Quaker A-Z: G is for Gender Neutral Language

Quakers have a testimony to equality. For over sixty years Quakers in Britain have struggled with gender and sexual equality, this struggle is summarised here. At Yearly Meeting in 2021 Quakers in Britain declared:

"We seek to provide places of worship and community that are welcoming and supportive to trans and non-binary people who want to be among us. Belonging is more than fitting in.

With glad hearts we acknowledge and affirm the trans and gender diverse Friends in our Quaker communities, and express appreciation for the contribution and gifts that they bring to our meetings, which are communities made up of people with a diverse range of gender expressions. The end of our travelling is for differences not to divide us. We rejoice in recognising God's creation in one another. This is what love requires of us." – part of Minute 31

There is a post reflecting on this decision on the BYM blog. You can read more about sexual equality at the QGSDC website, or about Quaker values on the main Quakers in Britain website https://quaker.org.uk/about-quakers/our-values

Gender inclusive or gender neutral language is a hot topic at the moment. Which is great, except for all the shouting from people who have been reminded that they want to forcibly expunge my existence.
If you are NOT on team “violently cease Lee’s existence”, one of the ways you can show that is by implementing language which is friendly to me (and others like me).

First: "gender inclusive" vs "gender neutral" - are they the same thing?

photo of all gender restroom sign
Photo by No Revisions on Unsplash
Not exactly. “Gender inclusive” means phrasing which includes all gender identities. For a general audience, that’s usually simplified to masculine, feminine, and neutral. Whereas “gender neutral” means avoiding gendered terms.
Think of it as “gender inclusive INCLUDES everyone, whereas gender neutral DOESN’T EXCLUDE anyone”.
So, the greeting “guys, gals, and nonbinary pals” is gender inclusive, as you have spoken to each of the three general gender groups. (Try saying that four times fast!) If you left any of these terms off, eg saying just “gals and nonbinary pals” it stops being gender inclusive because you are now excluding masc folks. While this may not seem like a big deal, seeing messages that state they’re for everyone except people like you can get discouraging and lead you to think you’re not welcome in this space.
A real-life example I see a lot is in craft groups, where people will often write posts to the whole group but start with “ladies”. Not only does this send a (usually unintentional) message to nonbinary folks like me that this person doesn’t want our input, it sends the same message to any men in the group. This small, seemingly harmless unthinking habit has been cited to me by many non-women as a reason for feeling unwelcome in crafting spaces, and has even led to people quietly drifting away.

Second: Should you aim for gender inclusive or neutral?

Sign saying toilet wc
Photo by Odd Fellow on Unsplash
Gender inclusive language is good when you want to emphasise that everyone, regardless of their gender, is welcome in this space. It can be worth including gender inclusive greetings, recruitment posts, and welcome blurbs to reassure people that they will be safe and valued. This is especially true if your group has been populated by one gender (or still is but wants to change), or if people are likely to assume that your group is set up for one gender.
However, writing out three sets of terms  or adding clarifiers to each description (eg, “we welcome crafters of all genders”) can get clunky and long-winded. So once you have established that you are speaking to people of all genders, I advise switching to gender neutral language. This means picking terms which don’t assume/project a gender onto your reader. While everyone is familiar with singular “they” replacing “he” or “she”, pronouns are not the only gendered terms you need to be aware of.

Practical examples...

The matter is complicated by the fact that terms are gendered by social convention, meaning that what is a gender neutral term for one person might be heavily gendered to another. And there are even gendered terms (almost always masculine) which are commonly used as if they were gender neutral, even though they convey a gender.

A good rule of thumb is to try putting the term into a question like “how many X have you had sex with?”. Does your brain consider the resulting sentence to be the same as “how many people have you had sex with?”. Even people who earnestly assure me that they consider “dude” to be completely gender neutral then say that “dude” does not pass this test for them. If a term becomes gendered when you start relating it to sex or dating, do not treat it as a genderless term.

Another, even more common one is “guys”. While this is considered harmless in many groups, it can make people uncomfortable. Especially if it’s not a common term where they’re from, or they are nonbinary AMAB (“assigned male at birth”, meaning they were born with a penis so everyone assumed they were a boy), and so frequently have to deal with people trying to project a masc gender onto them. Even if they know you aren’t deliberately doing the same, it can feel alienating.
Remember that this test is just a quick mental check, and won’t catch everything. For example, “buddy” is a term which passes this test for me, but is considered strongly masc-coded by some people I’ve spoken to. Always be open to feedback, and if possible have people check your wording before posting/publishing.


For alternatives, consider something simple like “everyone”. “How is everyone doing?” instead of “How are you guys doing?” makes sure to include, well, everyone.
Depending on what group you’re talking to, terms like “team”, “friends”, etc can also work. Consider what the group members’ connections to each other are, and use a term which summarises it.

“Folks” is a good casual option when referring to a group, especially one where there isn’t a clear connecting term. In a formal setting, “gentlepeople”/”gentlepersons” has been suggested as a genderless alternative to “gentlemen and gentlewomen”. “Esteemed guests/audience” also conveys formality and respect without referencing gender at all.

Do you have a favourite genderless greeting or term? Share it in the comments!

Lee Heywood

Lee Heywood

MBS Volunteer

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