrassment we feel in asking for people’s pronouns are our own feelings to move through. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad – we’re probably just feeling embarrassed because we’re not used to doing it. However, I would like to point out that you should not only be asking pronouns from people who you suspect are queer and/or trans. When you do this specifically to trans, non-binary, GNC people, but don’t ask for the pronouns of folks you assume are cisgender then you are ultimately othering QTNBGNC people because they read as “not cisgender”. To read more about how and when to ask about pronouns, explore this piece written by Devon Price.
Myth: Gender affirming language is not popular enough to use in the mainstream.
Fact: Respect is always going to be popular. Using gender affirming language isn’t about majority vote. It’s about listening intently to the needs someone is sharing with you.
Gender affirming language might not seem popular in your circles because you could be surrounding yourself with folks who don’t practice gender affirming language themselves. Open up your circles, your perspectives, and the people you surround yourself with. Specifically, witness queer communities and the ways we address our people. Within our own circle, we have made affirming language the mainstream. You can make it yours too.
Myth: It’s hard to switch over to gender affirming language / it’s hard to teach someone gender affirming language.
Fact: Ingraining gender affirming language will take time, but it is not impossible. Try and try again.
Yes, you’re right. It can be hard to learn and to teach especially when we have been ingrained and indoctrinated with gender binaries all of our lives. However difficult, it’s not impossible and we can make it our collective responsibility to learn more about gender affirming language knowing the wonderful impact it can have so that queer, trans, gender non-confirming, non-binary, genderqueer, and all of the identities within the spectrum of gender, will feel seen and heard within our community.
Gender affirming care and language is not only needed, but is also lifesaving.
I don’t know about you, but I would rather save lives than complain about how difficult it is to make a switch in language. If gender affirming language means I have to go through mental shifts in order to learn how to be more of a respectful person who is rooted in community care – then count me right in.
Something to know about me is I always write with community – meaning I show my pieces to trusted community members who have capacity to give me feedback on what I have written. In this case, I showed my friends and co-conspirators Emma (she/her) and Tasha (they/them) this piece. They pointed out that gender neutral terms also help release the expectations that assume someone who is pregnant will automatically become the “mother” or caregiver to the child they’re carrying. What if they’re a surrogate? What if folks adopted their children? Inclusive terms are also a means of expanding and affirming the reproductive experiences of all folks – not just for us queers. Thanks Emma and Tasha for that wonderful insight!
I hope in reading this piece it expands your perspective on gender neutral and gender affirming language and the importance and impact of inclusive language. And lastly, if ever you see someone resisting gender affirming language/care (ahem, TERFs), send them this list. Perhaps they’ll learn a thing or two.
Are you looking to use some more gender neutral terms or words, and not sure where to start? Check out these traditionally gendered terms below, followed by simple gender neutral alternatives with which you can substitute! Using this type of language is a step towards gender equality and getting beyond the binary.
Peer Support Networks
- Away from school pressures, children who defy gender norms blossom at home
- The rise of anti-trans “radical” feminists, explained
- This is what happens when gender roles are forced on kids
- Breaking gender stereotypes brings out children’s full potential
- Merriam-Webster on the singular “they”
- APA Style on the singular “they”
- A brief history of the singular “they”
- When (and how) to ask about pronouns
- A Guide to Gender Identity Terms
- Saying goodbye to binary gender | Pani Farvid | TEDxAuckland
- Why inclusive language is so important
- Inclusive Language | Camelia Bui | TEDxYouth@SSIS
- Life Kit: Making the workplace more equitable for trans people
- Diverse Minds: Why bother with inclusive language