Society is evolving, with many embracing self-defined identities and leaving traditional gender roles behind. The proportion of UK adults identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) increased from 2.2% in 2018 to 2.7% in 2019. Additionally, 5.6% of Americans identify as LGBTQ, 54.6% of those identifying as bisexual, 24.5% as gay, 11.7% as lesbians, 11.3% as transgender and 3.3% used other terms to describe their identities.
Although younger generations are generally growing up in environments that make it more comfortable for them to be themselves, there still are some battles the LGBTQ+ community is fighting: from Governments not recognising non-binary identities to 69 UN member States still criminalising consensual same-sex activity.
The words you use, and the way they are used, can have a huge impact on others. These can build a more trusting environment and recognise other people’s identities. As a language services provider, we want to help you understand the importance of inclusivity and why inclusive language matters.
What is inclusive language?
According to its definition, inclusive language is “language that avoids the use of certain expressions or words that might be considered to exclude particular groups of people”. These groups of people can be based on ethnicity, age, religion, and sexual orientation, for instance.
Using inclusive language avoids offending underrepresented or minority groups. Instead, it promotes equality and diversity through language that avoids slang, personal biases or expressions that exclude these groups of people.
Inclusive language around sexual orientation and gender identity
Something worth reminding is that gender and sex are separate concepts. While sex refers to a person’s biological sex characteristics, gender refers to how one understands who they are and interact with others. The gender spectrum has evolved beyond the traditional two gender options, male and female, making it crucial to adapt gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language.
An example of LGBTQ+ inclusive language would be using language that acknowledges diversity. This means, for example, using the word ‘partner’ instead of ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’, and greeting groups of people by saying “Hello, folks”, or “Hello, everyone”. These words are also broader and can be used when talking to many people at the same time. Additionally, some terms and job titles are gender-specific, such as ‘policeman’ or ‘stewardess’; words that can be replaced with ‘police officer’ and ‘flight attendant’. Discontinuing the use of male-specific terms in English also involves using unknown and indeterminate genders such as ‘they’, ‘humans’ and ‘people’ instead of ‘men’.
The reason why using gender-inclusive language is key lies in the fact that not everyone is heterosexual or cisgender, meaning that not everyone’s gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. Additionally, as the concept of family evolves, this means that some may have same-sex and extended families. Not assuming that being heterosexual or cisgender is the norm helps challenging heteronormativity and cisnormativity.
Preferred Gender Pronoun (PGP)
Personal pronouns are one way of referring to other people. When speaking of someone in the third person, these pronouns are usually ‘he’ or ‘she’ – pronouns that have a gender implied. Some people use gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them/theirs. Using someone’s correct pronouns is acknowledging diversity, creating an inclusive environment and, more importantly, respecting them.
How to use personal pronouns? If you are unsure what someone’s pronouns are, the best option is to ask them respectfully. It is also recommended to use the gender-neutral ‘they’ when you don’t know someone’s pronouns and you can’t ask them. Putting it simply, English-speakers have always referred to unknown people as ‘they’: “Someone left their umbrella”, for instance. This would be the same case.
To highlight how important inclusivity is, The Trevor Project published how transgender and non-binary youth who have their pronouns respected by most people in their lives are 50% less likely to attempt suicide, while acceptance from at least one adult can decrease the risk of LGBTQ youth attempting suicide by 40%.
When interacting with transgender people, it is key to use the language they use for themselves and to ask for their pronouns if they are unknown. Additionally, you must be considerate about what questions you ask, as many topics such as their medical transition, life pre-transition and sexual relationships can be very inappropriate. Do not ask or use their birth name or call it their ‘real’ name, as you would be deadnaming and offending them.
Practice makes perfect. If you accidentally use the wrong pronouns or terminology, acknowledge it and apologise. However, getting it wrong several times, or on purpose, can be seen as disrespectful and even unlawful. In fact, countries such as Norway are making biphobic and transphobic speech illegal.
Love is a universal language, but terminology matters.