Culture, People

LGBTQ+Everyone: The State of Inclusive Language Around the World

Photo by Jordan McDonald on Unsplash

The words a language uses can tell you a lot about its cultural and societal values. And language can evolve over time, taking on new meanings and growing organically to embrace challenges. That’s especially true of the ways in which languages around the world have addressed casting off old paradigms and finding inclusive linguistic solutions for the full spectrum of gender identities within the LGBTQ+ community.

Inclusive language is about more than identifying as a he, she, or they. Gender neutral pronouns are just the beginning of the conversation when it comes to tackling heavily-gendered languages. While some languages like Chinese don’t apply gender to nouns, many other languages such as Spanish or French rely upon assigning masculine or feminine identities as an integral part of their language structure.

The words we choose does translate into whether those who are gender-fluid feel safe and accepted in communities around the world.

While official mandates regarding language can receive a lot of pushback, LGBTQ+ activists and linguists insist the way a language handles gendered terms matters. For nonbinary folks who don’t identify as a male or female or consider themselves gender-fluid, the absence of non-gendered pronouns can be particularly hurtful. And for the transgender community who consistently faces being misgendered in daily conversations, the fight for inclusive language supports the fluidity of gender and increases tolerance.

As LGBTQ+ hate crimes are on the rise, specifically those against transgender people, the consideration and care we put into the words we choose does translate into whether those who are gender-fluid feel safe and accepted in communities around the world. Daina Ruduša from Outright Action International frames inclusive language as part of the effort to raise visibility for LGBTIQ issues around the world.

“The words used in Western culture to identify LGBTIQ people do not translate to all languages, for example, Arabic. Therefore, the fight for acceptance in society becomes compounded without the proper linguistics to define a community. Societal understanding and awareness around gender and LGBTIQ inclusivity remains low across the world. In an effort to garner understanding and acceptance, many queer and feminist groups are working to de-Westernize language, and find local language, centered around local history and text, to show that LGBTIQ issues are not “foreign”.”

What is Gender-Neutral Language?

What’s in a word? A lot more than just sounds and syllables. Generally speaking, gender-neutral language is the use of words that avoid sexist assumptions. But it’s blossomed recently into an effort to drive social change and debunk a whole spectrum of gender stereotyping. The campaign for more inclusive language can span a wide variety of issues from the use of  the gender-neutral pronoun “they” in North America to replacing gendered group nouns that default to masculine with asterisks in France.

As Daina Ruduša explains, gender-neutral language doesn’t just extend inclusion to non-binary and gender-fluid people. It can be a powerful tool to help dismantle sexism.

“For nonbinary people, gender-neutral pronouns will provide representation and visibility in areas they have otherwise been mis-gendered, or exludued all together. Gender-neutral pronouns will remove limitations to everyday conversation, and foster freedom of identity within dialogue and written text. 

Gender-neutral nouns will strip a word’s association with a specific gender, and contribute to  dismantling harmful and outdated gender roles, which language can enforce. For example, many languages default to the masculine pronouns when referring to a group of people, reinforcing global biases and sexism.”

At its heart, the quest for gender-neutral language is an ongoing conversation about how we can help languages evolve in a way that feels inclusive for all. While the rules surrounding gender-neutral terms are still fluid in many parts of the world, there has been progress that respectful language learners should be aware of before whipping out those handy phrasebooks.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the state of inclusive language around the world, alongside gender-neutral language tips from native speakers within the global LGBTQ+ community.

The State of Gender-Neutral Language in North America

Like Europe, North America is coming to terms with a language revolution that demands inclusivity. The rise of gender-neutral pronouns is just the beginning of the effort to create communication that helps everyone feel at home.

American English

While English doesn’t distinguish gender except for the assignment of pronouns, many nouns and other terms have gender assumptions built in. In addition to adding “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun, American English is undergoing a sustained evolution to become more inclusive.

And it’s not just the nonbinary pronoun “they”, which was officially added to the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 2019 and the Associated Press Stylebook in 2017. It’s also a whole host of subtly sexist words that are undergoing reconstruction. Nat, who identifies as queer and trans/nonbinary and has lived both in the UK and the US, has noticed some subtle and less than subtle differences when it comes to inclusive language in both countries.

“I would say that on the whole it’s fairly similar (UK vs. US), though it does seem to be that particularly in the service industry (in shops, etc.) it seems like people in the US are more likely to use gendered terms (e.g. “ma’am” “ladies” etc.). It was definitely a bit of a culture shock for me to suddenly be more heavily gendered in the US, because it’s seen here as more polite. On the other hand, there seems to be more recognition for the importance of gender neutrality and non-binary folks in the US than in the UK.”

Language matters. Words matter. Even if I get one person to have a different perspective about how they use language and words around me, I think it’ll make a difference.

Nat says that sometimes it’s a relief to be in the UK because they have to deal with gendering less often, but Nat still continues to get misgendered in both countries on a regular basis. And Nat notes there is an alarming absence of gender-neutral bathrooms in the UK, even in a large city like London. Nat’s advice for language learners is to proceed with caution, especially if you are a traveler who is part of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Some people will be understanding and others will not, and outside of cities is definitely more difficult. Although I will say that British people tend to be a little less confrontational, so if you keep your head down you are unlikely to get harassed. But with a big caveat that I am a trans person who is AFAB (assigned female at birth), and most TERF-iness and transphobia seems to be directed towards trans women. For some reason there seems to be a large contingent of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) in the UK, even amongst the supposedly liberal.”

Canada

While Canada does officially encourage the use of gender-neutral language, the reality for everyday conversations between Canadians can feel quite different. When gender-neutral pronouns are employed, it’s typically the use of “they” or “them” that you’ll hear most often, especially in urban and English-speaking areas.

An anonymous nonbinary member of the LGBTQ+ community in Canada told us that inclusive language continues to be a stumbling block for Canadians.

“It is not widely used here. Though I try to use it in my own life because of my experience being nonbinary, there are cases where there might not even be the right words that exist (e.g. what are gender-neutral words for uncle and aunt?). Many people are ignorant about the need for gender-neutral language and it gets tiring having to explain why it’s necessary.

I am constantly misgendered because I present as male. In some cases I can explain that I prefer gender-neutral language and that people can refer to me by my name as opposed to a pronoun, but every single time I hear the incorrect pronoun it stings.

My experience is only a drop in the ocean compared to those people who face a constant barrage of racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic rhetoric daily. I’d be guessing if I said most of it was just based in ignorance, but I’m hopeful that education will make it easier for members of our community to exist without being targeted and even killed.

Language matters. Words matter. Even if I get one person to have a different perspective about how they use language and words around me, I think it’ll make a difference.

The State of Gender-Neutral Language in Central and South America

While the rest of the world may have noticed a marked uptick in the use of terms like Latinx, replacing gendered endings in South America hasn’t become the language revolution some hoped it would be. While academics and activists may be encouraging the use of gender-neutral language, it’s a movement that has been slow to catch on in everyday conversations. 

Latin American Spanish

Spanish has attempted to evolve past gendered endings but it’s been an effort fraught with controversy. Simply adding an “x” seems to solve some initial problems, but critics say it doesn’t reflect true language reform and instead relies on tokenism demonstrated by those outside Latin America.

Today efforts to advance gender-neutral language remain in flux. While there has been a movement to replace gendered endings with @, it’s been difficult to find a way forward for Spanish pronunciation that feels inclusive for all the members for the LGBTQ+ community.

Portuguese (Brazil)

Portuguese suffers from the same heavily-gendered pitfalls that plague Castilian and Latin American Spanish. While there has been an effort to introduce gender-neutral pronouns such as el@, del@ and nel@ into written Portuguese, the language remains alienating for nonbinary and gender-fluid speakers.

Elaine, Brazil
Elaine, Brazil

Elaine, a bisexual currently residing in Brazil, says she’s seen increased usage of inclusive language in the last few years but Portuguese still has a long way to go.

“I feel like most people still haven’t been properly educated on this issue and don’t really understand why we use it and why it’s so important for some that you ask them about their pronouns and that you start using them once you have learned.

My experience with it has been disappointing. Especially while filling job/uni applications as I’ve realized most corporations only seem to have two gender options. While that doesn’t affect me personally, I think it’s something that needs to change if we want to create a more safe space for the entire community.”

Elaine advises Portuguese language learners and travelers to Brazil to choose their words carefully.

“The Portuguese language is heavily gendered so using a more gender-neutral language can be a little tricky, but in written language you can try and do that by replacing vowels with x’s. It avoids misgendering and is highly appreciated by everyone.”

The State of Gender-Neutral Language in Europe

Some parts of Europe began working on incorporating more inclusive language a decade or more ago and those countries serve as models of what gender-neutral terms can do to promote tolerance. Other countries, specifically those where romance languages create a heavily-gendered language environment, are struggling to make progress.

Dutch

The Netherlands has also been slowly transforming their language and their community to be more inclusive. Official changes have been made to the language used in train stations and airports to always default to gender-neutral terms such as passengers or people rather than gendered addresses like ladies and gentleman. 

Some Dutch paperwork both for private and public entities also allows for selecting a “different” gender box in addition to male or female. Gender-neutral toilets are reportedly available throughout Amsterdam, but ungendering the Dutch language itself has proved a little more difficult.

English (British)

Like its American cousin, the United Kingdom struggles with subtle sexism that underpins much of the English language. While you won’t find heavily gendered nouns, there are a host of terms from manhole covers to chairman where the use of masculine defaults permeates everyday conversations. 

In England, a quiet revolution has been happening for years as nonbinary folks within the community push the country to reconsider its implicit gendered bias in everything from language to passports. We spoke with Ethan Tai Bossuyt, who is part of the trans community in England, to get a better sense of how gender-neutral language is progressing in the United Kingdom.

“I think I stumble across a “they” nearly as often as I do a “he/she”. I definitely don’t find that people go out of their way to include gender-neutral language in their communication, although I get the impression sometimes there has been a deliberate effort towards non-gender-neutral language in an effort to be inclusive (as if to say ‘see look we mean women too’).

There is something about the use of gendered language, where something gender neutral would have sufficed (and usually have been shorter) that feels like a deliberate attempt at inclusion that misses non-binary/trans people—and that particularly feels like being so non-mainstream that people aren’t even thinking of you in their attempt to be inclusive. It feels very marginalising and othering to be hit with nonbinary gender-exclusive language, and although to an extent you just get used to it and get over it, it still leaves a sour taste in my mouth and contributes to an over-all atmosphere of unwelcomeness.”

While Ethan feels there isn’t a concerted effort across the board to ungender the English language in the UK, the British aren’t hostile to the idea of inclusive language.

“In my experience people will often not even notice a person going by they/them pronouns (e.g. everyone around them using those pronouns consistently for one person) unless there is a deliberate ‘coming out’. That being said, while they are somewhat oblivious at times, I have found the atmosphere overall non-hostile. If you’re learning the language, feel free to learn the gender-neutral versions of everything, and using exclusively gender-neutral language for ones-self is not a big no-no.”

French

French is one of several languages that rely on heavily gendered nouns and default to masculine pronouns when groups contain mixed genders. French feminists have long sought to push back against this subtle sexism in romance languages with mixed success. 

Recently, the use of asterisks to create more gender-neutral case endings has gained some traction. However in 2017, the French government banned the use of inclusive language in official documents, setting back the effort to find gender-neutral ground.

German

In January 2019, the German city of Hanover became the first in the country to mandate that all official communication use gender-neutral terms. A similar edict was issued in 2014 by various German institutions such as the federal justice ministry which required gender-neutral language on all its paperwork. 

As with most social change, what happens in daily life is often vastly different than what’s mandated officially. We checked in with Andy, a PhD student from Germany who is gay, to get his impressions of inclusive language use in Germany. While he sees encouraging signs, Andy also expressed some frustration at how long the struggle for inclusive language has gone on in Germany.

Andy, Phd Student, Germany
Andy, Phd student, Germany

“The problem with the German language is that almost all nouns referring to a human being exist in two forms: male and female, so there are two words to describe a doctor, a chef, a teacher etc. Like it is in English with the words “waiter” and “waitress.” Traditionally you would only use the male plural form to describe a group containing both men and women from any given profession. But this of course stems from the historic background that women weren’t allowed in these professions and studies have shown that if you use the male plural form to describe a group, people think of a male only group. By the late 90s it became common to always use both forms, so you would say “the waitresses and waiters at this restaurant are on strike” for example. There were still people refusing to do that when the discourse moved on to find gender-inclusive terms.”

Today, Andy says you won’t find one official approach for gender-neutral language in Germany but you will discover that it’s part of the conversation. Germans can apply either gender star (*) or the gender gap (_) approach to make their language more inclusive. While ten years ago gender-neutral language discussions were confined to young people at German universities, today it’s grown more and more common to hear these terms among the general population.

Andy provided some helpful tips summed up in the table below to show exactly how the gender gap and the gender star approach in German.

Male studentFemale studentGroup of studentsInclusive language for students
Traditional MethodStudentStudentinStudentenStudentinnen und Studenten
Gender GapStudent StudentinnenStudent_innenStudent_in
Gender starStudent StudentinnenStudent*innenStudent*in

If that all seems a bit confusing and perhaps difficult to decipher when it comes to German pronunciation, Andy reassures us there is a simpler way forward. 

“For some words there is a third way to find gender neutral terms, if the nouns are linked to a verb, like student is linked to study (study in German: ‘studieren’), in this case you can sometimes create a new gender-neutral word from there, so now the phrase ‘Studierende” (literally meaning ‘people who study’) is most commonly used to describe university students and it’s the term the law uses in most parts of Germany. Such a word is scientifically called a deverbative.”

While Andy says, as a cis male, he’s not directly affected by the lack of inclusive language, it does signal the values of a community or an individual if they don’t make the effort to use gender-neutral language.

“Just keep in mind you are stepping in the middle of an evolving language. We are trying to find new words here and it can change from year to year or from institution to institution or from region to region what the commonly used term is. Right now you’re on the safe side by using the deverbative in writing when possible and otherwise the gender gap or gender star.”

Italian

If it’s a person, place, or thing, the Italian language seems determined to assign it a gender. When the gender is truly unknown, Italians, like the French, fall back on masculine terms. Italian minister Laura Boldini, when she served as President of the Chamber of Deputies of Italy, sought to be addressed as la Presidente instead of il Presidente, and was strongly criticized by her male colleagues.

One way in which Italians have attempted to remove sexism from the language is to use double terms of address such as “signore e signori,” but these terms still exclude nonbinary or gender-fluid identities. Instead, LGBTQ+ activists have recently attempted to incorporate asterisks to replace the gendered ending of written Italian words with mixed success. The goal of making spoken, everyday Italian gender-neutral remains elusive.

Spanish (Spain)

Like other romance languages across Europe, Spanish has long struggled with gendered language that defaults to masculine endings. This is a practice feminists in Spain have been attempting to address for decades through language reform. Recently, a movement to rewrite the Spanish constitution with gender-neutral language was met with opposition from the conservative Royal Spanish Academy (who determine official language usage throughout Spain).

The way we speak will either be inclusive, or it will be wrong.

Alex Henke

While some have suggested doubling up by referring to both masculine and feminine noun forms, this approach fails to address concerns from the LGBTQ+ community, specifically those who identify as nonbinary. We spoke with Alex Henke of Madrid about the state of gender-neutral language in everyday conversations in Spain.

“It is not widely used, but those who use it are conscious and at times militant about being inclusive. An example that comes to mind is a left-flank liberal political party Podemos (We Can), whose leadership made a conscious choice when merging with another political group Unidos (The United, in general-use masculine) became Unidas Podemos: (Together We Can, with feminine ending to the plural adjective united). And so the message was clear: feminism extends to the language. The way we speak will either be inclusive, or it will be wrong.”

Alex says that as a cis-gendered bisexual man of European descent, he understands his privilege allows him to be minimally affected by the lack of inclusive language. However, he recognizes other members of the LGBTQ+ community may feel differently about the use of gender-neutral terms. His advice is to be aware of some words you may hear tossed about as slang and to know that inclusive language isn’t widely used nor is it a one-size fits all proposition.

“Interestingly, the American spelling of Hispanic person’s identity “latinx” is not used in Spain, and is, in fact, laughable. Literally I have heard friends and business associates laugh at the ridiculousness of the intent. Instead, our adjectives are sometimes altered. “Estimados señores,” is often spelled as “Estimad@s señor@s”—or changed into feminine form from the get-go, with female honorific preceding the male one, in breaking with tradition: “Estimadas Señoras y Señores.” No widely-used provision for queer identity exists.”

Swedish

Sweden’s concerted effort to employ gender-neutral pronouns provides evidence that inclusive language may in fact encourage tolerance.

Unlike other European countries that are still grappling with removing gendered structures from their language, Sweden has been incorporating gender-neutral language for nearly a decade. The gender-neutral pronoun “hen was officially adopted in 2012 and has made its way into daily conversation throughout the Scandanavian country.

Sweden’s concerted effort to employ gender-neutral pronouns provides evidence that inclusive language may in fact encourage tolerance. Sweden was recently named as the most tolerant country for LGBTQ+ travelers, winning out over some of its equally progressive Nordic neighbors.

Turkish

Because Turkish does not have grammatical gender forms, some might assume the language isn’t in need of revision, but linguists disagree. Some point out that like English, much of the terms in Turkish still convey or imply gender. For instance, words for preschool teachers in Turkish imply femininity while terms for police officers confer masculinity. 

Turkish is also proof for the other side of the coin that a gender-neutral language doesn’t automatically confer tolerance or equality. Turkey has a deeply patriarchal cultural and societal structure that discourages equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community and hate crimes and harassment are on the rise throughout the country.

The State of Gender-Neutral Language in Asia

Several Asian languages are genderless, meaning that nouns and other words don’t necessarily have to agree with a gender. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese as well as Polynesian and other Indo-European languages are considered genderless.

However, this does not automatically make these languages gender-neutral. Many languages used widely across Asia imply gender in a variety of ways and have societal values that do not encourage tolerance for the LGBTQ+ community.

Arabic

Unlike some of the other regional languages such as Persian and Kurdish, Arabic is a grammatically gendered language where nouns, verbs, and adjectives must agree and be assigned as either male or female. As with European and romance languages, plurals default to the masculine. Some dialects, such as Tunisian, have made progress in switching to using the feminine pronoun for everyone, but most of the Arabic-speaking world has not embraced inclusive language.

LGBTQ+ communities in the Middle East have long struggled to gain acceptance for words that define gay, bisexual, or transgender in Arabic. Some use of the term “mujtama’a al meem” (مجتمع الميم) or the meem community has gained traction but in other places like Lebanon, the word for gay still translates into someone who is a deviant. WikiGender is currently one of the only platforms that is working to promote LGBTQ+ rights in Arabic-speaking countries through the use of inclusive language.

Chinese (Mandarin)

In China, a traditional approach is gaining momentum in the struggle for inclusive language. Previously, Mandarin contained a third person pronoun tā (他) but it was discarded in the 20th century with a push to introduce strict gender into the language as a result of Western influence.

Recently the pronoun has made a comeback, but Mandarin still has a long way to go when it comes to the writing system. Many of the radicals used in Mandarin ascribe negative stereotypes to the feminine and rely heavily on implied gendering in the characters.

Filipino (Tagalog)

In some respects, Tagalog is light years ahead when it comes to inclusive language because the Filipino culture embraces a more fluid understanding of gender. The pronoun “siya” is widely used in the same context as “them,” and remains a gender-neutral term. This sort of approach is common in the Austronesian language family and is an effect of indigenous influence on the language. 

As Filipino transgender activists point out, the idea of fluid gender is not a new one and has been present in most cultures since the beginning. It’s only recent efforts in the 19th and 20th century that focused on defining and restricting gender roles that have reshaped some languages.

Hebrew

Hebrew has many similarities to Arabic such as the gendering of verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Hebrew feminists have championed inverting the gender of words to promote equality, but that still leaves nonbinary and gender fluid Hebrew speakers in the lurch.

The Nonbinary Hebrew Project is an effort to build a third gender in Hebrew through referencing the Talmud and Torah. Lior, a Hebrew speaker who does trans activism and queer education, says the language can be difficult to navigate for nonbinary folks.

Lior, Hebrew speaker and trans activist
Lior, Hebrew speaker and trans activist

“Gender-neutral language is not really an option in Hebrew, unfortunately. Moreover, the unmarked default is male coded language and even using female plural form for a mixed gender group is considered radical (while using male plural is seen as “neutral”). That also goes for general speak of a person of an unknown gender—referring to them as male would be the neutral default. It is also worth noting that Hebrew’s gendered language includes verbs and adjectives, so it applies to 1st person and 2nd person and is a lot more present than in English.

That makes things quite difficult for nonbinary people to choose our pronouns, and there is some variation among us. Some use their assigned pronouns, due to habits and lack of a good alternative; some use mixed language—alternating he and she during speech; some use the pronouns “opposite” to those assigned to them; some use plural (but plural form in Hebrew is also gendered). It may also differ between speech and written text, as written text allows a form that includes both binary gendered forms by punctuation. Thus, the word “know” is written יודעת for female and יודע for male, and nonbinary people may use יודע-ת or יודע.ת as a way to include both forms in one word.”

Lior admits the Hebrew language can be very frustrating to use for these reasons and that many Hebrew nonbinary and transgender speakers often feel misgendered.

“It is very frustrating for me. I tried using mixed language but it mostly feels as if I get misgendered twice, from two different perspectives. Sticking to my old pronouns also makes me feel “not trans enough” or invalidating in a way. In writing I try to avoid gendered language as much as I can, and it sometimes leads to very complex phrasings. In speech I often “slip” to English when talking with people close to me. In other contexts I do use mixed language since I feel it affirms my identity in some way, but I would not like it to be a longtime solution.”

Lior advises Hebrew language learners to be aware of how heavily gendered the language is and to understand that even when you’re asking which pronouns to use, the question itself still forces you to imply gender. 

“It also means every interaction you have with random people on the bus, in the store, etc., always involves some gendered language and the option for all trans and nonbinary people to get misgendered is very present. I know of some fiction authors who are trying to include nonbinary characters in their body of work and struggle with the language describing them. There are attempts of mixed language and of neo-pronouns, but they’re still highly criticized.”

Hindi

The Hindi language is rife with gender pitfalls, including gender that not only forces agreement with adjectives and verbs but also determines inflection for nouns. The language is so heavily gendered that much of the queer and nonbinary discourse surrounding theses issues takes place in English.

I make mistakes, and need to learn the ways to acknowledge and atone for those mistakes and not make them again. Changing our language changes the way we think and interact in a community.”

Rohihi Malur, Bangalore, India
Rohihi Malur, Bangalore, India
Rohihi Malur, Bangalore, India

Rohini Malur, a queer cis woman from Bangalore, India, is a founding member of the All Sorts of Queer Group (for queer and trans persons who do not identify as cis men). She says that while gender-neutral language isn’t widely used in daily conversations, it’s catching on within the queer and gender-fluid community in India. 

“I think it’s not widely used in mainstream cis/het society. It is slowly catching on in queer circles because young enby/gender queer/gender fluid peeps are coming out and asserting their space and dignity—but it’s not automatic, and there is cis/het resistance to going beyond the binary. Many Indian languages are binary gendered, and the third gender is semi-insulting? The third gender is sort of UNgendered.” 

Rohini says much of the inclusive language that she hears is happening in English-speaking circles in India where they will unconsciously drop “they” into conversations but still seem to struggle with whether or not it is grammatically correct English.

“I’m a cis woman, and so inclusive language is a learning process for me along many lines. I’m affected because I know people now that I did not before. My understanding of gender expands, and I have to sit with it when it makes me uncomfortable or when I do not understand. I make mistakes, and need to learn the ways to acknowledge and atone for those mistakes and not make them again. Changing our language changes the way we think and interact in a community.”

As for language learners, Rohini says to be aware that there are several non-cis genders in India but most of the country still struggles with the tendency to use ma’am or sir, mostly due to strict hierarchy structures in India’s caste and class systems.

Japanese

Japan has a long history of gender fluidity, so you’d expect not only a language that maintains gender-neutrality but a culture that embraces nonbinary and transgender rights. Sadly, that is not the case. While Japanese does not have gendered terms per se, gender is often implied in certain words and regressive laws have restricted equality for the LGBTQ+ community in Japan.

One such law requires that in order for transgender people to be recognized, they must first be diagnosed as having a gender identity disorder and then undergo medical sterilization. Transgender people cannot have children or be married in order to be eligible for surgery.

Korean

You might be forgiven for assuming that a society as advanced as South Korea’s has embraced LGBTQ+ rights and inclusive language, but quite the opposite is true. Korea relies heavily on strict gender roles, largely because the predominant religion, Confucianism, is based on men as authority figures. 

However, as South Korea becomes increasingly Westernized, these traditional gender roles are causing tension among Korean youth. While Korea’s constitution declares equality for all and protections that should be extended to the LGBTQ+ community, activists still describe the culture as a hostile one. As for the Korean language, there remains no third or gender neutral pronouns in use today.

Persian (Farsi)

Persian divides pronouns into living and non-living beings, which should make finding gender-neutral terms easier. If you’re human, you have one pronoun in Persian and it’s “U.” Ironically, however, this gender-neutral language is spoken primarily in Iran where the government has made same-sex relationships a crime since 1979.

Even if Iranian policies are sometimes hostile towards the LGBTQ community, Farsi speakers often point towards the gender-neutral structure of the language as a way to increase tolerance and equality. In Persian, the same nouns are used for male and female professionals so you won’t find pesky assumptions like the English “mailman” or “man and wife” lurking in Persian vocabulary.

Russian

Russian is infused with gender and every word with the exception of adverbs implies feminine or masculine constructs, leaving nonbinary and gender-fluid Russians with few alternatives to express themselves. So online and in other spaces, they’ve taken to inventing their own, repurposing the Russian neuter “ono,” which is supposed to apply to non-living things, as a gender-neutral pronoun. 

Russians still struggle with finding a way forward with inclusive language that demonstrates tolerance for both transgender and nonbinary Russians. Many feel compelled to choose between masculine or feminine pronouns in the absence of a true gender-neutral approach to the Russian language.

Inclusive Language and the Way Forward

It’s clear from this snapshot of how gender-neutral language is faring around the world that there’s much work to be done before the words used in everyday conversations embrace the full spectrum of gender identity. Each of the regions identified here face different challenges as they move to advance LGBTQ+ rights and a one-size-fits-all approach to gender-neutrality remains elusive.

While progress may seem fleeting, a common thread unites the LGBTQ native speakers we’ve highlighted here. Each of them expressed that a willingness to learn and to act with consideration and compassion translates well no matter which language you speak. Do your research, choose your words carefully, and when in doubt, simply ask.

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