Grammar

Gender Language Seems to Assume Hostile Intent

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I notice an apparent assumption of evil in gender language. Words like ‘deadnaming’ and ‘assigning’ seem to point fingers from the start.

We hear more about gender than ever before. For the first time, many of us have come to rethink what we assume about traditional views of male and female. But gender language seems to carry code words that point blame — and perhaps unfairly.

Deadnaming is one example.

To deadname someone means to refer to a person who has changed gender identity by their birth name. Consider the public figure we now know as Caitlyn Jenner. Jenner came out in 2015 as a transgender woman.

Prior to that, she gained fame as an Olympic athlete. Her birth name, of course, was William Bruce Jenner. There’s no way to hide that fact. That’s history. However, since she came out as transgender, it is only appropriate to refer to her today as Caitlin Jenner.

To continue referring to her as “Bruce” is an example of deadnaming. In many cases — you can find examples on any Facebook mention of a news story involving her — that deadnaming is intentional.

It comes from the same people who throw out pointless catchphrases like, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” anytime the subject of homosexuality comes up. I’m pretty sure God made Steve just as he made Adam, so that phrase seems to be silly anyway. But I digress.

But all cases of deadnaming are not equal.

You can imagine a scenario in which deadnaming wouldn’t be remotely intentional.

Sometimes, you don’t have to imagine. Years ago, a transgender woman became the victim of a deadly attack. The news outlets that reported her death were quickly accused of deadnaming because they reported the victim’s identity as male and used her birthname.

It enraged activists in the community.

News outlets corrected the story when they learned the victim was, in fact, transgender.

But that raised an important point: the news outlets did not know in advance who the victim was. All they had to work with was the identity provided to them by the county coroner. The coroner, unfortunately, released the identity of record on official documents. Some states do not allow a transgender person to officially change their name and gender on identification documents.

So when a news outlet deadnames someone, you have to keep in mind that it isn’t automatically an intentional slight. News crews aren’t allowed on an active crime scene. They’re certainly not allowed to sit in on an autopsy where certain details would surely become more obvious.

They rely on the official public documents they receive.

Then we come to gender assigning.

We used to say someone was born male or born female. But the trend in gender language changed that. Now, babies are not “born” one gender or the other. At birth, their gender is “assigned.”

Consider this line from a recent commercial for a drug designed to prevent the transmission of HIV:

DESCOVY for PReP has not been studied in people assigned female at birth.

“Assigned female at birth?”

When a baby is born with female sex characteristics, they’re not “assigned” female. We have no way to ask infants which gender they identify with. With that lack of available information, we consider them female.

WIth a greater awareness of gender identity issues, we may now understand that people do not identify with the gender they’re born into. But the notion of your gender being “assigned” rubs some people the wrong way.

I happen to identify as male. I was born male. No one “assigned” me a male gender. Childbirth took care of that.

The use of the word assignment implies there’s some intent to “force” a gender decision on an innocent child. Until that child grows up and reaches a point where he or she can express their gender identity, there’s no other way to determine gender other than basing it on the sex characteristics the child possesses at birth.

What will the future look like?

Maybe, one day long down the road, we won’t use gender terms at all until the child grows up and expresses their own.

We won’t refer to “little boys” or “little girls.” We won’t have gender-reveal parties.

But I think that would be a long time from now.

Until then, maybe we could at least keep in mind that there is not an automatic conspiracy to misgender someone. Sometimes, honest mistakes occur. Sometimes, in the absence of a better option, there’s no other way to deal with gender.

It’d be nice if gender language would take those cases into account.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.