Degendering Language Is About Expanding Your Vocabulary, Not Limiting It

Photo: Getty Images / Maskot
As people work to make the world a more inclusive place, language is changing. Gender commonly sneaks its way into sentences in ways that aren't necessary. While the act of degendering language might feel as if it's imposing limitations, it's actually a change that expands your vocabulary, says Rae McDaniel, LCPC, CST, CEO and founder of Practical Audacity, a gender and sex therapy group, at the most recent Well+Good TALK.

"Instead of seeing degendering language as putting a potato sack on everything and getting rid of gender completely, it's more about how do we intentionally create the most inclusive environment that includes the most amount of people that we actually are trying to talk to," says McDaniel, who is also the CEO and founder of GenderFck, a group coaching program and community for those undergoing gender transition. "If you degender your language, the everyday person is probably not going to notice that much, but the people that it matters to will notice a lot, and it makes a huge difference in whether or not they feel safe and seen in a space."

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People often use gendered language as a placeholder instead of saying what they actually mean, says McDaniel. Think about the terms "boy push-up" versus "girl push-up." Generally, "boy push-up" refers to a push-up done up in a full plank while a "girl push-up" refers to a modified push-up performed on your knees. But if you don't know that, using the gendered title doesn't share any specific information that helps you figure out what it's actually describing.

"I see this happen a lot when we're talking about energy as well, masculine and feminine energy," says McDaniel. "If we really said what we mean, often people would be talking about aggressive or competitive energy, or soft or flowy or nurturing energy, and none of those things, none of those characteristics are gendered. We all contain all of those energies within us."

Watch the full conversation with Bethany C. Meyers, Erica Chidi, and Rae McDaniel, moderated by Well+Good co-founder Melisse Gelula:

Degendering your language isn't difficult, but it is impactful.

"People feel like gender-neutral language is this huge hurdle to overcome, when, in reality, a lot of us do this fairly naturally. Or if we just think about it a little bit, then it's not that hard," says McDaniel. "A lot of us use gendered language without thinking about it when it comes to greetings. Even, 'Hey, ladies. Hey, guys,' instead of, 'Hey, y'all,' or 'Hey, everybody,' or 'Hey, class,' or 'Hey, team.'"

The process of degendering your language won't happen overnight and slip-ups are inevitable.

"We can't assimilate [to gender-neutral language] if people are resistant to using it because they think they're going to make a mistake," says Erica Chidi, doula, health educator, and co-founder and CEO of Loom, a business focused on sexual and reproductive health education. "It's like learning more language, which is not going to be a perfect practice, it's going to be funny and weird, and that's okay."

Bethany C. Meyers, founder and CEO of The Become Project, a boutique body-neutral fitness brand, adds that while degendering language has a huge impact on queer people and gender-nonconforming people, it also impacts cis people.

"It creates less pressure on women, cis women, and less pressure on cis men to fit into certain boxes, and then when they inevitably don't, or when a man is feeling sensitive, compassion, 'feminine' energy, soft, they don't feel like they're in the wrong box or they've stepped in the wrong lane," says Meyers. "This conversation is often so directed in the queer space, and that's where I live, that's where I direct it too, but I actually think for everyone it can really help neutralize [gender] a little bit."

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