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Language and Gender Inclusivity


Language and Gender Inclusivity

This resource was created as part of the Language and Inclusivity project, based in the School of Modern Languages. It is supported by the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion fund

About this resource

We promote better understanding of social issues such as, in this instance, gender. We help staff and students to start conversations on these crucial and complex topics. We believe that language matters for equality, diversity and inclusion because:

  • some notions are key to understanding the social dynamics at play
  • some words convey biases – for example, a sexist, racist, ableist bias
  • our university campuses are multilingual environments

This resource will help embed EDI across the University, through workshops and training modules. It will be useful to teachers and educators in the University and beyond. It will help introduce the topic of gender in class through the lens of language.

Language exists within a social context

Language does not exist in a vacuum. For each of the words in this resource, we need to consider them as part of a social context. Who you are, who you are talking to, in what time and what space: it all matters.

Take these different words and situations:

  1. Before leaving for the evening, Jane says to her partner: ‘I’m going out with the girls. See you later!’
  2. Jack and Joe, two geography lecturers, are chatting and joking about ‘the girls’ in their classes.

In situation 1, you might see ‘girls’ as friendly and affectionate. In situation 2, it might be infantilising and demeaning, especially from a man in a position of authority.

  1. James and his partner describe themselves as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’.
  2. Jill had a hard time throughout school, where she was bullied and called ‘queer’.

In situation 1, gay men use ‘queer’ to describe their own identity. In situation 2, it is a homophobic slur against a lesbian girl.

Reclaiming words

The example of ‘queer’ is typical of a linguistic phenomenon called reclaiming words. It concerns words used as slurs against a marginalised community, like this homophobic slur, or the racist n-word.

Members of that community sometimes appropriate such words. They use it to counteract its harmful purpose by employing it to describe themselves.

To understand the meaning of such words, it is essential we consider the context of use. The fact members of a community have reclaimed them does not mean others in this community recognise themselves in it.

For older LGB people, the use of queer is still the primary interpretation. For them to see it as reclaimed and appropriate might be more difficult, or even impossible.

Another example is tranny, a slur still used today against trans and cross-dressing people.

There are trans folks who use it to describe themselves. Everyone is free to call themselves what they want. But you can’t call someone else whatever you want, especially not a slur.

In porn, transphobia abounds. “Tranny” and “tranny porn” are common terms. Trans models making money from people searching for their work via search terms and keywords sometimes use transphobic words.

Read a list of 21 Words the Queer Community Has Reclaimed (and Some We Haven’t).

Our research

The resource is based on contributions from participants. Our research had three components:

  • literature review, from academic research to similar, pre-existing resources
  • an online survey, in which 84 University participants suggested a word or linguistic phenomenon they wanted to see addressed
  • one-to-one, in-depth interviews with nine staff and students, which helped us understand what really mattered