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A Question of Gender

January 15, 2020

TL/DR – It doesn’t hurt you to use non-gender binary language, it does hurt those who identify as non-binary if you don’t, so use it.

I am a middle-aged cisgender feminist who finds herself struggling with applying non-binary gender terminology.  Many of my friends children (to clarify, those I know of are aged 11 and above) have come out as gender non-binary, and some are choosing to use non-specific terminology and/or changing their names to ones most often considered to be of the sex they were not assigned at birth or gender neutral.

Many of my friends are struggling with this, and I am embarrassed and ashamed to note I struggle too.  I’m embarrassed because I have stated more than once over many years that it would be brilliant if we no longer had to use gender-based language and terminology to refer to people as this would be a massive step towards resolving inherent gender inequality which is perpetuated in part by such language.  I’m ashamed because I know hurt is caused when I get it wrong and I desperately don’t want that to happen.


The necessity of gender being defined and fixed is ingrained into our language and our political, social, economic and all other systems through which we administrate and run our countries.  Some other countries and cultures do have a third-gender possibility (Hijra in India for example, or Two-Spirit people for several of the tribes indigenous to the Americas), others genderise inanimate objects to the actual names objects are given (school French, I’m looking at you with all your ‘la table’, ‘le SomethingMasculineBecauseIHaven’tDoneFrench in 30-odd years etc.).

The difficulties I am finding are entirely due to the deeply ingrained use of language I have lived with all my life (as has everyone else in their respective cultures).   I am very much pro-neutral language and advocate for it, yet still I find it a problem to actually use it.  That does not mean it is not important, even vital, to do so if we want a non-sexist society.

Gender is a social construct.  Therefore the means to perpetuate the construct are also a social construct.  At the end of the equation then is the possibility to deconstruct, and that takes time, practice, patience and apologies for getting it wrong because you, and I, will.  The main three problems I have found are:

  • I have known the person from prior to utilising their chosen terminology.

It just takes practice, and apologies for when I get it wrong.  I will trust that person to understand my mistakes and hopefully forgive them, in the same way that they have trusted me with their truth.  That trust is a privilege and I will not abuse it.

  • Their parent/guardian/responsible adult doesn’t support them and it is they who are my friend/family

It’s tough to try and support both but ultimately it is the parent/guardian/RA who has the problem, not the child.  I try to guide the adult to acceptance (not tolerance) and support the youngling in their move forward into their lives.

  • They are presenting outwardly as how I would consider at first initial glance as one particular gender.

Having boobs is a particular problem for me in utilising non-gender specific pronouns etc., or wearing what are considered ‘female’ clothing.  I do not have the same problem with what are presumed to be male forms of clothing as it is ‘acceptable’ in my society for women to wear male-gendered clothing, although a shaved head and seeing only from behind has caused some embarrassing mishaps.  My mouth spasms into a knee-jerk automatic incorrect use of he/she.  I just apologise and say I’ll do better, and hope I haven’t hurt that person although I know I have to accept I may have.  I need to maintain my awareness that this is all about my social conditioning, nothing else, and that that person will have been subjected to the same conditioning.

All I can do is try, try, try again and do better, even if it’s only a little better, each time.

Many times I’ve heard it stated that “it’s a phase” the non-binary identifying youngling is going through.  So what if it is?  That doesn’t mean you ignore or trample over the expressed wish of the youngling.  They may or may not change their mind (although you should note the majority who come out at a young age do not go back in, and if they do it is that that is the phase because of the bigotry they faced when coming out).  If it helps, think of it this way; if your child had expressed a wish to play a sport or join a social club, that also may be a phase, but it wouldn’t stop you supporting them in that endeavour.  It doesn’t hurt you to accept what they say and talk and act in the way they choose, but it will hurt them if you don’t.

We were conditioned into binary gender definitions and language, so we can definitely condition ourselves out of it.  It’s not universal nor is it temporally fixed.  It is a social construct.  I think we should each strive to the best of our abilities to improve the world as best we can for future generations, and to me, that does not include bigotry in any form.

Maybe what we are seeing now is that breakdown of gender constructs, necessitating more self-identifying categories in order to best fit the person choosing to apply them to themselves.  We are no longer being boxed in by others binding us into broad definitions and then regulating and socialising us into discrimination based on those imposed definitions.  The end of that logical road can only be the end of all forms of bigotry, and isn’t that what we all should want anyway?

Remember also, gender does not equal sexuality.  Don’t confuse the two.

rainbow flagIt’s LGBTQPIA+ month in the UK in February 2020 – if you have any confusion and/or want to know more, avail yourself of the myriad opportunities that will shortly be coming your way!  This is a fantastic start for parents, educators and youth:

TL/DR – It doesn’t hurt you to use non-gender binary language, it does hurt those who identify as non-binary if you don’t, so use it.


  1. Such a good point. I have been trying to de-genderise my writing, which is easier because I have time to think and can easily correct a mistake before it gets seen by anyone else. Making all my speech gender neutral will be a steep mountain to climb. Well done for describing, accepting and owning the struggle. I shall endeavour to follow your example.

    • I’ve been trying to do the same thing with my writing; it’s so difficult!

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