Separating fact from fiction when it comes to inclusive language

8 Jun 2020

Image: © nito/

The idea that women are under threat from inclusive language is a fantastical work of fiction, but that trans people face threats and attacks on their personhood just about every day is a fact, writes Elaine Burke.

I am a woman. That’s what you can call a ‘biological fact’. I take no issue with being specified as a cisgendered or cis woman, just as I wouldn’t take issue with being identified as a white woman or an able-bodied woman. These are all biological facts you can use to define me and, fortunately for me, my physical embodiment does an effective job of communicating this personhood to the world for me, so I don’t often face confusion.

But as a woman in a leadership role following a long-standing male predecessor, I am sometimes mistaken for him or even generally addressed as ‘Dear Sir’, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say this slight disregard to my personhood and identification is irritating, especially in the context of sexism in leadership. Whenever I’ve expressed how this feels, however, I’ve never been shot down. I’ve been understood.

‘To misconstrue ‘people who menstruate’ as an attempt to exclude or erase people is wilfully ignorant’

Here are some more biological facts. Some women have a large amount of facial and body hair. Some men exhibit less hair growth and may develop breasts. Some women have stockier builds, while some men aren’t muscly. Some men and some women have an extra chromosome. Some people have sex organs that don’t fit the binary idea we often have of sex organs. And some women – quite a lot in fact – don’t menstruate.

If I was to write an article specifically about menstrual health and hygiene, it would be prudent of me to bear these things in mind and ensure the right people are reached with this information. ‘People who menstruate’, helpfully, is an inclusive term that addresses all those. To misconstrue this as an attempt to exclude or erase people is, in generous terms, wilfully ignorant.

Health conditions, age and lifestyle can determine if a woman does or does not menstruate, as can the development of her organs. So if I’m writing for ‘people who menstruate’, I’m addressing just those women who do, as well as all the non-binary, intersex and trans people who menstruate. This is a perfectly appropriate use of language. Its attention to accuracy is something to be celebrated, particularly if you’re a stickler for science and definitions.

While we commonly define sex in narrow terms, many people exhibit the biological features we use for these definitions in a much broader way. The gender binary, which takes sex-based social structures into account, is similarly non-inclusive and unfit for purpose. The fact is, some people who menstruate were identified as another gender at birth.

This is something many people have recently begun to come to terms with and, while there’s a learning curve to climb, many are open to making the effort. However, we in Ireland only managed to fully accept, in constitutional terms, sexual and romantic relationships outside of the heteronormative as recently as 2015, so unfortunately these things can take an inordinate amount of time. And that interim period of education and campaigning can be a painful one, particularly for those who are fighting for recognition of their own personhood.

This year’s Pride celebrations will be digitised, with Dublin’s Digital Pride Festival due to take place from 18 June, culminating in a Virtual Pride Parade on 28 June. Anyone who has been to a Pride event in recent years will have noticed the significant level of corporate investment that now goes into it. This year, perhaps the money for fancy floats and billboard advertising could go direct to organisations such as Transgender Equality Network Ireland or any number of funds supporting black trans people during a highly volatile time.

Trans people are extraordinarily targeted for harassment, online and offline, and this group of people sees a disproportionate number of deaths by murder and suicide. The word ‘women’ is not under threat by inclusive language, but trans people face threats and attacks on their personhood just about every day.

Once again, as we begin another month of celebrating Pride, we must not forget that you can’t spell ‘LGBTQ ally’ with a silent T.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.