Words Hurt, Words Heal: The

Value of Gender-Neutral Language 

By Andra Tache  | Culture | February 5, 2024

Cover Illustration: Hands with rainbow colors. Cottonbro Studio / Pexels

Culture Reporter Andra Tache discusses the effects that non-gender neutral linguistic behaviors may have on the LGBTQ+ community.

Why Pronouns Matter

“It’s the difference between a cold bath and a hot bath.” When I asked Darcy to describe how it makes them feel when people use gender-neutral language, I didn’t expect them to come up with such a poignant analogy. But, it works. Darcy is non-binary, and the use of gender-neutral language is essential for their mental well-being. Gender-neutral language includes the use of pronouns such as they/them in English or hen/hun in Dutch, as well as adapting terms – usually from the generic masculine form – to include people of all genders, like Latinx/Latine instead of Latino/Latina in Spanish.

Unfortunately, gender-neutral language – and the people who use it – are often subjected to heavy criticism and stigmatization. Geert Wilders, the conservative politician who dominated the 2023 Dutch general election, has publicly thundered against education on gender identity and inclusive language in schools, demanding to “let children be children.” The implication that it is a temporary cultural novelty and a phenomenon that should be kept within the bounds of queer circles reflects a widespread sentiment in Dutch society: it is simply not worth it for many to make the effort to familiarize themselves with gender-neutral language. In two separate conversations, Darcy and Merijn, two young non-binary people living in Amsterdam, reflect on their lived experiences with gender-neutral language and give tips on how to deal with awkward situations and slip-ups.

You might be wondering why gender-neutral language is even important. Generation Z attempts to find a seat at the linguistic table for everyone. However, a disconnect develops when there is a lack of empathetic dialogue between the trans* and non-binary community and people who are not well-versed in queer politics. Questions like these arise when there is a lack of understanding about how essential inclusivity is in order to maintain trans* people’s well-being, and how grave consequences can be for people if their identities can’t find a place in society.

Merijn, for example, realized they were transgender at only four years old. “Then, at nine, I cut my hair short and asked everyone to call me Martin,” they recall. “Later on, I actually had two bedrooms – a boy room and a girl room, and I would switch between them depending on how I felt. When I was around 16 years old, I categorized my clothes into a spectrum. And I woke up like, oh, where on the spectrum do I feel today?” However, not everyone understood – or tried to understand – this fluidity. By 17, they officially came out as non-binary. But gender-neutral pronouns were new to people. “People made fun of me a lot. And I then made the decision, well, if no one’s going to respect my pronouns, I’m going to become a guy. I started testosterone and lived as a guy for three to four years.”

The queer community often provides a safe space for trans* identities, and is most likely to use gender-neutral language. Discovering one's queer identity can be an isolating experience, and language helps non-binary people navigate the world safely. Photo by Karollyne Videira Hubert / Unsplash

Hold up. Merijn started hormone replacement therapy and practically reversed their coming-out because of the adversity towards inclusive language? Because I have never questioned my gender identity, this is the first time it occurs to me that there are deep consequences when gender-neutral language isn’t used for people who identify with it. The tone of the conservation shifts slightly to reflect on this more serious topic. “When I was 17, I was in a very, very, very bad place. By itself, questioning your gender is already a very rough thing to have to go through. Your gender identity decides quite a lot about your life.” At this moment, I think back about my own childhood. Identity is not something that suddenly emerges at a certain age; for Merijn, their gender identity has always been the same. The unfamiliarity with and harassment based on gender-neutral language, however, has changed the way they express themselves in a fundamental way. “I had no room left, mentally, to also educate people on pronouns or spread awareness, like, hey, non-binary is a thing. So, it was easier, I guess, to just pretend to be a man. Because that, at least, is something that people know – what being a man is, what being transgender is.”

Nowadays, Merijn is very comfortable with their non-binary identity, and their story does make an excellent point. Gender-neutral pronouns and inclusive greetings like  saying “hey folks” instead of “ladies and gentlemen” is not a symptom of a generation obsessed with identity politics, “oppression Olympics,” or one that walks on eggshells as not to offend anyone. Instead, it is an exercise in empathy. Conversations around mental health, sexuality and gender identity have never been more prevalent or more transparent, and the desire for harmony in a globalized world full of potential conflict is certainly understandable. 

Ultimately, the reason why more people outside of queer spaces are asked to educate themselves about gender neutral language is because this expectation of empathy is reflected across society. The larger the space where gender neutral language can be established, the larger the space non-binary people, like Darcy and Merijn, can safely exist in – in the very same way that cis people do, every day, without thinking about it.


“Questions like these arise when there is a lack of understanding about how essential inclusivity is in order to maintain trans* people’s well-being, and how grave consequences can be for people if their identities can’t find a place in society.”

How to Overcome Your Fear of Pronouns

Learning takes time — and when it comes to native speakers of inherently gendered languages, like Dutch, the time it can take to use inclusive language correctly can be demotivating. How should we approach the topic of gender-neutral language? If Merijn’s story has taught me anything, it is the importance of inclusive language and the consequences of its absence. On the other hand, educating people is emotional labor that cannot be shouldered by the community alone. Entering into an empathetic dialogue requires you to not rely on people to explain the validity of their identity. At the same time, it means being met with patience while the world re-familiarizes itself with a concept as old as humanity.

However, many people don’t expect this patience to be extended to them. Perhaps the most common reason people avoid the subject altogether is because they are afraid to make a mistake. Learning to use inclusive language is difficult for everyone – both for people who are familiar with queer culture and politics, and those who aren’t. “This fear might be rooted in people feeling like they will get attacked if they don’t do it correctly,” Darcy suggests. I nod my head in agreement. It’s easy to think people might fear conflict in an era where jokes such as “did you just assume my gender?” are ubiquitous on social media.

Merijn also sees online ridicule as a part of the problem. “So many people have this crooked idea of trans people. That’s also where the jokes come from.” In their experience, there is a widespread understanding in the trans* community that learning takes time, and many people in their circle still struggle with their pronouns. “I’m not going to get upset if people try to use my pronouns and have to go through that learning process, and keep slipping up. That means that someone is showing effort and trying, and that is always appreciated. Good intentions are so clear, and we can see that.”

But how do I handle a slip-up? I have to admit that I do get very embarrassed whenever I accidentally misgender someone. Thankfully, Merijn has a great analogy prepared: “Imagine you work at a restaurant with a soup of the week; last week it was pumpkin soup, but this week, it’s broccoli soup. A guest asks: ‘What’s the soup of the week?’ And you answer: ‘It’s pumpkin soup. No, wait – sorry, it’s actually broccoli soup.’ You can approach pronouns with the same level of casualness, and just move on.”

Gendered identity and language are complex, politically charged topics – but societal views on them are constantly changing. On international university campuses like the UvA, people of different cultures and backgrounds meet, form new identities, and test new models of society. These environments are bound to cause situations of conflict, but they also produce new ways to connect and interact with each other, such as by learning about queer identity.  New curricula may de-escalate conflict around gender identity before it even starts. Darcy also believes that starting early is key: “You see that now in childhood education, that sexuality and gender gets normalized. If you learn it from a young age, you learn it without prejudice, and at a time when it’s easier to absorb new knowledge.”  

After these two insightful conversations, I’ll leave you with Merijn’s parting words: “I’m going to stress it again: don’t let the fear of slipping up or making a mistake stop you from trying, because all that matters is trying. The effort you put into gender-neutral language is always valued, always seen, and always appreciated so much.”

Queer inclusivity has taken big steps forward, despite still facing resistance. Photo by No Revisions / Unsplash

Andra Tache is a university student in Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer. 

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