Words hold an immense amount of power in society. The power to divide or unite. To repress or liberate.

In fact, trends in society and language are intrinsically linked, with words bringing verbal expression to what’s visible…or maybe what’s invisible but crying out to be recognised.

This is why ‘they’ – as a singular pronoun – has been named word of the decade by linguists from the American Dialect Society. Gender identity and personal pronouns have become an increasing part of society’s shared discourse, especially over the past five years. ‘They’ reflects the growing recognition and visibility of non-binary people – those with gender identities that don’t conform to the binary of ‘he’ or ‘she’.

Call it as you see it

It’s always the case that marginalised groups have to fight a battle on language as well as legal rights in order to achieve the recognition and equality they deserve. Why?

Language is crucial to understanding ourselves and others, and to understanding the position we hold in society. The trans community has done an amazing job of creating words and terms to describe the many gender identities that exist. Some of the best known are ‘non-binary’, ‘gender queer’, ‘gender fluid’ and ‘agender’, but there are dozens. And they don’t all mean the same thing. All of these words are weapons in attacking society’s repressive binary division and creating space for non-binary identities. And ‘they’ is the term that currently encapsulates this movement.

The faces of non-binary gender

Sam Smith has become this week’s posterchild for non-binary identities, but there are a number of celebs who have publicly rejected binary gender, including Janelle Monáe and Jonathan Van Ness.

The more public figures who stand up and talk about being non-binary (or their preferred term for their identity), the more it helps society understand and accept both the idea and the reality. Want to understand the different between non-binary and genderqueer? This short Vice article is worth a read.

The luck of the English

In the English language, we have certain advantages when it comes to words that support the expression of a grammatically neutral gender. The use of ‘They’ as a singular pronoun and ‘them’ as a possessive pronoun is well established. E.g. ‘The patient should remove their clothes. A gown will be provided for them.’

Other languages don’t have a neutral gender, which can be a problem. Sweden got around this by coining the term ‘hen’ as the alternative ‘han’ (he) and hon (she). This was driven by the wide use of ‘hen’ in the trans community around 2000. It’s in the dictionary and used in official texts and court rulings, supporting the legitimacy of non-binary identities. In other languages, creating inclusive pronouns is a bigger challenge, especially in Romance languages where it’s very difficult to talk about a person in a gender-neutral way. You can’t help but wonder if non-binary acceptance will be slower in certain countries because of this.

Bad form

But even when language enables non-binary expression, it can take societal norms a long time to catch up. And you can trip over binary bias in all sort of brand spaces.

Many application forms insist on non-consensually gendering people. Facebook used to be a prime offender. Ten years ago, I tried to sign up. (The rest of my burlesque troupe used FB to communicate.) Naturally, I gave a fake name and DoB in the form fields. Then I was confronted by the question ‘Are you male or female?’

‘It’s none of your bloody business’ was my instant response. I contacted FB about this invasive binary choice and told them it wasn’t ok to only offer two options. Needless to say, they didn’t give a fuck or reply to me. Needless to say, I didn’t join Facebook.

Thankfully, in 2014 FB finally realised this was a problem. They changed the sign up form to ‘Male, Female or Custom’. And within ‘Custom’, it gave people over 50 gender identities to choose from. But those 50 gender identities were still words chosen by Facebook, not by the individual. In 2015, Facebook did away with the pre-defined options, finally enabling users to choose their own words.

This is important because language has been evolving fast around gender identities. People should have the power to define their terms, and not be dictated to by a social media platform (especially one with questionable views and morals).

What does it mean for brands?

Brand de-gendering is definitely a hot topic across multiple sectors. And there are signs that it’s becoming a trend. Always recently removed the feminine Venus symbol from their packaging after mounting pressure from trans activists. United became the first airline to offer non-binary booking options for their flights. In the fashion world, we’re seeing more gender-neutral collections. Beauty brands are also getting on board – there’s even one that’s called NGS, short for Non Gender Specific.

Research shows why moving towards gender neutrality is a strategy that many brands should consider. 12% of millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. 56% of US Gen Zers between 13-20 years old know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. Only 44% of Gen Zers stick to buying clothes designed specifically for their gender. And the majority think gender doesn’t define a person in the way it used to.

This means certain ‘For him’ and ‘For her’ products and services could look increasingly old fashioned and irrelevant. By contrast, there may be a competitive advantage for brands who see an opportunity to evolve and capture more of a gender-diverse market. One thing is for certain, brands are now engaging with the most gender-aware generation ever. It’s going to interesting to see how that rolls in 2020 and beyond.

Sarah Compton