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Under new rules in Berkeley, California, the municipal code will be changed to eliminate gender references.
The bureaucratic language of government is often criticized for being complex, filled with jargon and acronyms, and generally indecipherable to those unfamiliar with it. But as one city council member in Berkeley, California pointed out last week, it’s also riddled with references to gender.
But that’s going to change. The city council of the progressive bastion recently voted to pass a resolution eliminating all references to gender from the municipal code, and amending common words that contain “man” in favor of more gender-inclusive and non-binary terms.
Council member Rigel Robinson, who proposed the change, said the measure was not controversial, and passed last week with no discussion or comments. “There’s power in language,” Robsinson said in an email. “This is a small move, but it matters.”
Included in the change is a requirement that Berkeley’s Municipal Code replace “all instances of gendered pronouns with the singular ‘they,’” and a stipulation that all city forms be modified to include “an optional field for personal gender pronouns.” The changes will also eliminate the use of common occupation names like “fireman” and “policeman” in favor of gender-neutral options; words like “manhole” and “manpower” have gotten more creative substitutions like “maintenance hole” and “human effort.”
The report prepared for the council noted that the city’s code currently uses mostly masculine pronouns.
“I’m a cisgender male, this doesn’t really affect me,” said Robinson. “But I’ve had interns and appointees on city commissions who use they/them pronouns, and to them this matters deeply. And they matter to me.”
Though Robinson may have been inspired by personal interactions, the changes he asked for certainly aren’t the first of their kind—they’re part of a much larger movement meant to make the language of institutions, especially schools, more welcoming to women and non-binary individuals.
In 2015, the Lincoln Public School District in Nebraska asked teachers to avoid saying “ladies and gentlemen” or “you guys” to get kids’ attention, and to have kids line up by, say, whether they prefer milk or juice, instead of by gender. In 2016, Princeton became the first major U.S. university to request that staff refrain from using gendered terms. In a letter to faculty, administrators suggested swapping out terms like “freshman” for “frosh” or “first-year student” and “manmade” for “artificial” or “manufactured.
The trend has also caught on in a few state legislatures with regards to official identification cards. In 2017, California passed the Gender Recognition Act, a bill allowing the use of a third, non-binary gender category on state IDs like driver’s licenses. Other states, including Oregon, Washington, D.C., Washington state, and Maine, have enacted similar measures since then.
When the bill in California passed, state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat, acknowledged that the use of “they” as a singular pronoun is still the subject of debate. “I’d like to note, in respecting the fact that we are now a state recognizing the non-binary designation...we are using what my grammar teacher would have had a heart attack over.”
But critics have taken issue with more than grammar when these changes are proposed. “It’s crazy. It really shows how far the politically correct lobby are willing to go in terms of policing language,” said Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked Online, when California first debated the bill in 2017.
But this push for inclusivity hasn’t been solely the purview of governments and schools, as private sector companies also making changes. In 2018, Google removed gendered pronouns from their Smart Compose technology, which suggests users’ intended next words. The change was made after a product manager noticed that when he typed “I am meeting an investor next week,” Smart Compose automatically suggested a gendered followup: “Do you want to meet him?”
Berkeley’s report on gender inclusivity acknowledged the work of others before them in this regard, including the 2017 California legislative effort. But the report also pointed to other recent changes the city has made because of “broadening societal awareness [that has] brought to light the importance of non-binary gender inclusivity.” In early 2019, for example, Berkeley allowed all city employees to choose an option that would print their preferred pronouns alongside their name on ID badges.
Berkeley also said that they were following the best practices recommended by the League of California Cities following the 2017 legislative change. Included in the league’s recommendations is for municipalities to replace gendered terms in their municipal codes with gender-neutral options.
For Robinson, the move was about more than inclusivity though—it was about making the law reflect society. “Having a male-centric municipal code is inaccurate and not reflective of our reality,” he said. “Women and nonbinary individuals are just as entitled to accurate representation. Our laws are for everyone, and our municipal code should reflect that.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.