This morning I happened to read an article about ‘why reproduction is a women’s issue’. At the bottom of the article was a disclaimer about language which stated that the author had chosen to use the terms ‘woman’, ‘women’, and ‘mother’ and related pronouns while at the same time recognising that some people who give birth ‘may identify with another gender term’. I have seen other disclaimers of this type recently and I wonder; why not change the gendered terms to the gender neutral ‘person’, ‘people’ and ‘parent’ or ‘birth parent’ and related gender neutral pronouns? Would that not be more inclusive than such disclaimers?
Later today I had a discussion with an author who had used a similar disclaimer in an article about ‘dads’ – her disclaimer stated that she did not want the term ‘dads’ to make lesbians feel excluded, but that was the term she was going to use because she was used to it. I suggested that, to be inclusive, ‘parent’ might be appropriate. The conversation got quite thorny. Maybe I didn’t offer my suggestion very carefully, or maybe the author didn’t appreciate me asking her to make the effort to change? I don’t know – email communication has its limitations.
I know that it can take effort to change language. Sometimes I feel quite conspicuous when other breastfeeding support colleagues are using the terms ‘moms’ or ‘mothers’ and I use ‘parent’ and ‘gestational parent’ or ‘breastfeeding parent’ (of course I use ‘mum’, ‘mother’, ‘dad’, ‘father’, when applicable – when the person or people I am referring to identify as such – I’m not suggesting that gendered terms are never appropriate). But, when feeling conspicuous in my use of terms, I ask myself, what is the worst thing that could happen to me? Someone might ask me why I am using it and might challenge the use of the word (which happens – some people are uncomfortable with these words) at worst, I might end up in an uncomfortable conversation. What is the best thing that could happen? I might have a reader who is gay, transgender, queer or intersex, and it might just be the first time since they became a parent that they are referred to with the correct terms or that they are not misgendered. They may feel included.
Is someone’s discomfort from being asked to move over and make a bit of room on the equity bench reasonable to ask in order to give someone room to sit down? I think so. I think that discomfort is a temporary condition of change. I have felt that discomfort myself; I identify as a ‘mother’ and the first time I heard the term ‘breastfeeding parent’ I felt displaced. After getting to know the people who first introduced me to those terms, I realised that I wasn’t being displaced, I realised that mother is simply not as inclusive a term as ‘parent’. There are times when the term mother is fine – I still identify as a mother, there are times when I write about people who identify as mothers – there are times when the term mother does not include the people I wish to include. I don’t think it is right for me to expect them to ‘include themselves’ to make that mental effort to change my words in their minds. I can do that – I can make the effort to change the words I used habitually, that were not inclusive – after a while, it is no longer an effort. I have colleagues, however, who believe that it is not necessary to use gender inclusive terms suggesting that since the majority of birth parents are women and the majority of partners are men, we should just continue to use ‘mother’ and ‘father’. I don’t know the statistics, I assume that what they say is true. But is it really acceptable to ignore a minority? Is it ethical to do so? I think not.
I realise that change takes time, it requires dialogue, it requires effort from all parts, and it takes an element of risk taking, of stepping out of our comfort zone. I sat down today to write this post as a contribution to bringing about change. I also took the opportunity to exchange messages with people in the birth and breastfeeding community, discussing change, and what we find uncomfortable about it. I asked for advice on words to use in articles. In writing this article I’m taking a risk – taking the risk that someone will find fault with it, just as the author I wrote to this morning found fault with my comments and I found fault with hers. These are difficult conversations, but the discomfort of entering into difficult conversations could be worth it if there is a chance that the world becomes more inclusive for all of us. Writing a disclaimer, and then carrying on before, in my mind is not change. Reading something that makes you uncomfortable and not commenting, in my mind, does not bring about change either. Someone else will perhaps disagree.
One person wrote to me today about her reluctance to change her use of language. Who isn’t reluctant to change? Writing about it, talking about it, talking about our own discomfort with change, is a good place to start. Taking a chance with new language, experimenting, making mistakes, starting again. Someone will get upset, someone will take offence. We can keep working at it until we find something that fits, that is ‘comfortable enough’ for all of us, if we really want to make inclusion happen. I think it is possible, I look forward to your comments,