Gender Language

The article popped up on my computer yesterday morning: “Service Canada moves away from calling Canadians Mr., Mrs., or Ms.” The article was originally posted on and communicated a shift to gender neutral terms by Service Canada employees who interact with the public. 

No doubt, some can accept that the need for this change has arisen out of the reality that families are no longer solely defined by heterosexual couples.   Even the new sex education curriculum acknowledges the possibility that a family could include a father and mother, two fathers, two mothers, one father, one mother or some other combination of adults.  What is ultimately important when it comes to families is that there is, in fact, at least one adult who loves and cares for the child or children.

Similar issues can arise in referencing married couples.  What, for example, does it mean to have a maiden name if there is no name change from either person, if both change their name, or if there is no ‘maiden’ in the couple?  As the possibilities increase, so does the need to provide meaningful options.

Added to this mix, is the evolving understanding of gender itself.  As young people come to realise that it is OK not to conform to particular expectations about who they are, some are foregoing defining themselves based on the traditional norms regarding what is male and female.  The result is that they are increasingly open to alternative understandings of gender which includes gender fluidity and gender neutrality.

Language, however, continues to lag behind.  Consider how many ways we define people based on gender: daughter, son, aunt, uncle, mother, father, niece, nephew, him, her, he, she, his and her.  Indeed, there is no commonly accept singular, gender neutral pronoun currently used in the English language.  To compensate, some are using they, them and their as a gender neutral alternative.  The problem, however, is that when our teenagers use these terms it becomes easy to get confused as to whether they are talking about one friend or many.

It is hard to say where this conversation will lead.  That doesn’t mean it is not worthwhile.  As someone who has been referred to as a tom-boy, macho and butch, I kind of like the possibility that, in the future, a child will no longer be told that daddy’s have tools and mommy’s do laundry as my child was corrected after saying our house was reverse back in elementary school.

Thrive! A living manual for families, a new ministry project for youth and families in Essex County and beyond.  Together we seek to explore the joys and struggles of being family today in a safe and friendly environment through food, fellowship and programming.

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