In December of 1982, I became aware of gender-inclusivity for the first time.
I was six years old. I was sitting in children’s choir practice, an affair managed by my Grandmother Lucy’s benevolent smile and endless patience.
In our high, piping voices, we sang out, “Peace on Earth, good will to men!”
And I, in my pigtails, grass-stained jeans, and Christmas sweatshirt, found myself feeling vaguely irritated. To men? What about to us women?
If you go to the University Presbyterian church campus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and head into the choir room you might still find my little protest on the wall. It definitely stayed there for another 15 years. I took a piece of chalk and wrote “Peace on Earth, good will to ALL.”
It mattered. I felt left out. I didn’t like feeling left out.
And thus I would launch a writing career wherein I tried to be gender inclusive. I would, for example, write “him or her, he or she” in everything, no matter how awkward it got. And it got awkward.
These days, of course, I’ve come to realize that even “he or she” leaves a whole Hell of a lot of people out. It would be hard to miss, since my child started introducing me to other genders right around the time he came out as transgender.
Prior to that, I didn’t even know that nonbinary and genderfluid people existed. I had to ask him what the Hell he was talking about when he started broaching the subject with me. In fact, I barely knew trans people existed. I had a vague notion that drag queens were a thing and that was about it.
This year I came out as gender nonbinary. I use they/them pronouns.
The effect of identifying and understanding my gender has been profound. I felt attractive for the first time in my life this year, because I was no longer judging that on my ability to conform to a female standard. I feel more confident as a professional. It has mattered. It has mattered so much.
All of my clients are getting gender-inclusive content these days. I’m not sure they’ve even noticed, but they’re getting it.
Even as I’ve done it, I’ve started thinking about how this is an issue that deserves some conscious conversation in the content community. Thus, this blog post.
3 Reasons Why Gender-Inclusivity Matters
Let’s say you’re cis (for those of you following along in the home audience, this means your gender identity matches your biological form). Maybe everyone you know is cis. Maybe you perceive the world is being mostly cis.
Why should you bother to be gender-inclusive? Why not just go right along writing your web copy and content the same way you always have?
Hey, fair question. I’ve got answers.
What percentage of your income would you willingly walk away from?
Would you willingly walk away from 50%? 50% of the population is in a female body, so if you insist on using “he,” and only he because it’s convenient and you feel like everyone should just sort of “understand” you mean all humans, then you might well be walking away from 50% of your potential income.
Why? Because plenty of cis biological people hate feeling left out, and you’re leaving them out. They might buy your product anyway, but if they see another option that acknowledges they exist and do things, they might just move on.
How about 4.5% of your income? Would you willingly slash your income by that much?
Well, 4.5% of the population identifies as LGBTQ. That’s 14,715,000 people in America alone. Many LGBTQ people care about gender inclusivity whether they’re trans or not.
0.6% of the population identifies as trans, and 38% of those people identify as nonbinary or genderfluid. That’s 1,962,000 trans people and 745,560 non-binary or genderfluid people. I understand you may not serve literally all of America, but it’s likely your own customer base falls into similar demographics, and you could probably run those numbers to see how many potential customers you could be chasing away.
Given conversion optimization experts get excited about a mere 1% increase in conversions it seems like it would be smart to make sure you’re adopting a strategy which helps your site appeal to a greater range of people, thus creating more conversions.
By the way, you don’t get to cop out here if you sell something you think of as being really male or really female.
You need to wrap your mind around the fact that men have periods, so you can’t get away with using “her” all over your site even if you sell sanitary pads. You need to wrap your head around the fact that there are women who have five o’clock shadows to manage, so you can’t get away with using “him” on your aftershave site.
You might not even want to do it if you’re running a business in a location or industry that’s uh, a little less than welcoming to LGBTQ people. Sure, if you’re running a gun store in Alabama you might lose some business by being inclusive. But as you’re about to see, you don’t have to be overt about it.
In fact, there are ways to do it that make people feel welcome without say, plastering rainbow flags all over the backdrop of your automatic weapon category page, as you’ll see if you keep reading.
And yes. Of course you are free, utterly free, 100% free to refuse to bake the cake or adjust the language on your website if your beliefs say people like me shouldn’t exist.
I’m just saying it’s kind of a dumb thing to do. I may fly a rainbow flag, but my money’s still green.
Also, you might want to do a little research, because if your beliefs are Judeo-Christian and that’s why you have objections, well…guess what? If you wanna be Biblical you’ve got six genders to learn about, not two. Can’t speak to any other religions cause I don’t know enough about them.
#2: Branding and Reputation
Boomers and Greatest Generation people might not care very much about gender-inclusivity as a whole (though there are, of course, many gay boomers and WWII veterans and Depression survivors). And this is actually a dangerous assumption, because 45% of the Boomers are in fact perfectly supportive of LGBTQ rights.
However, a huge percentage of Gen X’ers, Millennials, and Gen Z people do care.
As the Press Telegram points out, Gen X “helped pave the way for LGBT” rights. 65% of Millennials actively support comprehensive nondiscrimination protections. Even conservative members of Gen Z voice support for LGBTQ rights and see them as a non-issue…young conservatives are worried about other things. Gen Z kids care a lot about representation, and many will boycott entire entertainment franchises who fail to do it, or to do it well.
Gen Z is also particularly aware of gender issues, and favor many gender-inclusive and gender-neutral initiatives, like ensuring unisex public bathrooms are available.
When you choose gender-inclusiveness you tell all these people, “Hey, I don’t want anyone to feel left out.” That’s a great thing to tell people. It’s a great thing to work into your brand.
#3: It’s the ethical thing to do.
This is just my opinion, but I feel like anything that reduces the amount of ways that various people experience discrimination and microaggression is a good, ethical choice. In my personal value system, kindness is always the right choice. Maybe you agree.
Let’s Get Some B.S. Out of the Way for a Second
Right about now, someone’s saying, “I hate all this political correctness social justice warrior bullcrap.”
Ok. I hear you.
If this is you, I also admit I don’t understand what the problem is. I never have. I can’t even fully articulate your position to refute every point of it, because every time I’ve tried to get someone to explain to me what the big issue is, I get is a dizzying word salad without so much as a dollop of ranch-flavored logic in the mix.
Is your problem with choosing language that includes others? Why?
Is it really physically painful to call people the name they want to be called or to use the pronouns they prefer? I’m curious. How does that decrease the quality of your life in any way?
What’s your beef with basic courtesy?
If you “hate that PC crap,” I’ll tell you what it looks like your beef is.
It looks like you enjoy your position as someone at the top of the social pyramid so to speak, and you’re afraid life just won’t be as cool if people who aren’t like you are acknowledged and welcomed.
It looks like you kind of like that feeling of superiority, so you really don’t want to share.
This makes you look like you’re not a very kind person, because kind people usually don’t like stepping on other people’s faces to get the biggest slice of pie.
Wanna act this way? Totally your prerogative. Go nuts.
I refer you yet again to the fact that a lot of us who believe that being inclusive is just basic courtesy are all carrying around a fair amount of green stuff, so you might want to think long and hard before you make that the hill you want to die on.
The Gender-Inclusivity Nitty-Gritty: Making it Happen
If you’ve read this far I’m going to assume you’re totally sold on doing the thing, so let’s talk about how.
Get comfy with ‘they’ as a singular.
This was actually one of the hardest things about learning how to write true gender-neutral copy. A small army of English teachers spent 16 years telling me that “they” is never, ever, ever, ever, ever singular.
“They” were wrong.
According to The Oxford English Dictionary the singular “they” has been completely valid since 1375, and has always been appropriate when you don’t know the gender of the people you’re talking about, or want to include all possible genders in a statement.
You can read the whole history of “they” as a singular, how it came into question, and why it’s still 100% correct on the link above.
I get that it’s going to sound really funny to the ear. It’s going to look a little funny to the eye. But it is perfectly valid, and you can use it in place of he, she, or he or she. Eventually it will be second nature.
This is a medium-stealth way to go about it. Some people will frown at what they perceive to be bad grammar. Many won’t ever notice, except those of us who appreciate that you thought to keep us included in your copy.
Embrace the word “person.”
Right now there are a zillion headlines roaring around the Internet that say things like: “For the man who has everything.”
You’re going to write, “For the person who has everything.”
You might be thinking, “Wait, Raney, I really need to convey I’m talking about masculine stuff, especially because, seriously, whether they’re cis or trans, dudes are kind of hard to shop for sometimes, and my post is trying to help people in their life navigate that problem.”
I hear that. I totally do.
This dilemma might mean that in a few cases you stop stealthing. You might have to go with “45 Gifts for Masculine People Who Have Everything.” That tells everyone you’re being really gender-inclusive, and you might even feel a little scared. It feels a lot like taking a stand for trans men and you may worry that you’ll lose a lot of transphobic people when you do that.
That’s a discussion you’ll have to have with you, the person in your mirror, and your deity if you have one.
The central question of that discussion is: would you rather lose customers because you’re not inclusive, or lose customers when you are?
Sometimes you’re just going to lose customers, and sometimes you have to take a stand. I recognize in this instance I’m undermining my “don’t chase money out the door” argument, but nothing’s simple.
I don’t even judge you if you decide that you’re running a gun shop in Alabama and you maybe really can’t afford to take that kind of stand. You gotta feed your family, not getting beaten up or shot is always a good thing, and I’m not going to tell you that you’re a bad person for making the non-inclusive choice here. I’m just going to point out you have that choice, and let you make the one that your conscience and reality dictates.
Embrace words that require no gender at all.
Sometimes you don’t need pronouns and you don’t need gender.
Instead of saying, “The lawyer defends his case,” you can just say “the lawyer defends the case.”
Instead of talking about gunmen you can talk about shooters. Maybe your blog post isn’t “45 Gifts for Guys Who Have Everything,” it’s just “45 Gifts for Shooters Who Have Everything.” Works another keyword in too (woo SEO!)
You don’t have to get it to use it.
You may have trouble understanding why a woman feels left out when you stick to “goodwill to men,” feeling women should just understand it means all humans. You may not get what being trans feels like, or understand what it means to be nonbinary.
That’s okay. There’s plenty about your experience I don’t understand, too.
It doesn’t matter. Every day, every person who writes copy is engaged in some sort of an empathy exercise. I don’t have to know what it’s like to have psoriasis to write copy for a psoriasis medication. I don’t have to spend a year running a used car dealership to do a little research into the reality of used car people, or to use that research to at least imagine what it’s like and write with an eye towards understanding their needs and solving their problems.
Gender-inclusivity works the same way. You don’t have to feel it in your own experience. You just have to acknowledge others have experiences you don’t have, and make a conscious choice to be welcoming whenever and wherever you can.
Let me know in the comments below, or reach out to me on social media to have a discussion.