What’s So Shocking About Gender Neutral Language?

Throughout February, conservative religious and secular websites have been fuming mad about a very commonsense development at the University of Dayton, an Ohio Catholic school run by the Marianist Brothers.

What is the development that has provoked so much fiery rhetoric?  The school’s Women’s Center webpage has provided students, faculty and staff with a resource about ways to use gender-neutral language.

The website explains the rationale for providing the resource:

“The gender inclusive language list is an educational resource — it is neither a guide nor an advisory nor does it represent University of Dayton or Women’s Center policy. It is geared to assist those who prefer to use gender inclusive language as well as those who wish to avoid assuming the gender of an individual being discussed.

“Most academic professional associations and journals expect scholars and students to use inclusive language in presentations and publications. The gender inclusive language resource assists students in understanding and complying with these professional expectations.

“As a Catholic, Marianist university, we are guided by our mission to foster an educational community that welcomes and includes all people. As a Christian and educational community, we recognize that every person has innate dignity because all people are made in the image and likeness of God and we seek to create an environment where all persons feel respected, safe and valued.”

Where’s the controversy?  What not’s to like?  The suggestions primarily update language which existed in male-dominated situations, such as using “informal agreement” instead of “gentlemen’s agreement,”  replacing “manpower” with “workforce” or “labor,” and substituting “firefighter” for “fireman.”

The rub, it seems comes from one particular usage that has been noted in most conservative news reports.  The resource suggests that as an alternative to “husband/wife,” writers can use “spouse, partner, significant other.”  No one is required to use the alternative terms, but the resource is there to help writers understand what language is available that will be accurate, honest, and respectful.  Why is that a problem?

The reason for the opposition, of course, is that the conservative websites do not want to recognize that same-gender marriage exists.  However, it does.  And students, faculty, and staff will very likely be writing about this reality from time to time.  Isn’t it important to help them know what terms are appropriate.  Is it wrong for a university to provide students with knowledge that helps them describe the world around them? No indication of acceptance of marriage equality is implied by using the new terms.

As the introduction to the lists explains, the resource is not prescriptive and that it is not official policy.  The resource is there to help students with common professional standards in language.  Perhaps more importantly, it is also an aid which springs from the school’s charism of being a safe, welcoming place for all.

Many of the conservative news reports expressed surprise that such a resource would exist at a Catholic college.  Catholic higher education is generally open to the reality of the world.  It would be a surprise if a Catholic school would not provide such a resource.

Congratulations to the University of Dayton for helping their students to be good writers and to be people of integrity who show respect for all!

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, March 7, 2018

5 replies
  1. Richard Boyle, OSM
    Richard Boyle, OSM says:

    Why is it that strongly conservative voices hold such sway over the Church and appear to frighten or cow progressive movements or ideas?

    • Sarasi
      Sarasi says:

      I agree with you. In delving into the issue with the World Meeting of Families Program (both the visuals and the comments of inclusion made by the L.A. bishop) I discovered that ONE group seemed to be behind the censorship. Why do Catholic institutions fold when these bad actors turn up? Same thing has happened to Jim Martin over and over. It’s giving these marginal people far too much power.

  2. The Rev. Lyn G. Brakeman
    The Rev. Lyn G. Brakeman says:

    I’m an Episcopal priest and author. I advocate for inclusive and expansive language in my writings and when I speak. Words do matter even when everyone say they are just window dressing. Well? We clothe our theology and our spiritual ideas in language that shapes how an idea or even a story is received. That matters! I’m pleased my church is once again considering language revisions to our prayer book. This time they will dare to consider language we use about God, language that shapes not God a Mystery beyond our grasp, but the image and understanding of divinity itself. Traditional imagery used in our corporate worship makes divinity dominantly transcendent, almighty and exclusively masculine. I’d say that is a stunted image. Not fair to divinity, not to mention humanity. The time is now. Thank you Dayton’s Women’s Center for making waves and sparking awareness!!

  3. Vernon Smith
    Vernon Smith says:

    Heartily agree with the article and comments above regarding gender neutral language. And let’s add one other point:

    It is just plain more accurate.

    The days of those who identify with a gender that dominates a particular activity or role or profession are over. Women are no longer shunted to the side in limited gender roles and unlikely to be a postman or chairman. Postal worker and chairperson are just plain accurate. Isn’t the role of the university to teach students to observe facts and describe the world accordingly?

    When arch conservatives rail against inclusive language and political correctness as if they are being tortured by the alleged liberal elite, a little humor can cut thru their outrage. During his four decade career, my partner has had to put up with the annoying tendency of people to refer to him as a “male nurse.” Every single time – literally thousands of times in his life – he quips, “yes, last time I checked, I’m male.” Everyone smiles and enjoys the laugh. But they never call him a male nurse again. The silliness of it all is too obvious to deny.


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