Gender Neutral Pronouns and Inclusive Language

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Most teachers of writing I know are concerned, along with their students, about using inclusive language in (and out of) the classroom, and especially in acknowledging that the traditional male/female binary doesn’t come close to adequately addressing the fluidity and range of human gender and sexuality. These insights have been a long time coming. As a white woman raised in the south, I grew up with that binary firmly fixed and would never have thought of questioning it—until I got to college. I was an avid student and eager to take advantage of every lecture, concert, or other cultural event offered at my state school, so I found myself one evening in a big auditorium to hear a talk by philosopher Alan Watts. I remember that he drew an imaginary line across the stage and then said that it represented human sexuality, and that every point along the line was different, that the range of our ability to experience sex stretched literally from sea to shining sea. I don’t remember much else about the lecture, which occurred over half a century ago. But I do remember sitting in the auditorium at the end of the talk feeling as though I were looking over an abyss and understanding, for the first time, just how much I had to learn about what it meant to be human.


Well, that’s why we go to college—and I hope students everywhere are being led to question their own assumptions and to expand their ways of thinking. So I’ve been a big advocate of the use of gender neutral language. In the latest edition of Everything’s an Argument, we talk about pronoun preferences and quote Peter Smagorinsky: “It may well be that “ze” and “zir” will replace current pronouns over time" (as "Ms." has replaced "Mrs." or "Miss"). And of course the use of singular “they” is now regularly accepted, as in “Jamie called me and so I called them back.” The important point is that writers and speakers need to be sensitive to difference and need to choose terms (like pronouns!) appropriately.


That goes for identity labels as well, and in this regard I was interested to read an essay by Jonathan Rauch called “Don’t Call Me LGBTQ: Why we need a single overarching designation for sexual minorities” in the January/February 2019 issue of The Atlantic. Rauch argues that “LGBTQ is coalitional and inclusive. But no matter how many letters are added, one group is pointedly excluded.” After much thought, he says, he has come to the conclusion that “the alphabet-soup designation for sexual minorities has become a synecdoche for the excesses of identity politics—excesses that have helped empower the likes of Donald Trump.” So Rauch urges us to “retire the term” and replace it with a single letter: Q.

. . . the term would be understood to encompass sexual minorities of all stripes. When we speak of ourselves as individuals, we would use gay or lesbian or transgender, or whatever applies. When we need a blanket term, we would simply call ourselves Q. As in: the Q population and Q equality. Q is simple and inclusive, and carries minimal baggage. When we speak of Q equality, we are saying that discrimination against sexual minorities—or for that matter sexual majorities—is not the American way.


As writing teachers, we have an opportunity to engage students in exploring terminologies and labels of all kinds—and to help them to use language in describing others that is inclusive and sensitive to difference. In doing so, we help them become more conscientious and effective communicators. And as always, we stand to learn a great deal from their discussions.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3751930 by SharonMcCutcheon, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.