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More inclusive communication is more complex than it seems

How can we adapt the Dutch we use at the University so that everyone feels comfortable and included? This was the subject of debate during a panel discussion on 28 June at Leiden University.

There is a small proportion of the Leiden University community that feels neither male nor female. This so-called non-binary group does not feel at home within the strict definitions use in our spoken and written language.  But they are often addressed as 'Dear madam/sir',  including in official correspondence from Leiden University. 

How can we try to  accommodate this group of students and staff? This was the subject of debate during a panel discussion on gender-inclusive language use organised by the Leiden University LGBT+ Network. The key question is: how do you accommodate people who do not feel strictly male or female, while the Dutch language rests heavily on this distinction between genders? 

Brother, sister ?

The discussion was kicked off by a number of experts, strong reactions on social media having shown that by no means everyone wants to have this discussion; many non-binary students and staff experience the restrictions of the Dutch language as a problem. As an example, how do you refer to a non-binary child of the same parents within a family? English at least has the word 'sibling', but Dutch has only 'brother' or 'sister' to choose from.

‘You only appreciate just how annoying that is if you yourself are non-binary,' says Colin, a student of Philosophy, who does not identify with either only the male or female gender. 'It's made me very uncertain.' And Sam (Film and Literature Studies) adds: 'Our language use could be more neutral, better reflecting the present day. In the language as it currently is, I can't be myself because there are no terms for who I am.' Moreover, in the longer term, it is also in the interest of the University community as a whole, Jojanneke van der Toorn, professor by special appointment of LGBT workplace inclusion, commented. ‘It's better for everyone if people see that differences are respected on the workfloor.' 

Minimising gender

But what does it mean exactly to be gender-inclusive in our spoken and written communication? It's easier said than done, and even in a room full of like-minded people, there are very diverse opinions about the practical consequences. 'One of the options is to minimise gender expressions as far as possible,' says Eliza Steinbock, lecturer in Gender Studies. The Dutch Railways now address their passengers with 'Dear passengers, rather than 'ladies and gentlemen'.  And anyone attending an inaugural lecture at Leiden University currently receives a confirmation mail with the text: 'You have registered under the name of J. Jansen.’ So far, there have been no complaints. 

Even so, this is not a satisfactory solution. The large majority of people do feel comfortable with one gender and want to be addressed accordingly. Personal contact with our target groups is very important, commented Caroline van Overbeeke, spokesperson and communications adviser at Leiden University. That's particularly true of transgender people: they have often undergone a sex change operation and are proud to finally call themselves a man or woman.

Extra categories

Another option is to add new categries. On a registration form, for example, people need to have other options to choose than  'male' or 'female'.  Student Colin is in favour of this: 'I think the term gender-neutral is an unfortunate one. We don't want to strip a person of his or her identity, but to make room for new identities. Many opponents believe we want to strip people of their right to feel male or female, but that's exactly the opposite of the inclusive society we are aiming for.' 

This brings us to another point: do non-binary people want to be registered as such?  Once you tick the 'non-binary' box on a registration form for a lecture, for example, this will become part of your record at Leiden University. One participant expressed the concern that this could at some point in time be used against you. Should we not register gender at all, then? According to a member of HRM staff  present, that is not currently an option for a number of reasons. Leiden University wants to employ a higher number of female professors, for example, and this  would be impossible to verify if we did not register gender.  

Giving people the tools

These are the dilemmas, so what can be done about them in the short term?  Sociolinguist Dick Smakman believes that Dutch people should in any event be given the tools to express themselves better. These tools are currently lacking, because we only have such terms as brother/sister or aunt/uncle. There's no problem with adding neutral terms to the Dutch language so that people can express themselves more precisely, although how that would work in practice is another matter. You can't force people to actually use these terms.

This brought the discussion around to the strong social resistance against gender-inclusive language use. A tweet announcing the panel discussion resulted in no fewer than 150 reactions, the majority negative. How can you go about convincing these people that more inclusive language use is a good idea? There were differing opinions on this question too. Whereas Smakman believes that a broad societal discussion with opponents is needed, a member of the audience felt that this stage had already been and gone: 'We have been looking for social acceptance for such a long time. I'm fed up with having to defend my right to exist to intolerant people.' 

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