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February 13, 2013 at 9:29 AM

Gender neutrality in law: Not quite neutral

(M. Ryder / Op Art)

Editor’s note: Steven Dolan is a University of Washington student interning with The Seattle Times opinion section and contributing to our blog.

A bill that aims to change the language of law to be completely gender-neutral passed out of the Washington state Senate Friday and will move on to the House of Representatives. Supporters of the bill expect it to pass. Gender neutrality in language — and in general — is an idea that does not receive much acknowledgement and I’m pleased that the Legislature has taken up the issue.

Senate Bill 5077 is simply a continuation of legislation that has a three-decade history. In 1983, all state statutes became required to be written thereafter in gender-neutral terms, save for intended gender specification. In 2007, the Legislature passed Engrossed Senate Bill 5063, which led to the removal of some past gender references in the Revised Code of Washington.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) should be applauded for sponsoring this legislation, which changes what she aptly calls “outdated references.”

Critics have come down upon Kohl-Welles, suggesting the bill is a waste of time and money. Kohl-Welles addressed this in an e-newsletter, asserting, “The bill is drafted during the legislative interim and costs nothing, nor does it interfere with other tasks such as the major issues we tackle during the legislative session.”

The fact that these changes wouldn’t be happening otherwise is a little startling. The truth of the matter is that language can be oppressive.

It’s hard to swallow — especially for those of us who depend on words to express ourselves creatively or to pay the bills. Even so, the challenge of writing in a way that is not oppressive is one that we, as journalists, must take up.

That said, the legislation fails to acknowledge people who do not identify within the gender binary — that is, those who do not identify as staunchly a “man” or a “woman.” For example, genderqueer is a non-normative expression of gender identity that varies depending on how individuals identify. It can serve as an umbrella term or an identity itself. Some genderqueer people do not identify as a man or a woman (they consider themselves agender), while others might consider themselves third-gendered, or other-gendered. These are just examples and do not fully illustrate the complexities of gender and the diversity of gender nonconforming people. For further reading, here is a website that discusses the term genderqueer.

The bill is riddled with references to “his or her” this, “he or she” that. Written law would be more inclusive if it simply used words like “individual” or “person” instead. I’m not suggesting gendered words in connection with identity be removed from culture entirely, as people often find it critical to their greater identities. I simply hope for a more inclusive approach to the law — and perhaps, a more thoughtful engagement with each other. We avoid conflict, unintended disrespect and exclusion when we don’t make assumptions about things like preferred gender pronouns.

When asked, Kohl-Welles acknowledged that she had not thought about gender non-conforming people, but insisted that the law could be applied. “It’s inclusive, it’s not exclusive,” she said.

This is true for changes to specific words, like “clergyman” to “clergy,” but the “his and her” is a constant reminder that some of us are not invited to this party.

All people need to be recognized by the law. Such simple acknowledgement is a matter of respect. The senator may agree, but the language continues to operate in an exclusive way.

Kohl-Welles is forward-thinking to be sure, saying she found the changes overdue when the process began in 2007. “It reflects the reality of our time,” she said. Certainly, it reflects the reality of some, who benefit from heteronormative privilege, but “our time” does not simply present a two-sided vision.



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