Bette Midler’s tweet sparks debate over importance of gender-neutral language

American actress Bette Midler has infuriated transgender rights supporters over her statement that the word ‘women’ is ‘being erased’ in favor of woke terms such as ‘people giving birth’ and ‘menstruation’ “.

The 76-year-old gay icon tweeted on July 4: “WOMEN OF THE WORLD! We’re being stripped of our rights to our bodies, our lives and even our names! She then added, “They don’t call us ‘women’ anymore. they call us “people who give birth” or “menstruators”, and even “people with vaginas”! Don’t let them erase you! Every human on earth owes you!

The actor’s tweet however, sparked a heated debate with many pointing out that she was transphobic. Tennis player Martina Navratilova, who has also been accused of being transphobic in the past, commented: “Watch out Bette, you will be called transphobic or worse…”

However, many others left messages under her tweet along the lines of this user’s comment: “It’s because not only do women menstruate, give birth or have vaginas. Trans men do all of these things, just like non-binary people. I love you so much, Bette, but you have to do better here.

Even famed gay rights activist Panti Bliss responded to Midler’s tweet, writing, “No. Don’t fall for the fake trans panic nonsense. No one erases women. In a few small healthcare cases, if any, they use trans-inclusive language. That’s all.”

What is all this commotion from trans rights activists about? Why do people call Bette Midler transphobic? Why do so many people think that using gender-neutral terms dehumanizes women?

Suggested reading: Why is the inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community in the Indian economy important?

Understand the context

Discussions around gender and sexual identities have established that they are fluid. Gender identities, as we think, are not tied into watertight binaries. When we recognized that there are more than two genders, then why are we mad at having gender-neutral language?

We need to understand exactly what it takes to have gender-neutral language. For many trans people and gender non-conforming or gender queer people, completing paperwork that requires answers about biological sex, assigned birth sex, or inability to participate with self-determined gender identity can be alienating. This could add to the mental and emotional stress they already face, due to their marginalized gender identity, and can intensify an individual’s struggle. Gender-neutral language is also an important tool to achieve the goal of gender equality.

Moreover, women are not the only people who may give birth, menstruate, or need health care for abortion; gender queer people or trans people who were designated female at birth also menstruate and that’s what Panti Bliss was also implying. The women are not dehumanized here, but rather the language is made gender-neutral to accommodate trans people and genderqueer people.

“Seeing women as their own complete entities, and not just a collection of derivative parts, was an important part of the fight for gender equality,” wrote Pamela Paul in her piece for the NY Times in which she expresses his dissatisfaction with gender-neutral terms. However, her statement dismisses the context-dependent nature of gender identity.

Studies have also indicated that it is important to recognize the contextual and multidimensional nature of sex and gender. One study suggests, “Confusing the two [gender and biological sex] harms and invalidates gender minorities by implying that these distinct attributes are inextricably linked”.

The study further stated that it is imperative to resist the misuse of biological terms “by promoting precise language” and that “recognizing that people express these variables in ways that may not conform to a binary system of sex or gender” creates an inclusive gender-space.

Why is this important?

Violence has gone on for too long against queer people, especially transgender people. With incidents like Adam Harry from Kerala, who was denied medical clearance by India’s civil aviation body because he is on hormone therapy, it becomes even more important for us to push and encourage us to open spaces for them.

We must understand that not using the word woman does not mean that attempts are made to erase all sex. It’s high time we understood that gender identity is not meant to be locked into concrete compartments and given way to gender-neutral language that makes everyone feel included and accepted.

The opinions expressed are those of the author

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