Gender neutrality is the concept of removing gendered language from everyday speech and communication. To understand neutrality and why it’s important, we must first understand gender.
The working definition of gender is: a complex combination of roles, expressions, identities, performances, and more which is assigned a gendered meaning; gender is self-defined, as well as defined by our larger society and how gender is embodied and defined varies from culture to culture and from person to person. (This definition was found at these lists.) All of that basically boils down to a basic truth: gender is a societal construct, and each society has a different idea of what it means to be a “woman” or a “man.”
But wait, you might be thinking, societal constructs are not inherently bad, and there are plenty of societal constructs that are useful (time), necessary (money), and incredibly important in the context of our history (race). This is true, social constructs aren’t nonfunctional -- they do have an effect on lived experiences and realities. To be sure, it is important to be aware of the context of gender, and the oppression the gender binary has placed on certain people. In a perfect world, binaries wouldn’t exist, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and so it is important to recognise that while gender is a societal construct, and people can self-determine their own gender, there are real world consequences which harm people who dare to exist comfortably outside of the binary.
Keeping this sobering information in mind, the next question might be, what does this have to do with me, and why is it important to be gender neutral? The simple answer is that being gender neutral allows you to be much more inclusive of everyone, no matter their gender identity or expression.
You may be familiar with the terms “transgender,” “gender non-conforming,” “nonbinary,” “cisgender,” and “gender expression.” If you’re not, don’t worry, this section will help you to become more familiar with those terms! In safer spaces, there is a push for gender neutrality in our language in order to be more inclusive of these identities. This type of language and thinking recognises that a stereotypical “female” or “male” experience is not identical for all people, and that generalisations of the “female” or “male” experience shouldn’t be made because it excludes people and makes them feel as though they don’t belong. It’s important not to make people feel as though they don’t belong, because we want our safer spaces to be safe and inclusive for everyone.
Transgender (or “trans”) - an adjective describing an individual whose gender identity differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. Trans people can fit along the wo/man binary (a trans woman was assigned “male” at birth and identifies as a woman, a trans man was assigned “female” at birth and identifies as a man), or they can fall outside of the binary (a person who was assigned “male” at birth, but identifies as nonbinary -- this person’s gender identity is different from what they were assigned at birth, and so falls under the trans identity). “Trans,” as it is used in biology, means “on the other side,” and it is used to mean that the gender of a person and the gender they were assigned at birth is not the same. The transgender umbrella does not include crossdressing or drag kings and queens, because this is gender as a performance and not as a gender identity. Identities such crossdressers and intersex (which we will get into detail about later) may self-identify as trans, but these identities are not inherently transgender. Transgender or trans is an adjective, so the space between trans man, trans woman, and trans person is important! You wouldn't say tallman or shortwoman, and trans is a descriptor, not a signifier of a third gender.
Gender Non-Conforming (GNC) - an individual who does not conform to the wo/man gender binary. This can function as an umbrella term for folks outside of the binary or as an adjective for a specific person.
Nonbinary - an individual who identifies with a gender identity that is neither exclusively “woman,” nor “man.” Their gender identity can be either completely outside of the wo/man binary, or have aspects of “woman” or aspects of “man,” or sometimes aspects of both simultaneously. Nonbinary can refer to a specific person’s gender, or function as an umbrella term.
Cisgender (or “cis”) - an adjective describing an individual whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth. A cis woman was assigned “female” at birth and identifies as such, a cis man was signed “male” at birth and identifies as such. “Cis,” as it is used in biology, means “on the same side as,” and it is used to mean that the gender of a person and the gender they were assigned at birth is aligned or “the same.” It is used in lieu of stigmatising words like “normal” or “natural,” which imply other people’s experiences are abnormal, weird, or unnatural.
Gender Expression - how an individual expresses their gender outwardly; there is no right or wrong way to do this. Sometimes someone’s gender expression, or gender presentation, doesn’t match up with their gender identity because they cannot afford to express themselves fully or safely. It is still legal to be fired for being transgender in 32 states. Additionally, people who may present or express a gender different than the one they were assigned at birth are more likely to be the target of bullying, harassment, health issues, and sexual or physical abuse, as studies have shown.
Sex as A Societal Construct
While many people are aware gender is self-determined, people still espouse harmful ideas about the sex binary, which is also a societal construct. Even in progressive spaces, well-meaning people will use the tired slogan, “Gender is what’s between your ears, sex is what’s between your legs!” This is incorrect and harmful to many folks, even for those transitioning within the binary.
Gender “assignment” (assigned female at birth, AFAB; assigned male at birth, AMAB) is usually based on genitals alone. It is assumed that our identities should and will match this assignment. Terrifyingly enough, our hospitals still run on a “1 inch rule,” which has been used to hurt intersex people even continuing into present day.
This means that babies whose genitals protrude less than ⅜” are designated female, and babies whose genitals protrude over 1” are designated male, but anything in between given an invasive surgery where the parents and doctor decide the infant’s gender and perform the surgery accordingly.
The sex binary of fe/male is an oversimplification of a much more complex system than people realise. Intersex individuals are people born with any manner of supposed “ambiguity” in terms of gendered physical characteristics. This can include reproductive organs, genitals, hormones, chromosomes, or any combination thereof. Commonly, people assume that all intersex individuals have “both” systems of sexual organs (“both” implies there are only two, and is exclusionary language), which gave rise to the term “h*rmaphrodite,” which is an out of date term and considered a slur (and incorrect, because intersex individuals are not born with two functioning sexual reproductive systems). For more myths regarding intersex individuals, click here. (This article is slightly outdated and still used “intersex” as a verb. More recently, terms like “transgendered” and “intersexed” with the “ed” suffix are considered grammatically incorrect.)
There are many intersex individuals who go their whole lives unaware they are intersex because the manifestation is not physical (not exhibited in external genitalia). So, plainly put, the XX and XY binary of biology is actually not a binary at all, and includes many different combinations of sex chromosomes. Assigned female at birth individuals can have XX, XXX, XXXX, XO, and XY chromosomal alignments, and assigned male at birth individuals can have XY, XXYY, XYY, and XX chromosomal alignments.
Since the majority of the population has never had their karyotype examined, many people are unaware of whether or not they are intersex until they go to their doctor for other medical issues (sometimes these issues are related to being intersex, but not always). Also, unless someone is seeing an endocrinologist regularly, not a lot of folks are aware of their hormone patterns or levels, which is another fashion in which someone can be intersex (the body making too much or too little of any hormone, such as testosterone or estrogen). Someone with XY chromosomes could have a hormonal pattern that is usually associated with what people consider “female,” and someone with XX chromosomes could have a hormonal pattern that is usually associated with what people consider “male.” Intersex people are about as common as redheads -- 1 in 100 people -- and this is important because so few people are aware of how common it is that they fail to educate themselves beyond the 9th-grade-biology sex binary.
This is why words such as “female-bodied,” “male-bodied,” “male-to-female (MtF),” and “female-to-male (FtM)” have been phased out of inclusive language spaces. Nonconsensual gendering of bodies is not okay, and there are many ways for “female” and “male” bodies to look. Breasts/vaginas are not inherently “female” and penises/scrotums are not inherently “male,” and as we discussed above, sometimes people who are assigned a certain gender at birth may not have the “stereotypical body parts” or hormones that go with that designation. For example, a person assigned female at birth can have “male” hormonal patterns or internal testes, etc. As for transitioning folks, a trans woman may not identify with the term MtF because she never identified as a male, and therefore is not “male-to-female” but simply a woman.
People get flustered when sex, as a binary is shown to be fallible and full of problems -- they insist that it’s important when going to a doctor to tell the doctor what you’re working with. And this is true, but it’s actually much clearer to state the problem (e.g., “My scrotum is itchy, I think I have a rash,” or “My menstrual cramping is worse than usual, is something wrong?”) than conflating body parts with gender and sex, and none of these statements have gendered attachments.
For more reading on the breaking down of the hormonal and chromosomal binary, click here.
See this helpful diagram on sex, gender, orientation, and gender expression!
After going over terms and the gender and sex binaries, you may be wondering how to quickly spot cisnormative language in your spaces, so you have a better idea where to focus on being more inclusive.
Cissexism, or cisnormativity, is the systemic overarching idea that cisgender people are the “norm,” and language that contributes to this harmful system can fall into four basic categories:
Now that I've discussed gender neutrality and its importance in our safer spaces, keep an eye out for our following blog post on how to keep our language gender neutral, and also how to incorporate it into our sexytimes, such as with sexting, foreplay, and dirty talking!