This post was written by Marisol Varela, lead QA specialist and certified Spanish interpreter at Certified Languages International.
As a person who identifies with the pronouns she/her, I’ve never had to stop and think about the gender binary, or why our pronouns and the ways we use them matter.
Lately, however, we have been experiencing an evolution of language use with the visibility that social media brings to language and language justice. This evolution is not only evident in English, but also in many languages around the world.
My profession as an interpreter demands that I be aware of cultural shifts to better serve my community. But why does this matter, and what happens if we are not well equipped to use inclusive language as healthcare interpreters? And what is at stake?
These are all questions I have contemplated with my peers in the last few weeks as I learned more about language inclusivity. My curiosity began when Merriam-Webster declared “they” as the word of the year late in 2019.
That the gender-neutral singular pronoun was recognized by such a large institution is in and of itself a sign of this evolution. Another entry that has been included in their dictionary as of recent is the gender-neutral honorific “Mx.” (pronounced mix).
These additions represent a shift to honor the personal gender pronouns of those individuals who do not identify as male or female. By acknowledging their neutral pronouns, we respect their existence, and listen to what they have to say and how they express their identity. This is how we begin to dismantle the binary.
Providing gender-inclusive healthcare
An impactful article out of Canada caught my attention as I explored the healthcare implications of a gendered society. Last year, the CBC reported instances where French patients were avoiding healthcare in their language because their pronouns were not being respected by healthcare professionals. As a result, they began seeking care in English, for its use of the neutral they/them.
This is not uncommon. According to a study by the National LGBT Health Education Center, 28% of respondents reported healthcare adversity that resulted in delayed medical care when they became sick or injured. This was due to discrimination by healthcare providers. Half of all those surveyed reported having to educate their healthcare providers about gender identity.
These examples illustrate not only the importance of gender inclusivity in healthcare, but also something interpreters are very familiar with — the importance of access to healthcare in one’s native language.
I didn’t have to look far to meet someone who is misgendered on a daily basis. Jay, a senior customer service representative and trainer in our Portland office, shared his experience with me.
Jay’s biological gender is female, but he identifies with the pronouns he/him. He is called “ma’am” every day on the phone, however.
Jay emphasized the importance of getting into the habit of separating gender from our everyday casual conversations and suggested other polite ways to address parties during a phone call:
- Address individuals by their name if the situation is casual
- Use a title such as doctor, professor, etc.
- Interject as needed by simply saying “excuse me” and avoid using “sir” or “ma’am” altogether
Speak with inclusivity in mind
Here are some more tips for everyday gender-neutral language use:
- Educate yourself. Don’t rely on others to teach you. Take it upon yourself, and learn about the socially constructed gender binary and the bias it creates.
- Find resources. Look for resources to keep up with commonly used pronouns in your target language.
- Don’t assume. If someone looks or sounds like a male or female, don’t guess what their pronouns are! Kindly ask how they wish to be addressed first. A simple “What are your pronouns?” works perfectly.
- Be an ally. Add your pronouns to your email signature or business cards to help educate others and raise awareness that pronouns shouldn’t be assumed.
- Practice, practice, practice. Find ways to navigate everyday encounters by actively avoiding using gendered language in the interactions you have with others. For example, try using the phase “Hello, everyone!” instead of “Hi, guys!”
- Hold others accountable. When someone misgenders another individual, kindly remind them of the pronouns they use.
The language we use every day shapes our reality. When we choose to use language that categorizes people into gender groups based on their appearance and the way they sound, we fail to listen to their reality. As a new decade begins, I propose we question the conventional use of gendered pronouns in all languages and begin to explore ways to move away from the closed system we’ve created.
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