Rewriting the wrongs – language that is not gender-inclusive

Thirty-two years ago, on 17 May 1990, the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems — one of the foremost diagnostic compendiums employed around the world by health scientists as well as practitioners for epidemiological research, health management, and clinical work. 

In the wake of this, queer communities around the world now commemorate 17 May as the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia or, IDAHOBIT. It is a day that serves as an annual opportunity to highlight the work still needed to combat anti-queer discrimination and violence and, at the same time, celebrate the progress made to curb and end the prejudice experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming people.

The removal of the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness and psychological disorder was an important advance towards a standard of non-discriminatory mental and medical healthcare for queer people. More broadly, it represented yet another step in how the queer community and our allies have organised to resist the use of language in ways which serve to degrade, medicalise, pathologise, and criminalise our gendered and sexual identities, ways of being, and relationships. 

In a heteronormative world, that is to say, a world which sees gender and sexual difference and diversity as, at best, a deviation from the so-called “norm” and, at worst, a disorder or disease that requires “treatment” or incarceration, language has always been, and continues to be, a contested frontier for queer people as we work within and through language to challenge, subvert, and reclaim the dominant ways in which our bodies and ourselves have been identified and misidentified as well as treated and mistreated. 

Historically, queer and allied resistance to prejudicial language has often been most visible in opposition to the ways that institutionalised Western medicine and, in particular, psychiatry and psychology, have used derogatory clinical discourse and diagnostology to pathologise queer(er) identities and medicalise queer(er) bodies. 

There is a long history of discriminatory language practices that today litter the terminological trashcan of medical and mental healthcare, including “gay bowel syndrome”, “gay-related immunodeficiency disease” and, more recently, “gender identity disorder”. Far from benign, the history of this language is a history of violence characterised by the classification of queer identities, bodies, and relationships as sites for medical and psychological “curative” intervention, including, “conversion” therapies and surgical “correction”.

Today, however, a new frontier in the queer contestation of language has begun to take shape in our everyday talk, namely, gender(ed) pronouns. In recent months, newspaper headlines and media coverage has highlighted how (at least some) South African schools are starting to recognise the need to cultivate more gender-inclusive educational environments by both grappling with and transforming the everyday practices that come to organise and define school life, such as school sanctioned gender-specific haircuts and hairstyles, school approved gender-defined uniforms and dress codes, as well as the school-directed use of the traditional gender pronouns employed by staff to identify, name, and gender students. 

Buttons with the “they, them, theirs” pronouns are displayed during the ClexaCon 2021 convention at the Tropicana Las Vegas on October 09, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images)

It is important to recognise how many of the aforementioned features of contemporary school life in South African primary and secondary schools remain archaic, with the roots of these customs and practices embedded in both Dutch and English colonial-era and hetero-patriarchal traditions of schooling — traditions which, in both overt and covert ways, work to organise, reproduce, and discipline school life, students and their bodies in terms of gender or, more specifically, a compulsory Western-styled binary of gender defined by only two biological sexes, namely, “male” and “female”. 

It is therefore not surprising that the mission, vision, and ethos statements of many secondary schools continue to be explicitly defined by gendered outcomes of education, such as, in references to educating “young ladies” or raising “young men”   

Contrary to this convention, some schools such as Westerford High School in Cape Town have demonstrated bravery and creativity in introducing inclusive language policies which establish new language practices through the use of gender-affirmative and gender-neutral pronouns. 

Generally speaking, gender-inclusive language policies and practices broaden the traditional pronoun convention of “he/him” and “she/her” to include “they/them/their” used in the singular, “ze” (pronounced zee) in place of she/he, and “hir” (pronounced here) in place of her/his. 

In doing so, the aim of these (evolving) language practices is to promote inclusion by recognising and validating the full spectrum of gendered identities and gender expressions. Yet some of these efforts continue to be undermined, either by national and provincial departments of education, which remain sluggish in providing policy direction to schools on gender inclusivity or, by pop-up “stakeholders” who appear to oppose any move by schools and school communities to become more gender inclusive. 

In one such recent example, members and representatives of the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) picketed against the Western Cape education department’s proposed introduction of new policy guidelines to create more gender-inclusive, affirming, and safer spaces in the province’s schools. 

In a News24 report of the protest, Mari Sukers, a member of parliament for the ACDP, was reported to have claimed that “gender fluidity is an ideology; it is not a fact”. 

This opinion, while factually inaccurate, is nonetheless a common hallmark of more conservative thinking and retrogressive argument which seeks to deny the biological and psychological reality of gender and sexual diversity by erasing all those queer people who identify, experience, and express their gendered and sexual subjectivity in ways which fall between and outside of the socially constructed male-female binary. 

Again, it must be understood that the queer-phobic ideologies that underpin language practices that deliberately misidentify, misname, misgender, and ultimately deny an authentic recognition and expression of a queer person’s gendered sense of self and body are not benign. 

Research has shown that these kinds of language practices have effects that present a clear and present danger to the mental health and personal dignity of queer people, broadly, and younger school-going queers, more particularly. 

Recent research has found that queer youth find the use of their preferred pronouns personally validating, as well as engendering a safer sense of the spaces in which their preferred pronouns are used. Moreover, accurately identifying a queer person through their preferred pronoun and name has been shown to reduce depression and the risk of suicidality. 

This is especially important considering that queer youth are already known to be at greater risk for suicidal ideation and behaviour — and not because of their queerness but, rather, because of the aggravating effects of the societal prejudice, victimisation, and violence they face as a queer person.     

Gendered pronouns are not “just words”, but deeply personal and psychologically significant identifiers of personhood. They function to help a person understand and articulate their embodied sense of self, their relations with others, and their positionalities in the social world. 

To this effect, a refusal to acknowledge and use more expansive, inclusive, and preferred gender pronouns needs to be seen, as Chan Tov McNamarah has recently argued in the California Law Review, as yet another way in which our everyday language practices become co-opted to reiterate forms of exclusion, subordination, and devaluation that are akin to “addressing black persons by only their first names, the intentional omission of women’s professional titles, and the deliberate butchering of the ethnically-marked names of minorities, … ”. 

It is for this reason that, as we mark IDAHOBIT 2022, queer people and our allies treat the opposition around the use of inclusive gender pronouns, be it in our schools, workplaces, and other social settings, with as much seriousness as we have historically treated the ways in which institutionalised forms of diagnostic discourse and language through medicine, psychiatry, and psychology have been used to erase, control, and gatekeep our bodies, our lives, and our rights.

Jarred Martin (PhD) is an early-career academic at the University of Pretoria’s department of psychology and is a registered clinical psychologist. This article is written on behalf of the Sexuality and Gender Division of the Psychological Society of South Africa.

The views expressed in the article are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Jarred Martin
Jarred Martin has a PhD in psychology from the University of Cape Town and is an early-career academic based in the department of psychology at the University of Pretoria and a registered clinical psychologist. His research and writing focuses on gender and sexualities. This article is written on behalf of the Sexuality and Gender Division of the Psychological Society of South Africa.

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