Words have power.
Words can heal or hurt, illuminate or confuse, include or exclude.
We all make mistakes, but when language is used repeatedly in the same way, even after harm, confusion, and exclusion are explained, it is no longer a mistake. The harm becomes deliberate.
When hurtful and exclusionary words come from authorities in pagan, pword, and magical circles, that diminishes our communities. No matter where it happens, be it blogging, books, videos, vlogging, pod casting, teaching, presenting, organizing, leading ritual, etc., exclusionary language supports an unwelcoming atmosphere. This is true whether you are talking about ableist language, racially charged language, heavily gendered language, or any other word or language use which creates harm for marginalized people.
Yes, Going Gender Neutral Can be Hard and Uncomfortable
Sometimes the most worthwhile things we can do are difficult and uncomfortable. For most native English speakers, especially those born in the 20th century, shifting to gender neutral terms can be confusing, awkward, difficult, contrary to instinct, and often just feels completely wrong. If you feel that way, you are anything but alone. Yet, if we don’t work to change our language, it will never be inclusive.
I am nonbinary, and was aware of that even as a small child, decades before I ever heard the term “nonbinary”. As a teen I saw the lack of a practical gender neutral pronoun as a glaring hole in the English language, but I was trained to use the English language in a certain way, and that way was reinforced by all of my life experiences. I railed against the idea of male-as-default by alternating male and female pronouns when the true gender was unknown, but for the most part I still used gendered terms, like everyone else.
It has been a process to switch entirely to gender neutral terms. I started concertedly working on changing my language use about the time I started blogging on Patheos, and now, some seven months later, it is starting to become natural. I no longer need to think about every instance, as I have been consistent enough to break down my old habits and build new ones. If you are so inclined, you can look back over my articles, and see how at the beginning I was still using some gendered terms, but over time I have all but eliminated my usage of gendered terms when there is any alternative.
Using gender neutral language as default is only difficult because it is counter to what we were taught in English classes growing up. Formative training and indoctrination can be incredibly stubborn, as it tends to become part of the foundation of how we view and interact with the world. When you deliberately change formative training, you are breaking down your foundations and building them anew. That’s not easy, but it allows you to rebuild in a form you can truly be proud of, rather than something which was handed to you as-is and may not truly suit your purposes.
As an added benefit, the more people who use gender neutral language, the more we hear and read other people using such language, the easier it becomes for more people to adapt their language. This happens all the time, through the adoption and loss of slang terms and colloquialisms, and in overall linguistic drift. Language is fluid, and changes as the needs and culture of the people using the language changes. If you make the effort to change your language use now, you will make it easier for others to change their language use in the future.
When to Use Gendered Language
It is appropriate to use gendered language when you intend to refer specifically to a gender. For example, if you are talking about a particular god or goddess, female deities, or male deities, it is appropriate to use gendered terms. Same if you are talking about a particular human, woman, or man. If there is any doubt whatsoever about what gender your language could apply or refer to, then gender neutral is the inclusive way to go.
I am vehemently against the idea that male is default for gender neutral language. This has been standard in the English language for a very long time, and it is a result of patriarchal culture. Male is default because in that cultural context male is seen as superior. If you were to use female words, and the person in question turns out to be male, you have just insulted that man. If they turn out to be female and you refer to her as male, you either threw her a bone by implying she might be male, or erased her entirely, which is an inconsequential thing in patriarchal culture. If you are nonbinary, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are being excluded and erased.
Since male as default is harmful to all genders, exclusionary, and inaccurate, male terms should only be used when male gender is not in doubt. For the same reason, female terms should also only be used when female gender is not in doubt. If you care about including nonbinary people, even using phrases like “he or she” or “he/she” (which I have used extensively in the past) should be avoided, because they exclude nonbinary genders.
Use male and female gendered words only when you specifically want to refer solely to male or female genders. That is the message you send when you use those words, so be deliberate about it. In the English language there are gender neutral alternatives for almost any word you could want to use. The fantastic thing about gender neutral terms is that they refer to any gender, not just nonbinary, so no one is excluded.
Common Terms in Pword and Magical Circles
Here are some common terms which I use instead of gendered terms, along with some tips on when and how to use them.
When referring to undetermined individuals, deities, entities, spirits, or groups, use they, them, themselves, etc. The grammar for they/them is plural, just like “you”, whether you are referring to an individual or a group. This group of words – the pronouns – are your workhorse of gender neutral language.
People/Person, Human/Humans, Individual, Someone
Rather than referring to “men” or “mankind”, use “people” or “humans” or “individual”. We are not all men, but we are all people and human.
Elder, Adult, Youth, Minor, Child
Rather than using “man”, “woman”, “boy”, or “girl”, refer to age groups by their gender neutral equivalent.
I have seen writers excuse the use of “god” by calling it a gender neutral term. It is not, for the same reason that “he” is not gender neutral. It is a gendered word, and that gender is male. Those who genuinely perceive “god” as a gender neutral term are in the minority, and it is a fallacy to pretend otherwise.
Luckily for us, English has an established, genuinely gender neutral synonym for “god”, and that word is “deity”. Not all deities are male or female, and even fewer are male, so use “deity” unless you are specifically talking about gods or goddesses. It is rude to misgender, and if you default to “god”, you are doing exactly that to a whole host of deities. Granted, most will not particularly care, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s rude. Not every transgender person cares about being misgendered either, but that doesn’t mean misgendering is OK.
This is a tough one, but it is the best alternative I have come across for priest/priestess. There is a smattering of gender neutral clergy titles in the English language, but most of them are heavily associated with Christianity. There are some individuals in pword circles who use titles like “reverend”, but it is far from common. Since many people who serve in such a role would find it incredibly uncomfortable to be referred to by titles they consider Christian, I don’t recommend using those words for default.
I like the term “priestx” just fine when it is written, but when it is spoken it has a tendency to sound like “priestess”. I’m still looking for a better alternative which is not so easily confused with a gendered term when spoken, but I don’t think one exists at this time. If you have ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Blessed People/ Lovely People/ Wonderful People
Instead of saying “ladies and gentlemen”, use one of these phrases or something similar that is inclusive of nonbinary people.
Mx. is an honorific, and the gender neutral equivalent to Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms. This issue doesn’t seem to come up very frequently in pword and magical circles, but if you do feel the need to use an honorific and are unsure of gender, this is the one to use. Sir should be avoided unless you are referring to someone who has a formal title of “Sir”, or are referring to someone of military rank. The civilian honorific version of “Sir” is masculine.
Use one of these terms instead of “husband”, “wife”, “girlfriend”, or “boyfriend” unless you are referring to a specific person who identifies with a gendered term. This is important not just to include people of diverse genders, but to include people of diverse sexualities. Using “partner(s)” can even apply to poly relationships, making your language more inclusive of diverse types of relationships.
Artificial or Synthetic
Please, do not use “man-made”, as that term implies that men alone are the source of all things created by humans.
Please use “parent” unless you are very specifically referring to a particular gender. Using terms like “mother” or “father” can exclude transgender and nonbinary parents, so this is particularly important when organizing events and publicly speaking.
If you are speaking or writing specifically about motherhood or fatherhood, please also use other descriptive language to explicitly include mothers and fathers who are not biologically of the typical sex, or who do not identify with masculine or feminine parenthood. All parents are valid, important, and deserve to be a part of our rituals, rites, and practices.
Sibling, Child, Offspring
Children can be transgender or nonbinary. That was my experience, and I am far from alone in that. Please don’t pigeonhole unknown children into male and female boxes. Transgender and nonbinary children get more than enough of that from society in general.
This is a word of relatively recent creation, and is a gender neutral version of “niece” or “nephew”. Not everyone’s niblings are male or female.
Additional Gender Neutral Terms to Keep in Mind
Practice, Keep an Open Mind, and Look for New Terms
There are a lot of holes in the English language, and from time to time it is likely that you will happen across a word you want to use which is gendered, but are unable to find a gender neutral equivalent. If you must use a gendered term, use additional descriptive language to ensure that inclusivity is explicit. Next time the word comes up, check online for a gender neutral version. Someone may have created a new word, like nibling, to fill a void where there was no existing gender neutral option.
If you are new to gender neutral language as default, not only is it possible you will mess up now and again, it is extremely likely and to be expected. When you do mess up, just use the neutral terms next time.
To help you change your linguistic habits, I strongly recommend practicing. Try to use gender neutral language at all times, and in all interactions. If you mess up with people who do identify as male or female, or with an animal, they are likely to not even notice, but that time you spend practicing will help to reinforce your goal and create new habits.
If you are not good at code switching, and try to use gender neutral language only for formal writing or presentation (vs all the time), it is likely that gender neutral will never come naturally and you will never develop new habits. If you are good at code switching, framing it that way might be a good way to approach your use of gender neutral language, as it can cue to your brain that you are using different linguistic rules.
If you are a writer, do a read-through specifically to edit your work for instances where you used gendered terms. In the beginning it is likely you will have missed at least a few. If you are consistent about editing to gender neutral terms, it will build the habit and make it easier to use those terms in the first place. Despite having used gendered language almost exclusively just a year ago, it is now natural for me to use gender neutral language in my writing.
For verbal practice, there are a lot of other options. Write speeches and make sure they use gender neutral language. Practice in front of a mirror, or in your head. If you enjoy role playing games, create a character which is nonbinary. This will give you practice using gender neutral pronouns.
Remember, words have power. If you use your words wisely and deliberately, you can help to shape stronger, more inclusive communities that will enrich and uplift all of us.