Language plays a prominent role in shaping social and cultural attitudes. It is, therefore, true that using gender-inclusive language is a powerful way to eradicate gender inequality and promote a more equal society.

The language game

The United Nations defines gender-inclusive language as:

‘speaking and writing in a way that does not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity, and does not perpetuate gender stereotypes’.

An example would be using gender-neutral pronouns, such as ‘they/them’ instead of conforming to the default ‘he/him when a person’s gender is unknown or unclear.

By using language that doesn’t perpetuate the discriminatory attitudes our society adopts towards gender, we reinforce the message that all genders are equal. Our word choices are often an unconscious reflection of preconceived notions surrounding gender. For this reason, we should make the effort to avoid using language that constrains, excludes and stereotypes others.

‘Maternity Services’ gets a language upgrade

Last week, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals Trust became the first in the UK to adopt a trans-friendly language policy after recognising the ‘additional challenges that gender identity can have on pregnancy, birth and infant feeding’.

The gender-inclusive changes call for maternity services to be known as ‘perinatal services’, to use they/them pronouns where gender isn’t explicitly known, and to rely on more neutral language such as ‘chest-feeding’ and ‘human milk’.

Whilst the trust stressed that the changes ‘do not apply when discussing or caring for individuals in a one-on-one capacity where language and documentation should reflect the gender identity of the individual’, it is hoped that the move will ensure the inclusivity of transgender and non-binary parents, without excluding the language of women or motherhood.

There is no doubt that this is a monumental step towards tackling gender inequality, helping to open the dialogue about the prejudicial views surrounding the transgender community. But is this the best that we can do?

Mixed responses

BSUH Trust has seen backlash since announcing the new policy.

Shay Brown, director of the campaign group TransActual, told the BBC the news is ‘absolutely wonderful’ and that ‘everyone is worthy of being treated with dignity when they access healthcare services, no matter what they are’.

Transgender advocate Debbie Hayton criticised the policy. She explained her concern over ‘the rights of other vulnerable groups’, adding that ‘trying to control the language of others does transgender people no favours at all’.

We should be living in a society where all genders are equal, instead of having dominant types. BUSH Trust made a step in the right direction, but if we truly want to tackle the discrimination faced by marginalised genders, then we need to do more than correct our language.

Changing the language that we use does not immediately change societal attitudes. We see people campaigning for gender equality, using gender-inclusive language, alongside those who do not support marginalised genders and continue to work against this idea. What we need, is to be targeting those people who do not treat all genders equally, instead of the ones who already do.

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