“Beyond political correctness”: The exclusionary messaging of gendered language in journalism
Like the rest of us who attended grade school in the United States, I grew up in classes that were divided into “girls and boys.” I didn’t see gender-neutral signs attached to restroom doors. I was called a “little girl” and juxtaposed with the “little boys” in my class. Eventually, we were declared young women and men. Our world makes gendered language easily accessible and understandable, the go-to choice in writing and conversation.
To consider the importance of language as it pertains to journalism feels redundant. Yet by using gendered language in reporting, we work to maintain the status quo, the binary ingrained in us for centuries through colonization and capitalist power dynamics rooted in and predicated on the existence of a duality, an “us” versus “them.” In actuality, many other cultures, primarily those that are indigenous or have been colonized in some way both historically or presently, view gender as a spectrum.
Activist and educator Sally Goldner once said, “It is really important, in a world that is often very ‘either/or,’ to remember there can be both, neither, and everything — that is, other than the ‘binary’ of male or female.”
We’re in an era of mass information and access, with an increasingly, openly diverse population, composed of a spectrum of sexuality and gender identities, from cisgender to transgender, from heterosexual to queer, and everywhere in between. That readership relies on the media for information. Because good reporting can provide encompassing and long-lasting knowledge on a topic, journalists have the power to not only report facts, but shift social, political, and economic discourse, making the language they use fraught with purpose.
As a queer freelance journalist and writer who uses they/them and she/her pronouns, I’ve been on both ends of the reporting chain. My work and my personhood require that I not only report stories but read them as well. My identity works to inform how I engage with journalism from who I interview to subject matter.
But despite the truth of my identity, I am still perceived as a woman by and large by society. Inversely, that helps me understand the impacts of reporting that is exclusionary because of its use of gendered language. Through that, I’ve taken note of the widespread lack of gender non-conforming language in the media, and how that can create a ripple effect on and off the page.
1 million transgender and nonbinary individuals in the United States dismisses a large portion of the U.S. population, as well as the facts of events and stories. In a field rooted in getting to the truth of the matter, relying on gendered language ignores the main principle of journalists’ ethics.
“A lot of companies will pledge inclusivity but the language used on their website is still incredibly binaried,” Kale O’Hara, a nonbinary doula-in-training, said. “That immediately turns nonbinary and trans folks away. You can’t pledge to inclusivity in theory and not practice.”
That often happens in news outlets.
For instance, the title of this New York Times article, “Cannabis use in pregnancy may lead to a more anxious, aggressive child”, seems to indicate a discussion about how the use of cannabis by pregnant people might impact their child’s development.
However, the first opening words are immediately off-putting to a non-cis readership: “Children of women who use marijuana…” Not every pregnant person identifies as or is a woman, making this article feel irrelevant to non-cisgender folks who are or will be parents. Sure, the diction is exclusionary, but its impact can be more severe.
Since the topic covers cannabis use and pregnancy, a pregnant non-binary or trans person might be left without answers as to how cannabis use might affect their unborn child and how cannabis use might affect them.
“When I read an article with gendered language, especially if it’s medically related or physical, it leaves me wondering how [the topic] might impact my body,” O’Hara said.
The main study referenced in the New York Times article discusses “maternal” cannabis use. “Maternal” is a binary description of a person with a uterus or someone capable of vaginal birth.
This ignores something trans and non-binary people have been talking about for years: Biology does not predetermine a person’s identity.
While the study does not include a pool of subjects who are on hormones to deduce whether or not the impact of cannabis on those parents is similar or different, not every non-binary and trans person is on hormones. In other words, to make the study more inclusive, researchers could have run more diverse testing.
“[One of the driving forces in my using gendered language] was the research itself,” said Melinda Wenner Moyer, the reporter who wrote the Times article. “But I suspect the biggest driver was habit. I’m actively trying to work on noticing gendered language when I see it, and correcting myself when I use it.”
While Moyer could have asked the two doctors behind it about why their study pool wasn’t more diverse or what they suspect the effects might be for those on hormone replacement therapy (HRT), the general usage of gender-nonspecific language can help encourage those studies. Incorporating inclusive language while discussing studies that use the opposite could serve as a call to action for the medical world at large to follow suit, both by changing their diction and including more diverse testing pools.
Either way, language could have been altered throughout the article since the study can still be spoken about in gender-neutral terms without compromising the science. Moyer went on to write a piece for Nature, which also discussed a study that could have fallen into the same trap. However, with the help of her editors, she wrote a more inclusive piece.
“I remember having this ‘aha’ moment when I saw their changes,” she said. “And I realized, ‘Wow. I haven’t been considering the implications of my word choices enough, and I really need to be doing a better, more careful job.’”
The urgency of moving away from gendered language in journalism
Whether through allyship or hiring more LGBTQ+ reporters and editors, these discrepancies can be flagged and altered. Further, ownership and an active desire to shift practices is valuable, both for readership and other journalists.
Diversifying who a reporter speaks with on a subject can also help mitigate inclusivity issues.
“If you’re looking for experts to weigh in on an issue like reproductive health you’ll need to be judicious about who you speak to because the majority of people will speak in gendered terms. It’s frustrating, but it’s not unworkable,” said Ziya Jones, a health and wellness editor at Xtra Magazine.
But making language shifts requires people to understand it’s not just journalists who default to using gendered language and need to take responsibility for it, O’Hara said.
“Unless they’re trans or nonbinary, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals rarely know how to talk to me, whether about testosterone or what to expect after top surgery,” they said.
Utilizing gender-inclusive language can encourage more thorough medical treatment while influencing policy and social rhetoric.
“Using gender-neutral pronouns is definitely a huge step towards challenging our internalized gender biases and being more inclusive of non-binary individuals,” said Jacqui Carini, a non-binary film and television producer.
For instance, using gender-neutral language in an article about pregnancy challenges the notion that only women can get pregnant, increasing positive and healthy medical interactions, while breaking down that idea in social interactions and healthcare policy.
According to Jones, moving away from gendered language is “beyond political correctness.” Properly addressing and acknowledging trans and nonbinary people can be critical to ensuring they receive the care they need.
“Speaking to and incorporating more diverse experts and sources can address a lot of the disparities that exist in talking about people, but more than that, it can work to achieve a higher healthcare standard for a lot of people,” Jones said.
Gender-neutral language can also provide exposure to other lived experiences and the diversity and nuance of others’ existence while educating beyond medical and policy-making fields.
O’Hara said they can seek out representative publications and reporting that best represents them, but for the rest of the cis-population who are receiving their information from mainstream publications, representation and inclusivity fall short because it is unlikely they are regularly exposed to trans and non-binary identities and experiences.
And within that, education, exposure, and safety fall short. Hate crimes are rampant in times of disinformation and discrimination. We saw the Human Rights Campaign track 2020 as the most deadly year for transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals to date. 2021 surpassed that data. More widespread usage of gender-neutral language works to make it the standard both on and off the page.
The unspoken but present inclusion of gender-neutral language in reporting holds the ability to increase LGBTQ+ visibility while correcting preconceived notions. In those same schools that divided us up by girls and boys, I remember the importance placed on the notion of tolerance. While I find tolerance to be a frivolous goal in the face of discrimination, hate crimes, and oppression, any well-meaning efforts toward it, however rooted in “political correctness,” are fallible and disingenuous if not rooted in action in journalism and beyond.
While I do not fault a journalist for using gendered language in a piece, it doesn’t negate a journalist’s responsibility to stop using gendered language. The power of our roles comes with a certain urgency. Journalists explore and discuss the truth; in that way, our reporting reflects as well as influences the current state of affairs.
“The more we continue to use gendered language in our writing, the more we perpetuate the status quo and alienate people who are trans or non-binary,” Moyer said. “We mislead the public, fuel stereotypes, and exclude others.”
Liana DeMasi is a fiction writer and freelance journalist living in Brooklyn, NY, with bylines in The Boston Globe, i-D Magazine, Poynter, Atmos and others. This piece originally ran at The Objective . Subscribe to its newsletters here.
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