Where do the words we use to talk about gender come from? This week saw the publication of the tenth annual Gender Census, an international survey of gender words used by English speakers who do not feel wholly or consistently male or female.
The term gender itself was used interchangeably with sex for around 500 years until, in 1968, the psychiatrist Robert Stoller decided that it was useful to distinguish the two, and a whole branch of theory was born. Modern terms used to describe different gender experiences are a rapidly developing area of language.
If you read some scare stories in the press, you’ll see sensationalist claims about there being hundreds of different genders. It might be more accurate to say that there are infinite ways to experience gender – including if you’re female or male. This can lead to different kinds of self-description. Many women, for instance, recoil from the word lady, while others feel flattered by it. Some people prefer describing themselves as guys rather than men.
People who are in between the two, or don’t relate to the idea of gender at all, have always existed, but it’s only since the rise of mass internet access that they have been able to connect and talk about their experiences. This has also led to them becoming more visible to others, and linguistic pressures have developed both inside and outside the community, leading to a flood of new words. If language proceeds to develop as it usually does, these will be whittled down over time, leaving just a small number in common usage.
“When I first came out, I just couldn’t find any solid statistics about nonbinary people at all. This was before Mx was in any dictionaries, before there were any nonbinary people on TV who went by they/them, etc.,” says independent researcher Cassian Lodge, who runs the survey.
“I wanted to find out what was the most common way for people like me to refer to themselves, so that I wouldn’t have to explain myself every time I came out to someone. Plus, I knew of various sets of neopronouns but I knew from experience that repurposing singular they was easier – what did others mostly prefer? Is one neopronoun set really common actually? And my bank insisted on having a title on record for me, but Mr and Ms both felt very incorrect – what’s the most popular nonbinary title, what has the best bet of being accepted and used by a bank based on common usage?”
This year’s survey shows that the most popular term for a non-male or female gender is nonbinary (in the UK, people tend to hyphenate this, as with numerous other terms which are written as just one word in the US and Canada). Some 63.1% of the survey’s 40,375 respondents report using it. Queer and trans are also popular, and a substantial number of people prefer not to use any such term, describing themselves simply as people or human, using their own names or saying “I’m just me”. Younger respondents were more likely to use multiple terms than older ones, which is consistent with how more general language use tends to change over time.
Do we still need titles?
When it came to titles, 40% of respondents preferred not to use one at all, perhaps in some cases due to a desire to avoid drawing attention to themselves, as many women avoid titles in written contexts where they feel at risk of gendered discrimination or harassment. The most popular title used by 18.7%, is Mx. This has seen a steady decline over the past eight years as the option or avoiding titles altogether has become more popular.
Gathering data like this can improve people’s lives, Lodge observes.
“One year, HSBC announced that they were adding six or so titles to their registration forms to accommodate nonbinary people, and they didn’t credit the survey, but the six titles that they were adding just happened to be the top six, let’s call them neotitles, from the previous year’s survey. The article even put them in the same order, in order of popularity.
“A couple of years ago, I had to contact my local council in Wales about an online form that had a required binary gender question. I emailed them to say that I couldn’t answer, and they emailed back to say that they didn’t know what the third option should be, so I replied with a link to the most recent UK report to show them that the most popular term was nonbinary. When I checked back a few months later, nonbinary was an option on the form.
“Being able to see yourself reflected back to you in the world is something that cisgender people take for granted, and so do binary trans people to a lesser extent, but when the erasure and invalidation from society is so relentless, even a small thing like seeing your gender on a form can be a big relief.”
The survey also looked at pronouns, and found singular they by far the most popular choice, at 74.5%. Despite being considered grammatically incorrect by some people, singular they has been in use since at least the 13th century in cases where gender is not known.
This year saw an unexpected rise in the number of people using the pronoun it, to almost 20%. “I guess that surprises me because I think of it as a very dehumanising pronoun,” said Lodge, “but of course when you (re)claim it for yourself that changes everything. It might be because people are reclaiming it from bigots who call trans people it, and it might be because there are more participants these days who speak English as a second language and don’t feel the cultural and linguistic baggage that I do.”
This year, for the first time, Lodge included a question about words used to describe parental roles, but found that most respondents were still using traditional terms, with only 10% preferring the non-gendered word parent itself. The lack of innovation in this area may reflect the fact that parents who do not feel male or female are still not very visible within society, with some feeling it necessary to hide their gender in order to protect their families. In some parts of the US, children can now be removed from families simply because their parents don’t fit standard gender expectations.
Reflecting on dismissive remarks about the survey, Lodge said “Part of changing the world for the better can and does include changing things that might seem small… There’s a lot of transphobia out there right now, but there are a lot more well-meaning people out there who want to talk about nonbinary people respectfully and who want to include us in their computer systems, and I love the idea of making it as easy as possible for them to do that”.