The Role of Language in Shaping a Gender-Neutral World

May 3, 2023


Language is a structured system of communication, with the potential to  not only shape but also affect and manipulate thoughts, ideas and feelings. Grammar has never been more important, what with the growing need for progressive changes, and the increasing plea of the vulnerable to be heard. Implementing change is one way we can restore dignity to the individual. Language is a powerful tool, and can degrade, or uplift. In fact, Linguistics scholars consider language a cultural, social and psychological phenomenon, in that even the subtle usage of certain words can truly make an impact. The importance of one’s pronouns, for instance, has grown in importance, over the past decade. The presence of the LGBTQIA+ community has become more prominent since the beginning of the 21st century, and as a result, people belonging to genders besides the two binary ones, demand equal respect, and the fundamental right to dignity, which we can help achieve by referring to them by their desired pronouns, and using terms that do not exclude them from being treated as an equal. For instance,  one study showed that a relatively harmless sentence, such as “girls are as good as boys at math,” can subtly perpetuate sexist stereotypes.


Despite recent awareness being raised on the subject, many still undermine the importance of using the right pronouns and dismiss the current debate as frivolous. It is not uncommon to see people making assumptions about one’s gender and pronouns, and continue to cocoon themselves in the world of binaries.


For those fighting for the basic question of identity, the fight for pronouns and inclusive terminologies such as ‘partner’ and ‘spouse’ is not just a fight for the removal of “otherness” created by reductivist language but also a fight for equal participation in society instead of being subjected to disrespect, invalidation, alienation, and dismissal.  This also  severely impacts one’s mental health. In fact, research suggests that LGBT persons are thrice as likely to experience a mental health condition such as major depression or generalised anxiety disorder. This exists not merely as an inapproachable statistic, but is apparent in real life scenarios too. For instance, the word ‘gay’ is used in locker rooms (especially in schools), as a derogatory term to tease or bully boys. This becomes even more insidious when it is used to as a way of shaming someone who refuses to conform to the social norms associated with their biological gender, instead of a marker of identity.


In a country like ours, so steeped in conventional traditions and culture, progress and legislative changes in terms of including the LGBTQIA+ community is a long drawn process.  There is little awareness of the recent changes that have played a substantial role in making slow, but hopeful changes in India’s approach to this once ostracised community, such as the decriminalization of Section 377 by the Supreme Court in 2018 in the Navtej Singh Johar case. The judgment also acknowledges that legal awareness ought to be accompanied by more open conversation and acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community.


However, the above changes are but a drop in the ocean. The LGBTQIA+ community continues to wrestle draconian legislations expressed in bigoted language.  One way to address this is to accord dignity to partners in the community by giving them the status of a spouse. To address this and to strike down the use of the binary notions such as ‘he and she’ and ‘husband and wife’, brought up several times in the Special Marriage Act, 1954 (“SMA”), many petitioners have moved the Supreme Court to replace these terms of ‘husband and wife’ and ‘man and woman’ in the SMA with the gender-neutral terms ‘spouse’ and ‘person’ respectively. This along with issues of recognition of same sex marriages was brought to the attention of a five-judge bench in the Supreme Court on the 18th of April.


While language might not be seen as germane to the issue, to me it is the very crux of the issue as it both determines and communicates perception, and until the LGBTQI+ community’s demand for inclusivity in language is not understood and upheld, all other changes will be slow in their fruition.


Rules and laws must be framed based on the fundamental human right of every person to a dignified existence. The petitions before the Supreme Court of India are a significant step towards that. This simple, yet imperative change, would open up several new windows and opportunities for the community.  If we can get society to embrace these “windows” we can be hopeful of a dignified life for the LGBTQ++ community in the near future. Even subtle change in language can make all the difference, and change begins with you.


Like Theodore Melfi aptly said, “You have a responsibility to make inclusion a daily thought, so we can get rid of the word inclusion”.


This blog post was written by our intern Ananya Sukruta Mysore , a 10th grade student of National Public School, Koramangala.