“Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling’s most recent viral transphobic tweet and essay show why minor linguistic nuances can significantly impact the general population’s mindset around the LGBTQ community.
In the post, Rowling made fun of an article on period poverty during the pandemic for using nongendered terms to refer to “people who menstruate.”
“I’m sure there used to be a word for those people,” Rowling wrote facetiously. “Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
Rowling has publicly voiced her trans-exclusionary radical feminist beliefs, better known as TERFism, before; in late 2019, she tweeted support for a woman who lost her job in the United Kingdom after posting and reposting bigoted comments about transgender and nonbinary people on her social media. Rowling and many others subscribe to an anti-transgender branch of feminism that argues equality for transgender people will take away from women’s rights.
TERFs such as Rowling deliberately misgender transgender people and view transgender women as men, stifling the transition to widespread use of gender-neutral language when discussing periods, pregnancy and other topics typically associated with women.
This particular strain of resistance is rampant in the United States, too. Last year, when Berkeley announced it would adopt gender-neutral language in its city codes, such as saying “firefighter” instead of “fireman” or “artificial” rather than “man-made” and replacing all uses of “men and women” with “people,” the internet erupted. Headlines from many news outlets focused on the city’s replacement of the term “manhole” with “maintenance hole,” leading many a Twitter user to chime in online about the “PC left” being too worried about the gender implications of a manhole cover.
In reality, the city changed about 40 terms, showing that it’s possible (and not that hard) to officially do away with gendered language to make women and nonbinary people feel more included at the institutional level.
A set of experiments conducted in 2019 among about 3,400 Swedish adults sought to investigate the impact of formally incorporating gender-neutral pronouns into the language. The results showed that language affects gender role perception and LGBTQ acceptance. Researchers found that using gender-neutral pronouns made people more likely to view women and nonbinary people on an equal playing field to men and more readily accept those who identify as LGBTQ.
Unlike what Rowling and other TERFs believe, adopting and normalizing gender-neutral language doesn’t erase women’s rights or experiences. Instead, it helps mitigate biases toward women and the LGBTQ community.
Kids growing up are often told that words can only hurt if we let them. That “sticks and stones” mentality glosses over the impact language can have on our perception of ourselves and others. Accepting and proactively endorsing gender-neutral language, as Berkeley did in its city code and period product companies are working toward, will only help more women and LGBTQ people be seen as equal with cisgender men (both by themselves and by others).
There are more pressing issues facing LGBTQ people. The Trump administration recently stripped Obama-era reforms that protected transgender people from discrimination from hospitals, doctors and the health care industry. Despite the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that anti-discrimination laws do indeed apply to LGBTQ workers, transgender people continue to face discrimination across health care, employment and housing. Especially considering that this transphobic pushback is occurring during Pride month, it becomes all the more important to take the simple step as allies to combat this systemic bigotry by implementing progressive rhetoric and inclusive language in institutions and everyday life.
Adopting gender-neutral language is a simple, immediate change that all institutions can put in place to eliminate biases against women and LGBTQ people. It’s a small step that will receive pushback from folks like Rowling, but it could also help change the general population’s mindsets and attitudes so that more people fight for acceptance and equality.
Andrea Klick is a rising junior writing about women’s identities. Her column, “’She is Fierce,” typically runs every other Wednesday.