I consider writing to be a huge responsibility. Putting my words out into the world and sharing them on large platforms means that a lot of people are reading them. My work influences people and affects the way they view the world. As a writer, I believe that I have a responsibility to do as little harm as possible. For me, that means making my work as inclusive as possible.
Most of us have not been taught to take a gender-inclusive lens to our work. Old habits can be hard to break and that's OK! All of us will make mistakes on this journey (including me), but I want to give some concrete tips for folks that might just be starting to think about what this could mean or look like in their own work.
But first: what does gender-inclusive even mean? When I say "gender-inclusive," I'm talking about work that makes room for people outside the gender binary, who don't necessarily identify as men or women. Gender-inclusive work recognizes that gender is a spectrum, and seeks to include as many experiences of gender as possible within it. The goal of gender-inclusive work is to avoid erasing anyone's experiences.
With that said, here are some places to start:
MAKE YOUR PRONOUNS EASILY ACCESSIBLE
In order to normalize the idea of asking for and providing someone's correct pronouns, make your own easy to find. I have mine in my email signature, on the "About" page of this website, and in my Twitter bio. This is an example for my sources that I readily provide my own pronouns. It helps to normalize the fact that people's pronouns should not be assumed. It's also a signifier to trans, non-binary, and queer sources that I am (hopefully) a safe person to talk to, or at the very least, will do the best I can to treat their story and identity with respect.
ASK ALL YOUR SOURCES THEIR PRONOUNS
I'm here to make the case for asking sources what pronouns they use becoming standard journalistic practice. Just like you ask a source how to spell their name, their title, their age, and their location at the beginning of an interview, consider adding pronouns to the list of questions you ask. The purpose of this is two-fold:
- It's a matter of journalistic ethics. You cannot tell someone's gender just by looking at them. Even if you think you know which pronouns they use, you could be wrong. Asking a source their pronouns is a way to avoid unintentionally misgendering someone. It can be incredibly harmful for trans and non-binary people to be misgendered; some people even consider it to be a form of violence. I want to respect my sources, and asking their pronouns is one way to do that. If you do end up having a source that tells you they use they/them pronouns, be sure to include a note to your editor when you file your piece so that the story doesn't get edited in a way that misgenders the person.
- It's a matter of journalistic accuracy. As journalists, we should value accuracy in our work. If I make an assumption about someone's pronouns, not only have I misgendered them, but my story contains inaccurate information. Asking a source their pronouns allows for the most accurate reporting possible. Case in point: recently, I interviewed someone for a piece. If I had made an assumption about which pronouns to use in my story, I would have used she/her when discussing this source. But when I asked their pronouns, they informed me that they use they/them pronouns. If I had made an assumption, I would have been wrong.
I'm not going to lie and say it's always comfortable to ask this question. The large majority of sources will likely use pronouns that seem to match their gender presentation. Many will be confused by the pronoun question. That's OK! It's a great opportunity for a teaching moment, to gently explain why the question is asked, and to give them pronoun options to choose from: he/him, she/her, they/them.
SAY THIS, NOT THAT
If you want to start writing from a more inclusive place when it comes to gender, here are some easy terms you can swap out for more accurate ones.
- Instead of using "men and women" to include everyone, use "people," or "folks."
- Instead of "pregnant women," say "pregnant people." Similarly, "birthing people" can stand in for "birthing women."
- Instead of "nursing mothers," say "nursing parents" or talk about the parent and their nursing child with the term "nursing dyad." Also, as opposed to using "breastfeeding" to talk about the act, "nursing" is a good gender neutral option, since not everyone who nurses their babies has breasts, which I wrote about for both The Establishment and The Atlantic.
- Instead of saying "war on women" to talk about the rolling back of reproductive health access, say "war on marginalized bodies."
- Instead of saying "women" when talking about menstruation, say "people who menstruate."
- Instead of saying "women's health," say "reproductive health." In this piece I wrote for Broadly, I'm talking about the way people who visit the gynecologist groom their pubic hair. While I have no editorial control over the HED or DEK of the piece, you'll notice that in the first sentence, I'm clear about who this includes: women, trans, and non-binary folks.
- If you're talking specifically about women who have uteruses and vaginas, say "cisgender women" instead of just "women," because trans women are also women. If you're talking specifically about men who have penises, say "cisgender men." You can see an example of how I navigated that in The Washington Post here.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it gets you thinking about where you can tweak some of your language. This will be a living document that I update when I have things to add, and I encourage you to share your own tips with me about how you're tackling gender-inclusivity in your work. And, if I made a mistake here, please let me know! I'm a cis person who strives to be the best ally I can, but I am not perfect and can always improve.