Gender, Sexual Orientation

Aim to use inclusive language. An exclusive word is exclusive whether it strikes you that way or not. Language evolves. Be aware of and responsive to these changes, respect people’s self-identification and stay updated on language relevant to your topic.

Skip to section on this page:

General Points

Ask people how they wish to be referred to in your story, including their pronouns and names. Recognize that these may differ from the pronouns or names in their signature, or how the person may have been introduced to you by someone else.

Avoid the phrase “identifies as” and simply state someone’s identity.

Not: Kacey identifies as a man.

But: Kacey is a man.

Avoid binary sex/gender terms or words that imply only two sexes/genders.

Avoid saying “prefers” or “preferred” in references to names and pronouns.

Not: Kacey prefers he/him pronouns.

But: Kacey uses he/him pronouns.

Avoid putting identity terms in quotation marks.

Not: Kacey is a “man.”

But: Kacey is a man.

Use the acronym LGBTQ2SIA+ in stories about Pride events or sexual orientation and gender identity-related topics. Ensure that the topic does indeed focus on LGBTQ2SIA+ individuals and not just trans or just sexually diverse individuals. If the topic does focus only on one of these areas, be specific.

Mention sexual orientation and gender identity only if relevant to the story. If so, use “sexual orientation” rather than “sexual preference.”

Avoid stigmatized/outdated/incorrect terms.

If someone uses a term or phrase for themselves that is different from those listed here, respect what they use for themselves.

Pronouns

As mentioned above, ask an individual which pronouns and names they would like used in your story, and respect what people say. This may include using the pronouns they, ze, fae or other gender-neutral pronouns. Ensure you conjugate these correctly (see minus18.org.au/pronouns-app/).

Use the person’s gender-affirming pronoun as well as their name in your story. Aim for clarity as well as sensitivity and inclusivity.

It’s increasingly acceptable to use “they/them/their” to refer to a person who does not identify as either male or female, and as alternatives to singular pronouns.

Not: “A student must declare his or her major before the start of the third term.”

But: “A student must declare their major before the start of the third term.”

Sometimes you can make the subject plural: Students must declare their major before the start of their third term. Or eliminate the reference to gender-specific pronouns: A student must declare a major before the start of third term. Or use only the person’s surname throughout the story, although do so sparingly to avoid repetitiveness.

It’s also now more common to explicitly declare the subject’s pronouns on first reference in a story:

“Sam Smith, who uses the pronoun they, says…”

Making this point clear can prevent readers from assuming that you’ve made a grammatical error if you use the same pronoun later in the story. Clarifying this point can also be more straightforward than trying to “write around” the pronoun.

Gender-Neutral and Gender-Inclusive Language

Binary language implies only two sexes and/or genders. Avoid references to “both sexes/genders,” “either sex/gender,” or “opposite sex/gender.” Instead, use the phrase “all sexes/genders” (depending on context and what is being communicated).

When writing speeches or addressing formal audiences, use inclusive, gender-neutral language such as “welcome to all our guests” or “distinguished guests.” Avoid addressing a crowd as “ladies and gentlemen.”

Variants of alumnus/alumna reflect Latin origins. “Alumnus” means one graduating man; “alumna,” one graduating woman. “Alumni” refers to a group of grads, including at least one man. “Alumnae” refers only to multiple women graduates. Look for ways to use “graduate,” “grad” or even the colloquial “alum.” In a story about one person or a small group of people (as opposed to an entire graduating class), ask for their preference instead of assuming.

Consider other gender-neutral words as follows: Police officer, firefighter, flight attendant, letter carrier, server (instead of hostess), massage therapist (instead of masseuse), garment worker (instead of seamstress)

Use chair instead of chairman. Rather than man or mankind, use person, individual, people, human beings, humanity. Rather than man-made, use artificial, constructed, manufactured.

Avoid gender-specific words related to women: actress (use actor), waitress (server), mother tongue (first language), maiden name (birth name).

Don’t use girl unless referring to a female 15 or younger. From 16 up, use woman or young woman. If an interviewee uses girl or girls inappropriately, paraphrase.

Use fellow in formal appointments such as Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, but otherwise avoid this word with its male connotation. Instead of fellow students, staff or faculty, use peers, colleagues, co-workers, associates, etc. Or use other: The Guelph professors are working with other researchers across Canada. Instead of post-doctoral fellow, use post-doctoral researcher or post-doc whenever possible.

Do not assume that spouses or married individuals use the same surname. Is the individual’s marital or family status (single, married, divorced) relevant to the story? If so, say spouse or partner instead of the gendered terms husband and wife.

Often, masculine nouns and pronouns preceded the feminine equivalent (husband and wife, his and hers). Look to alternate your word order between masculine and feminine.

A note about animals: Animals have sex, not gender. Use the pronouns they/them/their to refer to an animal. She or he (her/him/his) is appropriate if used in a quote, if used in the kind of story where it seems appropriate to humanize the animal, or where the sex is known: The queen bee left her hive. The stag charged at his rival.

Terms

Gender identity: an individual’s personal sense of their gender. This may or may not conform to their sex/gender assigned at birth.

Cisgender: A person who identifies with the sex or gender they were assigned at birth.

Transgender (not “transgendered”): A person who does not identify wholly or completely with the sex or gender they were assigned at birth. Transgender people might be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, queer or questioning. Transgender is an adjective (“a transgender [or: trans] individual”). Don’t use it as a noun (transgendered, transgenders, a transgender).

Gender non-conforming: Someone whose gender identity and/or expression may not conform to expectations about gender or gender stereotypes. Someone who is gender non-conforming may or may not also identify as trans and/or non-binary.

Non-binary: Both a specific gender identity and an umbrella term. Non-binary describes individuals who do not exclusively or wholly identify as men or as women (binary genders).

Queer: Both a specific gender identity and an umbrella term. Queer generally describes sexual orientations or gender identities that are outside of societal norms – for example, not cisgender and/or not straight. Previously, this has been used as a slur (and still is in many communities in Canada and around the world), even though it is being reclaimed by many LGBTQ2SIA+ individuals. Use with caution.

Two-Spirit (not “two-spirited”): An Indigenous term for someone who is not straight and/or cisgender. This is an umbrella term and has different meanings depending on the Indigenous individual, nation, region and/or territory. Check with the individual before using this term and avoid abbreviations to avoid confusion.

Resources