The clickbaity headline is there because it amuses me, but also because when this dawned on me today it felt pretty much that way: there’s a really simple tool for gender-inclusive language that I feel like I didn’t fully appreciate before. We use it a lot, but it hadn’t dawned on me just how many applications it can have.
The tool is “people.” The word itself, not the referent. People are not tools. The word “people” is a fantastic tool that most of us have already recognized as being a pretty great way to talk about … well, people, in a gender-neutral way. But this week I’ve been discovering more and more ways of using it effectively, and it’s surprisingly cool.
It started when I was preparing a lecture on anatomy and physiology for my online sexuality class. (Wait… have I not written about that here before? Bad blogger! Bad!) One of the perennial problems of being a sex educator is that we do a lot of talking about things that are mostly gender-specific: things like penes* and vaginas, or gendered socialization. Most people with vaginas are women, and vice versa, but not all of them, and it’s very important to me to acknowledge this verbally so that the women-without-vaginas and the not-women-with-vaginas feel fully included in the discussion. And yet saying “people with vaginas” gets unwieldy fast, especially when the sentence you’re trying to construct goes something like, “People with vaginas sometimes find that their vaginas lubricate more…” Ugh, no. Way awkward.
Because this is an online class, a lot of my lectures are written, which means I can be very precise and thoughtful about my language, and so it was that it occurred to me: I can just say “people.” If I’m talking about vaginas, I can say “people sometimes find that their vaginas lubricate more…” and nobody is going to be confused. People pretty much know what sexyparts they have, and can apply the appropriate sentences to themselves without my needing to specify a gender category.
I also like it because it increases the universal identification. One of the things I hate most about the way our culture uses gender is that it’s treated as such an essential categorical distinction. Men are a completely different type of people than women, and men can understand other men the way that women can’t, and vice versa. As a slightly genderqueer person myself, and someone who has always been closest to people who have a lot of cross-gender traits, this has always irritated me. My innate instinctive understanding of Femme-Lady-Women is just as poor as my innate instinctive understanding of Manly-Man-Men. (Nothing against people who are strongly gender-identified and gender-congruent at all… I just don’t really get you.) I get really uncomfortable and grumpy when I’m expected to consider Men as a category strongly distinct from myself.
And I think it’s better for human relationships all around when we start to think of other people as people, first and foremost, rather than as members of a gender category. We listen differently to a sentence that begins with a person-descriptor that doesn’t apply to us: a man, hearing a sentence beginning “Women often…” is going to listen differently to the rest of that sentence than if it began “Men often…” By starting the sentence with “People…” I feel like I’m more likely to have everybody tuning in as if the sentence following might apply to them. And even when they find it doesn’t, maybe they listen to the rest of it with a closer sense of identification with the people to whom it does apply. If I hear the sentence “People on cruise ships often get seasick” I don’t feel alienated from the people described, even though I’ve never been on a cruise ship and likely never will be and don’t get seasick. I feel like we’re all people together, those people just have different circumstances and experiences than I do. And that’s the feeling that I hope, maybe, using “People…” can encourage about even very sex-linked things.
I used it again today, when asking a question about typical male socialization and how it impacts an exercise we’re doing for the class. As I was asking for feedback, the automatic way to write the sentence would have been, “Men, what do you think about this? Is this true for you?” Instead I wrote, “People who were socialized in that ‘be tough and manly’ way, is this true for you?” This does more than be gender-inclusive: it also allows for the fact that cultures and families differ, and some men didn’t receive much if any of that “be tough and manly” socialization (and some women did!). It allows the reader to determine for themselves exactly to what extent the sentence applies to them, rather than being automatically included or excluded by a gender category that only imperfectly matches the category we’re actually talking about.
People. It’s a good word. I’m going to use it more often.
*Little-known fact about me: I find the irregular plural of “penis” delightful for reasons I cannot explain, and I often go around repeating it to myself inside my head.