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Respectful gender neutral terms for youth movements

FZY's Office Manager, Naomi Bloomer, writes about how youth movements can be a guiding light for gender inclusivity.

In my first entry on the Young Zionist blog, I am not just talking about pronouns – like using ‘they’ instead of ‘she’ when you refer to me, even though I may look like a woman. I am talking about the embedded disregard in the English language for those who identify with the female gender, and I am talking about those who do not always identify with either male or female genders being assigned ‘male’ or ‘female’ simply by the way we describe our programme participants in Hebrew.

Why does this matter today for British youth movements? In the USA, Habonim Dror made a splash in 2016 by introducing gender neutral terms for their participants. Since then, there has been ever increasing awareness and an ever increasing effort made to ensure our youth movements are as inclusive as possible for every single participant. This matters because participant numbers are declining across the board for all youth movements, regardless of religious or political affiliation, and alienating someone by the language we use is just another way numbers might go down.

And today, while issues like mental health, accessibility and diversity of romantic relationships are thankfully spoken about more, discussions about gender, and providing for those who do not necessarily identify with the gender they were assigned at birth (for example, trans people and non-binary people), are still difficult and can cause deep pain for those affected. How many times have I stood helplessly outside bathrooms at community events, deciding – “how shall I misgender myself today?”

So, even if we don’t know there is somebody in our meetings who is neither a chanich nor a chanicha, we are opening up the conversation. Seeing what happens. Seeing who now feels able to start attending our meetings. Seeing who now feels they can be out as not cisgender. Seeing who now feels more like themselves.

Some gender inclusive terms

Instead of using he/she, we could say they. While some names are obviously ‘male’ and ‘female,’ it’s not always the case, and it is all the more important not to embarrass ourselves with non-English names! Also, while a name may be obviously ‘male’ or ‘female,’ that doesn’t always correspond to the participant’s own gender. So it is good practice to just stick with ‘they’ for everybody, until you know! Last year, Joe tells me, our members passed a constitutional amendment at Veida, to change all references of ‘he/she’ in the constitution to ‘they/them.’ This can be just the start.

Instead of adding an ending to denote the feminine form of an otherwise ‘ending-less’* masculine noun, -ol endings (singular) bring to mind ‘kol,’ meaning ‘all’ in Hebrew. -imot endings (plural) include both the masculine and feminine plural endings -im and -ot. Although this is inclusive for those who identifies as either male or female, there is no current consensus on a gender neutral plural ending. Some examples of alternatives we could introduce are using ‘chanichol’ and ‘chanichimot’ instead of chanich/chanicha and chanichim/chanichot.

You can read more about grammatical gender in Hebrew here.

*Yes, we can argue about ‘ending-less’ nouns, but that’s a topic for a linguistics blog, not a youth movement blog.


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