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Cory Silverberg

What Do I Call Gender?

By September 21, 2012

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Language is always changing, evolving and the forces that shape which words we use, when, and why, are overlapping and complicated. Some of our language comes from growing up within a group, surrounded by people who in some way are like us, are "our people", and learning from them what to say if you want this, what to call that, and what words to use to describe those people over there. And any time we join a new group we acquire new language.

The words we use matter. I don't think there are such things as "good" words and "bad" words but I know for a fact that the words we use have an impact, and if you want to be a responsible or ethical person, if you care about other people, then you need to think at least a bit about language.

I know it's hard. It's hard to try and talk with people whose experience you don't know that well because if you do care, then you're worried about using the "wrong" word or saying the wrong thing. This is the work of making connections across divides of experience, of power, of privilege. And it's hard and often not very fun at first. The reward is that you get to meet and know people who have something new to share and teach you. And you in turn get to teach and share something of your experience.

I can't imagine what my life would be like if the only people in my community were people who I was raised with. Those people who I was told were my people. I can't imagine my life without them either. But my life is so much richer, and better, for all the hard work of learning new languages, new ways of talking. And even though it's still a bit scary, it gets easier every time I try it.

What does any of this have to do with definitions of gender? Well as I started writing about last week working as a sex educator I get a lot of questions about gender. The question I get most from colleagues and other health care professionals is about language. They want to know what language to use so as not to be offensive. Some want to know what language to use to be more inclusive.

I usually provide them with some of the definitions you'll find below. But I remind them that definitions aren't enough. For one thing, they change. For another, a word that's commonly used in one group may be very painful for another. Memorizing definitions isn't as important as having an understanding of the work they are really trying to do, and having respect for a process of learning from others which is slow, sometimes rocky, sometimes painful, but hopefully in the end rewarding.

Sometimes it's as simple as saying you're unsure of which words to use, you know they matter, and you wonder what words the person in front of you uses. If you mean it, and feel it, it's a amazing how generous people can be.

Just as there aren't really good and bad words, I'd argue that when it comes to gender there are no perfect definitions. If you're interested in gender consider these definitions a way to start a conversation, not end it.

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