This week's Pride post comes to us from Island Health nurse, manager of the Office of the Chief Nursing Officer and Innovation Lab lead Angela Wignall.
“My pronoun is they/them."
“I identify as genderqueer."
“This ID says X for the gender,
not male or female."
You may have heard similar statements from people you know or clients you serve. They may even describe the words you use to identify yourself. The language we use to describe gender, sexual orientation, and self-identification is as diverse as we are and may include words you are not familiar with. Pride months is the perfect time to reflect on how the language we use helps or harms and how we can make inclusive language part of our practices every day.
Language is so important. The way we describe each other and ourselves is a powerful tool in affirming our identities. Language also has the power to deny identity or make someone feel like their identity is not okay. Just as we hang rainbow flags to celebrate Pride and signal safe spaces, language can inform the people around us what we think about who they are. Understanding and using inclusive language is an important part of making our spaces, communities and society equal and affirming.
Sex and Gender
The first step in unpacking the language we use to identify ourselves and each other is understanding that sex and gender are two different things.
Sex describes the biologically assigned category one is given at birth, usually male or female, based on physiologically observable parts. For a very long time, our society and culture has reinforced the idea that there are only two sexes and therefore only two genders. That's called the gender binary because when we think of identifying someone's sex, we think of one of two things: male or female.
Gender is different than sex. Gender describes a spectrum of identities that includes how people identify themselves, the kinds of social behaviours and roles we identify with, and the relationship we have with the society we live in. Gender is not something you can know just by looking at someone. It is something you can learn only by getting to know the unique person in front of you. As more and more people have bravely stepped forward demanding respect and acceptance for the full spectrum of diverse identities, so too has our language opened up beyond the gender binary.
What about Sexual Orientation?
Sexual orientation describes who you are attracted to. It is different from the sex you were assigned at birth and your gender identity. Folks of every gender can be attracted to folks of every gender. Some words that describe sexual orientation include:
- Lesbian – a woman who is attracted to women
- Gay – a man who is attracted to men
- Bisexual – someone attracted to two genders, often men and women
- Pansexual – someone who is attracted to many people and genders
- Asexual – someone who does not feel sexual attraction for any person
- Heterosexual or Straight - someone who is attracted to the so-called opposite sex
A common mistake is confusing gender identity with sexual orientation. For example, we may assume that someone who identifies as a trans woman has a sexual identity that is straight. We might make this assumption because our society and culture has taught us that women are attracted to men. But a trans woman may be straight, lesbian, pansexual or any other sexual orientation.
Gender identity is about who we are. Sexual orientation is about who we love. And sexual orientation is not a choice or lifestyle. It is fundamental to who we are as unique, diverse human beings.
Some people's gender identity is the same as their assigned sex. For example, a woman who was assigned female at birth may also self-identify as a woman. Cisgender is the term that is used to describe when someone's assigned sex is the same as their identified gender. This person might use the personal pronouns she/her/hers. In our society that privileges people whose sex and gender align, this woman is very likely to have her identity and her preferences accepted and respected.
For other people, sex and gender are not the same. For example, a woman may be assigned male at birth but her gender identity is female. This person may identify as transgender or simply as a woman, with the personal pronouns she/her/hers that reflect her identity as a woman. However, this woman is more likely to have her pronouns disrespected and experience violence, transphobia, and discrimination.
And for some folks, they identify as somewhere else on the spectrum, such as agender, nonbinary, gender fluid, or gender non-conforming. These people might use personal pronouns like they/them/theirs.
In a society and a culture that historically views male and female as the only options for sex and gender, the broader spectrum of human experience and identity is not part of the norm. As described above, we make assumptions about who people are and who they love because our society and culture tells us that the 'norm' is being cisgendered and heterosexual. This 'norm' is called heteronormativity and it comes out in all kind of unexpected ways:
- When you call a group of people “boys and girls" or “ladies and gentlemen"
- When you use titles like “sir" and “madam" before asking how someone self-identifies
- When you look at someone with long hair and assume they are female
- When you meet a new co-worker who looks like a man and assume they are partnered with a woman
When we use heteronormative language, we reinforce the social belief that there are two sexes or the gender binary and that sex is the same as gender. Heteronormative language is harmful because it excludes the many other ways in which people identify and love from this narrow idea of “normal" and actively works against inclusion.
How Do I Know?
So how do you know what someone's identity is and which pronouns and terms to use when you're referring to them? Ask. Share your own pronoun and ask about theirs. Instead of making assumptions about their partnerships, ask them about the people they love and share their lives with. Lead with your own gender identity to make space for them to share their identity. Respect that no one is required to disclose their identity or orientation to you and honour them if they do choose to share by responding with kindness and care.
You can also work on identifying when you use heteronormative language and start using gender inclusive or neutral alternatives:
- Instead of “ladies and gentleman", say “guests", “friends and colleagues", or “folks"
- Instead of “he" or “she", use the gender neutral “they" or “them"
- Instead of “manpower" or “mankind", use “workers" or “humankind"
- Instead of “mother" or “father", say “parent"
- Instead of describing someone as “homosexual", use the words to describe their unique identity and orientation such as “gay", “pansexual", or “transsexual"
And remember to always put the person first.
Use their name and the personal pronouns they have chosen to share with you.
Respect their personhood and value their uniqueness.
Want to learn more about self-identification and inclusive language? Check out the Positive Spaces Initiative's Glossary of Terms.
Want to explore more about the difference between sex, gender, and orientation? Check out The Genderbread Person.