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5 politically-correct terms for gender identity

Apr. 20, 2017
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In the past few years, college activism has taken on a language all its own. Terminology derived from identity politics has gained popularity in everyday speech, signaling a wider discussion about the importance of terms that appropriately refer to people’s gender, sexuality, race, and other categories of identification. These terms have helped to take the topic off-campus, thereby instigating a wider discussion about identity politics in the United States. This discussion in turn, has led to pushback from conservatives and even left-leaning adults of the older generation, who argue that college students’ dedication to political correctness coddles our minds.    

The debate over the value of politically correct (PC) rhetoric is a conversation for another time. Before that conversation can even take place, it’s important to establish a common vocabulary so that both sides of this discussion can be understood.  

via: Storify

Oftentimes, people who ridicule “PC culture” don’t actually differ ideologically from extreme liberals or self-proclaimed “Social Justice Warriors”--they’re just alienated by terms they see as “fancy” or unnecessary. Many people who retaliate against political correctness do so because they feel that this new social movement would rather ostracize them for their use of language than listen to their ideas. Language-policing shifts the focus of a conversation onto its participants’ speech, rather than their intentions. Because of this, political correctness has largely lost the support of many who might have otherwise united behind it. This atmosphere of exclusiveness is an ironic development within a movement that aims to be radically inclusive.

While I appreciate the complexities that have prompted the backlash against trigger warnings (another aspect of the push for politically-correct language), I see no reason for people not to use PC terms that refer to another’s identity. But given the widespread attitude that newcomers to the movement should “educate themselves,” I understand how intimidating and difficult it can be to join the conversation. As a queer woman, I believe that making our current sexuality- and identity-related terms more widely accessible--to people on both sides of the political divide--will make a larger group of people more willing to engage in the discussion surrounding identity politics.

With that in mind, here are the meanings of five key politically-correct terms for gender identity:

1. Heternormative

When a society is heteronormative, it promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation. Heteronormative customs can often neglect the needs of those who are not heterosexual or identify with the gender binary. Gendered public bathrooms are the most common example of a heteronormative custom that oppresses queer sexual and gender identities.

via: Grace Does Art

2. Cisgender

Being cisgender--often “cis” for short--means your sense of gender identity corresponds to the one you were assigned at birth. Sexual preferences are separate from gender identity, so a person can be queer (or non-heterosexual) but still cis. For example: while I may have fluid sexual preferences, that has no impact on my gender identity as a cis woman. “Cis” can refer to someone with any sexual preferences, as long as they identify with their given gender.

3. Transgender

Someone who does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth--e.g. a man who was declared to be “female” when he was born. Someone who is transgender (often just “trans”) has not necessarily undergone surgery or hormone therapy.

via: Instagram | Sinning Things

4. Non-binary or genderqueer

These terms are used to refer to people whose genders do not conform to cisnormativity--that is, those who do not identify as either “male” or “female” and who therefore exist outside the gender binary. Non-binary people do not necessarily want to “destroy” the binary system of genders. Oftentimes, they simply want more options for gender identity, as the binary gender system of “male vs. female” does not recognize their existence and has thus oppressed their gender identity throughout their lives. Genderqueer or non-binary people often identify as trans, since babies are almost never assigned non-binary genders at birth.

5. They/them/theirs (gender-neutral pronouns)

Gender-neutral pronouns, most commonly they/them/theirs, are pronouns people choose to use to express their fluid gender identity or to show themselves as an ally to those who are. You cannot tell someone's preferred gender pronouns (PGPs) from how they look; instead, it’s important to ask, and respect their gender identity by referring to them with these pronouns. It’s also important to know that not everyone who identifies as non-binary will use gender neutral pronouns, and this choice should be respected as well. While many have pushed back against usage of “they” as a singular pronoun, the singular “they” actually dates as far back as Shakespeare and has been increasingly recognized as legitimate by venerated institutions of the English language. Of course, there is a learning curve in using gender-neutral pronouns, but it is essential to put in the effort to respect someone’s gender identity (and this cuts both ways--for example, don’t use “they” to refer to someone who prefers “she”). 

At the heart of PC culture is the belief that words are powerful and should be used carefully--but it would be counterproductive to let our caution derail important conversations about politics or identity. While it’s important to promote a vocabulary that is designed to help level our playing field, those who are already familiar with these kinds of terminology must rethink their focus on rhetoric when engaging in discussion with people who don’t have the same level of familiarity with PC terms. It’s important to listen to the ideas behind a person’s words and work with them to come to a mutual understanding on terminology. After all, isn’t “mutual understanding” the whole point of political correctness?