Gendered Language: 5 Tools for Saying What You Mean
by Terra Anderson
Words are powerful. They have the ability to connect or divide us, bring clarity or confusion, to build or break relationship. I imagine you’re reading because you’d like your words to create breakthroughs in connection not breakdowns, so let’s talk about how to make gendered language more inclusive.
As a gender and sexuality diversity trainer, I have built a deep and intimate relationship with the fears and struggles of well-meaning people who don’t want to say the wrong thing. In fact, the number one struggle that people name when engaging with the LGBTQ+ population is a petrifying fear of offending or doing harm. This fear is so pervasive that many professionals with all the right intentions will opt to not engage the LGBTQ+ community at all, citing the justification that they might do more harm than good.
As a member of the queer community myself, I certainly appreciate the intention not to do harm. However, I must point out that the choice not to engage doesn’t actually accomplish that goal. In a world where the gender and sexuality of LGBTQ+ people regularly limits, others, erases or omits us, not engaging simply allows the harm that is already happening to continue uninterrupted.
When I imagine my readers, I imagine people who want to be a part of the change – people who want to do better, to be better, to “get it right,” even if they don’t know where to start. Inclusive language is tricky to learn at first because it requires us to unlearn some of the ways we are taught to think about bodies and gender. Be patient with yourself, unlearning something so engrained in our society takes time and rigor. My hope is that this guide will give you actionable steps towards building your skillset for inclusive language. So put on your word-nerd hat and let’s jump in!
When it comes to saying what you mean about gender, most mistakes happen when anatomy, gender identity and masculine/feminine/androgynous energy are conflated or used in the wrong contexts. This article will help you tease these distinctions apart. If you are having trouble distinguishing the difference between anatomy (penis, vulva, etc.) and gender (man, male, woman, female, etc.), check out my article, 5 Truths that Bust the Gender Binary for a quick run down.
Here are five concrete actions you can take to get clear about how you are articulating gender, both in casual conversation and writing copy for your business.
#1: Distinguish Gendered Language
Distinguishing when anatomy, gender identity or masculine/feminine/androgynous energy is being implicated is a crucial part of saying what you mean. Let’s look at each:
Anatomy is implicated when we are talking about the physical body as pertains to the anatomical structures we have, how they function, or the state/condition the body is in. Here are some examples:
Gendered Anatomical Structures
- Adam’s Apple
Gendered Body Functions
- Growing Hair
Gendered State of the Body
- Being pregnant
- Cancer of gendered anatomy
- Being menopausal
- Levels of fertility
Gender is implicated when you are talking about the identity of individuals or groups of people like man, woman, two-spirit, non-binary, etc. Gender IS NOT anatomy: anatomy is what we have, whereas gender is about who we are.
When talking about groups of people based on gender you must remember that cisgender and transgender are adjectives, not nouns. When you are talking about women you are talking about all women, unless you use the adjectives cisgender or transgender to specify a group. It is only appropriate to specify when being cisgender or transgender is pertinent to the point you are making.
EXAMPLE: “Women report higher rates of sexual harassment than men.”
The adjectives cisgender or transgender are not necessary here because the point of the sentence is not about the cis or trans community specifically.
Whereas the sentence, “The rate of violence against transgender women has skyrocketed in the last 4 years,” is specifically about transgender women.
Energy is implicated when talking about the energetic qualities of masculinity, femininity, or androgyny. Energetic qualities differ greatly in how we experience and define them depending on who you talk to. These energies are not inherent to any particular gender or type of expression, rather they are uniquely experienced by all of us in different ways.
***Note: Different terms are used within different communities to describe anatomy, gender and energies. When communicating, it is important to note these differences and respect the language each person uses to describe their body parts, gender and expression. Rest in this complexity. Be curious and compassionate with one another. Remember – the importance of communication is to connect and comprehend accurate meaning, not to police each other’s words.
#2: Recognize Gendered Language
When reading or in conversation with others, start to notice gendered language. Recognize when people are conflating anatomy, gender, and energy. Use somatic (body) awareness to learn about your physical response when words are used accurately, versus when communication is incomplete or inaccurate. Building awareness of the sensations that arise in your own body will help you recognize when there is something off about how gender is being communicated. This is the same skill as noticing the pit in your stomach or flutter in you heart when someone says something you don’t agree with.
EXAMPLE: “Is female ejaculation real?”
This statement is conflating gender and anatomy. Are they talking about all females including trans women? This sentence would convey more accurate meaning by speaking specifically about anatomy, such as:
“Is vulva ejaculation real?”
The answer to that question – because I know you’re wondering – is that it depends greatly on the functionality and anatomical structures within and individual’s body, but in short… yes, some vulvas do ejaculate. But that is a topic for another article.
#3: Accurately Use Gendered Language
When choosing the words that are going to convey the most accurate meaning with the most inclusive intent, ask yourself these two questions:
“What is the most essential part of what I am trying to say?
“Which groups of people are affected by that topic?
EXAMPLE: “All women should have access to birth control.”
Ask yourself the above questions. The most essential topic being discussed in the sentence is birth control, which affects anatomy not gender. Many people will instead choose to say, “All vulva-bodied people should have access to birth control.” This is still incomplete because the vulva itself is not the anatomical structure relevant to birth control at all. We are actually talking about a function of the body: pregnancy.
Notice which of these next options is the most inclusive and notice your body’s response to your choice.
“All people who can carry a child should have access to birth control.”
“All people having sex where pregnancy is possible should have access to birth control.
#4: Broadcast with Gendered Language
In marketing or speaking to an audience, finding the right words to attract the broadest and most ideal audience is crucial. But how do you find inclusive language and still be concise, to the point and sexy with your words? Start by asking yourself:
“What is the most important common ground that I want my audience to share?”
Is it anatomy?
Is what you are offering specifically about body parts and how they function? If so, this is a time you may want to use language such as AMAB/AFAB, vulva/penis-bodied, pregnant people, etc. to find your audience.
EXAMPLE: Workshops on topics such as pelvic floor massage, prenatal yoga, breast cancer recovery groups, premature ejaculation, vaginismus, etc.
***Note: You must ask yourself, “How will my offering include intersex bodies?” not as an afterthought, but as a crucial part of choosing your language. Start approaching anatomy by considering natural human variation, rather than making sweeping generalizations about bodies, their parts and their functions.
Is it gender identity?
Is what you are offering specifically about creating community around a specific identity, or on a topic that is specific to a certain gender? If so, you will use words such as women, non-binary people, genderqueer folks, etc.
EXAMPLE: Topics may include mansplaining, fatherhood, professional women’s groups, trans support groups, etc.
***Note: If you choose more than one gender for your audience, be critical about why you made this choice, ensuring that you are not grouping genders together in a way that sends the message that they are the same. While many people love the word “womxn,” for example, some people criticize this word for the way it others trans women and blends non-binary people in with a gender that is not their own. On the other hand if you notice the inclination to list many genders, get critical about this. It may be an indication that the common ground you seek isn’t actually gender at all, but rather energy, anatomy or something else.
What about energy?
Maybe your offering is about connecting on an experience of the feminine, masculine or androgynous? This distinction, for example, will help you attract people who identify with femininity and are of any gender.
EXAMPLE: Group on Divine Feminine, Harnessing your Masculine Energy Workshop, femme/masc of center, femme/masc, androgynous, andro, etc.
#5: Refining Gendered Language
Intentionally excluding certain groups for the right reasons can be a powerful part of communicating what you mean and is key to refining your language. This is where inclusive language takes a turn towards justice. The role of power and safety is important to examine when choosing your audience for marketing or facilitation. Ask yourself:
“Am I excluding people to make this easier on myself or for my own comfort?”
“Am I excluding people because I want to make things easier for people who just don’t want to deal with difference?”
Or… “Am I excluding people because it is of the highest service to the community as a whole?
If your reason for excluding certain groups is to stay comfortable at the expense of more marginalized people, please re-assess your language and intentions. This can be a hard distinction to make, but an important one.
EXAMPLE: Excluding trans women from a women’s group because it makes you or your cisgender group members uncomfortable to have trans women present.
Excluding marginalized groups often comes out of facilitator discomfort or group complacency. One exception is when the focus of the event is specifically to learn about privilege itself. In these cases, facilitators may market specifically to privileged groups however choose to allow people with marginalized identities to attend if they are drawn to.
Excluding privileged populations more often comes from a place of creating safety and helping marginalized groups heal from the trauma of oppression. When done for these reasons, excluding privileged groups can be a service to the community as a whole.
Saying the right thing isn’t going to solve inequality or repair injustice on its own. But it is a crucial step in raising awareness, bringing communities together, and up-leveling the representation and celebration of diversity in our world. Words hold power, and what we say matters. By learning to say what we truly mean when it comes to gender, we start to create spaces where more people can exist in their truth, come together, and challenge beliefs that keep us separate.