The titles we so commonly use to address our loved ones all refer to binary gender identities. The words “brother”, “sister”, “dad”, “mother”, “aunt”, “uncle”, “boyfriend”, and “girlfriend” all assume a person is either a man or a woman. But what about those folks who identify as non-binary, agender, or Two-Spirit? Or folks who are gender non-conforming, gender-neutral, or are a mixture of both masculine/male and feminine/woman? What family titles should they be given? More importantly, what family titles would non-binary, agender, and gender non-conforming folks choose for themselves?
As a non-binary person, I ask myself these questions. I also ask myself, what would it take for broader society to begin integrating gender-neutral and gender-affirming language into the way people speak?
In order for this to happen, we as a society must simultaneously dismantle patriarchy, cis supremacy, and heteronormativity in the words we use every day. Our spoken language is rooted in assumptions based on these oppressive worldviews. Many unenlightened cis people express cis fragility and anxiety when they’re not able to identity those they interact with as a “man” or “woman”. However, the movement to affirm the existence and rights of trans and gender non-conforming people has elevated the powerful message that what exists between a person’s legs is no one else’s business.
Examining Our Gendered Greetings
“Hey you guys!” is a phrase I often hear. It’s a phrase I grew up using to address a gathering of people. It wasn’t until I began learning about feminism and the dominance of masculinity and maleness that I became aware of how the usage of these phrases is problematic. And it wasn’t until I stopped identifying as a cis man and began identifying as non-binary that this phrase took on a different meaning for me.
In a patriarchal society, maleness and masculinity are not only privileged over femininity and womanhood; maleness is also seen as the default. As such, it becomes the generalized frame of reference.
For example, I’ve been in various social situations with women and men, and even where the women outnumber the men, yet people address the group as “guys”. When I hear people use this phrase, I’m immediately aghast, thinking, “Not all of us here are ‘guys.’” This is especially true for me as a non-binary person.
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I’m also astonished when a cis woman uses the phrase “hey guys” to address a gathering of mixed-gender folks or when referring to a group of women. When even cis women use the phrase, I silently think to myself, “Damn! Patriarchy really has infiltrated our language.”
When cis men use the phrase, I am reminded of how most cis men are oblivious to how patriarchy works in the world. It never dawns on most cis men how patriarchy has infiltrated our everyday language, so much so that they assume their existence is the norm. This fact is obvious when considering why cis men (and usually even cis women) don’t typically address a gathering of mostly women or mixed-gender folks as “ladies” or “girls”. How often do we see that happen?
I would encourage a person to address both the men and women in a gathering as “guys” and “ladies” simultaneously when it is appropriate. However, I think people should also be mindful that gender identities can be complex and contextual. For example, my partner identifies as both a woman and genderqueer and uses she/her and they/them pronouns. Although she doesn’t mind being referred to as a woman, she prefers not to be called a “lady”. When identifying herself in casual conversation, she identifies with “woman” and “AFAB” (assigned female at birth) interchangeably. But she also doesn’t mind being addressed with a “hey guys” in a group context because she feels in those moments that her masculinity is being acknowledged.
These nuances of gender identity are shared by many gender-expansive folks. However, we must go further as a society and be mindful that not everybody identifies within the gender binary. It should be more appropriate for people to address a gathering of people simply with “Hey everyone,” or “Hey amazing people,” or “Hey folks.”
Validating and Respecting Pronouns
In order to dismantle the normativity of binary gender, we must discuss the importance of pronouns. In the last few decades, the importance of asking someone their pronouns has become a key way of learning to respect another person’s gender.
You can ask someone their gender pronouns simply by asking, “What are your pronouns?” In queer, trans, and gender non-conforming spaces, it’s customary for everyone to disclose their pronouns when introducing themselves in order to make sure they’re not assuming how another person identifies. This is unfortunately revolutionary in a world dominated by cis straight people, who typically flatly assume the genders of other people based on how they look. Such assumptions result in misgendering. For example, as a non-binary person who wears feminine clothing and was assigned male at birth, random people I interact with often refer to me as “he” because they fail to ask for my pronouns.
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Many (but not all) non-binary and gender non-conforming people use gender-neutral pronouns, such as they, them, and theirs. Many cishet (cisgender and heterosexual) people are apprehensive about using they/them pronouns, arguing they wouldn’t ordinarily reference a single person as they and that doing so is grammatically incorrect.
I’ve personally experienced someone use this rationale after I told them to use they/them pronouns for me. My response was, “You use they/them pronouns more often than you think. For example, ‘Did the mail person come today?’ ‘No, I don’t think they did.’” We don’t live in this world now, but I hope one day all people consistently ask everyone their pronouns.
Some cis people reading this may think, “If I don’t ask someone what their pronouns are, how should I speak about this person in a general sense?” I want to encourage all people to never assume the gender of another person. I also encourage you not to hesitate to simply use they/them pronouns until you’ve asked someone their pronouns, or until they feel comfortable enough to disclose their gender identity.
The Future of Gender-Neutral Language
There have been some strides in articulating gender-neutral language. Two such terms are nibling and sibling. “Nibling” is a gender-neutral term identifying the child of one’s sibling. You can think of it as the gender-neutral alternative to “nephew” or “niece”. And “sibling”, of course, allows folks to express their relationship to each other without having to remain in the confines of the gender binary.
I personally can relate to the importance of the word sibling. Now that I don’t identify as a cis man or a womxn, I’m still a sibling to my sister. I would prefer for my sister to address me as her sibling rather than her “brother”.
The same can be said of the word parent. Instead of gendering parents in the form of “mother” or “father”, some non-binary, agender, and gender non-conforming parents may simply decide to use the word parent. As a non-binary person, I hope to raise a child someday. When that time comes, I would like to be referred to not as a “mother” or “father”, but as simply a parent.
Another word that has become more popular since the increasing acceptance of same-gender and same-sex couples has been partner. Whilst partner has become used by same-gender couples to affirm their couplehood, it also serves to disrupt binary gender assumptions. “Partner” reinforces the idea that the gender of a person’s significant other is no one’s business. Instead, it’s up to each person whether to disclose the gender of their partner.
Latinx is a great example of a relatively recent gender-neutral term. It allows people within the community to identify with their lineage in a way that is neither strictly masculine or feminine. This is particularly important given that the Spanish language is heavily gendered. All words either end in “o” (a masculine signifier) or “a” (a feminine signifier). In contrast, the “x” in Latinx signifies a whole community of people without being limited to the gender binary.
As a Latinx person, I’m proud that my community has developed this term. It means a lot for non-binary and gender nonconforming people. Until I learned about Latinx as a term and starting using it to self-identify, the words Latino and Latina felt socially dysphoric for me. Now I can use the term Latinx to affirm my gender as a non-binary person and also affirm my culture.
Even though our everyday language is rooted in the worldview of cisheteropatriarchy, there have been great strides to resist the gender binary in everyday language. These improvements point to a future where the everyday language we use might someday be free from all binary gender assumptions.
[Feature Image: A white person with short dark hair sits in front of a peach-colored background as they look away from the camera. They appear to be topless and are pictured from the shoulders up, their face partially outside the frame. Source: Flickr.com/Amanda Hatheway]