Gender identity and sexual orientation: Inclusive and antiracist writing

 

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Overview 

When writing about gender identity and sexual orientation, a principle to keep in mind is that all people have a gender identity (or identities) and a sexual orientation (or orientations), inclusive of asexuality. Many societies are heteronormative, meaning that people assume it is “normal” to be straight and cisgender. In these societies, writers sometimes make the inaccurate assumption that the terms gender identity and sexual orientation are only relevant for people who self-identify outside of this heteronormative paradigm (for example, who self-identify as queer or gay or who express a non-binary or trans gender identity). The term cisgender highlights that folks whose expressed gender identities match or fit with the sex they were assigned at birth have a gender identity that can be named and discussed.[1]

Steps for inclusive writing about gender identity and sexual orientation

Question heteronormative assumptions

Here is an example of the ways that heteronormativity shapes our ideas about family:

 

Heterosexist language

Possible revisions

“Each child must return his or her permission form with a signature from his or her mother or father.”

“Children must return their permission forms with a signature from a parent or guardian.”

 

“Each child must return a signed permission form.”

Think critically about relevance

It can be hard to figure out if something is relevant or not, but it is important to think critically about it because, historically, writers have included information about people’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity without their consent. This is a way of outing someone (see glossary for description). Inclusive writing recognizes that all gender identities and sexual orientations are normal and none are more or less noteworthy.

Respect identities

Respecting identities means that we can’t dismiss them as preferences. Here are some common expressions that use the word preferences, and some suggestions for how to re-write them:

Sexual preferences revised to -> Sexual orientations, attractions, sexuality 
Preferred pronouns revised to -> Pronouns, personal pronouns
Remove unnecessarily gendered language from our writing

Some writers use s/he or him and her for greater inclusivity. However, these gendered pronouns reinforce a binary understanding of gender. When writing about gender, recognize trans and non-binary gender identities and expressions (see glossary for description). Using the gender neutral third person pronoun they is more inclusive than s/he because it does not reinforce a binary understanding of gender. 

Use pronouns properly and respectfully

When writing about individuals, we need to find out which pronouns they use. When we cannot confirm someone’s pronouns, the best practice is to avoid using pronouns by referring to the person’s name (either full name or last name) or by referring specifically to their work or ideas. You can also use the gender neutral third person pronoun "they" in such cases. 

Separate biology/anatomy from gender

When writing about bodily functions such as menstruation, lactation, or ejaculation, a direct link is often made to a cisgender identity. Inclusive writing focuses, where relevant, on bodily functions and body parts, and does not make assumptions about gender.

Breastfeeding mothers often found it helpful to have a quiet place on campus

revised to -> 

Parents often found it helpful to have a quiet place on campus in which to feed their babies

 

Pregnant women

revised to -> 

Pregnant people, pregnant bodies*

 

Feminine hygiene products, such as tampons

revised to -> 

Hygiene products for menstruation (or monthly bleeding), such as tampons

* There are male, female-identified, and non-binary people who have wombs and can experience pregnancy. We therefore need to check our gendered assumption that pregnancy is a female experience. See the glossary for a related note on the language of breastfeeding.

The overall principle is to be as specific, accurate, and clear as possible. If you are referring to a bodily function or a part of anatomy, keep the emphasis there, rather than making gendered assumptions about who has that anatomy or experiences those bodily functions.

In these ways, inclusive writing actively avoids implying that there are some “real” or “normal” men and women. Instead, it recognizes that there are many real, normal, and different ways to experience bodies and gender and validates this diversity of experiences.

Additional resources

For more information and examples, see:

Acknowledgments 

[1] Thank you to Noah Jensen, Administrative Assistant at Out On Campus, for his feedback and suggestions on this resource.