Words Talk: Why Gender-Neutral Language Matters

This past election (November 2016), King County residents voted to approve an amendment to the King County Charter that will replace gender-specific language with gender-neutral language. On July 11, the County Council adopted my ordinance to place this charter amendment on the ballot and another to do the same in the King County Code.

The vote ensures the language of the King County Charter is inclusive and does not reflect bias.

As my colleague, Councilmember Larry Gossett, said, “Words carry weight and guide us in our practice and policy making. The voters wisely decided to change the wording of the county’s ‘constitution’ to reflect our changing world.”

As a state senator, I sponsored similar legislation, updating state statutes with gender-neutral language.  The response from both legislators and the public was mostly very positive.  But there were some critics of the legislation, which had been derided on Fox News. The more benign called the state legislation a waste of time and resources, even though drafting the bill consumed little time and its implementation will reduce staff workload for years to come. Others seemed to view gender-neutral language as a way to expunge the term “man” from the English language. But, overall, there was wide support in the public and in the legislature.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify the reasons for updating the language in the King County Charter and Code.

First, the use of gender-neutral language in government statutes and codes is nothing new. Many states have adopted gender-neutral language. Under a 1983 Washington State law, all legislation since that time has been required to contain gender-neutral language. That means words like “policeman” and “councilman” have given way to the terms “police officer” and “councilmember,” and “he” to “he or she” or to avoid pronouns. These are not earth-shaking changes.

In addition, the county amendment pertains only to the county charter and code. It does not require anyone to use gender-neutral language in conversation, in the workplace or in other everyday venues. The approved King County amendment simply adjusts identifications in the County Charter such as “Councilman” and “Chairman,” to gender-specific neutral terms such as “Councilmember” and “Chair.”

Words matter, and unbiased language should not be threatening to anyone.