Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Political Correctness: Inclusive of Everyone

The words "politically correct" make some people roll their eyes.  They may feel that society (Western society in particular) has become far too politically correct in the post-modern era, and even the simplest things can run the risk of being offensive to someone, somewhere.  Many heterosexual people aren't sure how to interact with people who are LGBT, in a way that will not be deemed as politically incorrect.

Being politically correct isn't difficult and it doesn't have to be stressful or over the top.  It's actually incredibly easy.  It simply requires knowledge of the golden rule, and one simple word:  inclusion.

Heteronormativity is the cultural bias in favor of opposite-sex relationships of a sexual nature. Governments cannot eliminate hetero-normativity, but they should not participate in it by enacting hetero-normative laws or forbidding representation of same-sex couples in advertising
As a heterosexual from a very politically correct society, probably the best advice I can give is this:  never assume that someone is heterosexual.  Where I'm from we call this "avoiding the heteronormative."  No matter how someone may look or act on the outside, never automatically assume that he or she is straight.  Conversations with new acquaintances, colleagues at work, or new classmates at school, should always be done on gender-neutral terms.  If you can do this, you'll do fine.

For example, say you're having lunch in the cafeteria at work and you're introduced to someone new, let's say a young woman.  As you talk and get to know each other, you ask her if she has a boyfriend.  She says she's married, and you then ask about her husband, where she met him, when she married him, etc.

Did you do well in this hypothetical situation?  Actually, you did badly.  Here's why:

Because your new acquaintance is a woman, you automatically assumed she has (or is looking for) a boyfriend.  Remember the inclusiveness rule:  never assume that someone is heterosexual.  Instead of asking if she has a boyfriend, just ask, "is there anyone special in your life?"  That's a very inclusive, gender-neutral question that allows the person to fill you in on the specifics if they so choose.  If, like in the situation above, she says she's married, don't automatically assume she has a husband.  She could have a wife.  If you want to ask general questions about her spouse, simply use the word "spouse," and avoid the pronouns him, her, he, she.  Let the other person fill in the blanks, then go from there.

That's also the rule to follow when speaking in general terms.  For example, avoid saying things like "boys should treat their girlfriends respectfully," because not all boys have girlfriends -- some boys have boyfriends.  Exclusive statements like that shut LGBT people out of the conversation, and symbolically out of society.  That's heteronormativity rearing its head.  Instead you could say "boys should respect their sweethearts."  Or just go really simple and say "we all should respect the one we're with," which equally shares the responsibility of respect.  Also, when speaking in general conversational terms, avoid saying things like "husbands and wives" or "man and wife," because not everyone is heterosexually married.  Instead, it is just as easy to say "committed couples," or "spouses," which is inclusive of everyone.

You see how easy that is?  No offenses are made, no assumptions are made, and you're being inclusive and respectful all the way around.  It's not something you need a PhD to be able to do.

In Healthcare

This is also something extremely important for healthcare professionals to take stock of.  Nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, and other healthcare providers should always use words and expressions that are open and inclusive, making it far easier for the patient to speak openly regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Therefore, gender-specific terms should be avoided, opting instead for gender-neutral terms like sweetheart/spouse, over boyfriend/girlfriend husband/wife.

One reason many LGBT people are not open with doctors and nurses -- especially in religiously conservative societies -- is because of negative comments and stigmatizing attitudes exhibited by those doctors and nurses.  Because of this, many LGBTs shut down and keep secrets from their doctors, which is extremely dangerous from a healthcare perspective.  It's very important that your doctor knows about your sex life -- whether you're straight or gay -- because it impacts which medical tests are needed specifically for you.  This is why HIV, HepB, and HPV rates are rising in Africa and Asia, because patients don't feel comfortable talking to judgmental doctors.  As the UN has said, the doctors are to blame for this, not the patients.

When the patient feels comfortable and relaxed through the use of gender-neutral terms, and then opens up about their sexual orientation, healthcare providers need to give positive responses and exhibit sensitivity.  This is especially true when it comes to teenagers.  Homosexuality and transgenderism are nothing to be ashamed of or feel guilty about.  Homosexuality is a natural variant of human sexuality, and young people need information that gives security and confidence, not a feeling of being "different."

A feeling of being different or excluded can easily lead to being secretive, to isolation, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and even suicidal thoughts.  This is something that doctors and nurses in Scandinavia are well-trained in and extremely sensitive of, as should all healthcare professionals be the world over.

Speaking of teenagers (as well as younger children), inclusive language and support is also extremely important coming from teachers in the classroom.  This is true not only for children who are experiencing same-sex interests and feelings, but also for the children who are members of non-heteronormative families, i.e. those who have two moms or two dads.

In the Philippines: only heteronormative ads allowed
In most (if not all) schools in the Philippines, there is an automatic policy of systematic exclusion of LGBTs.  It is a policy of silence, acting like LGBTs don't exist; ignoring them altogether.  It is heteronormative bombardment from all sides:  from the state, from the entertainment media and advertising (such as the Coffee-Mate® commercial to the right), from the Church, and from the schools.  Is it any wonder then that heterosexism and homophobia so easily take root?

Modern educators must start being sensitive to these facts, and should speak in gender-neutral terms when talking about family, dating, marriage, and even gender roles.  This is discussed somewhat in the post Harmless Fairytale...or Evil Gay Porn regarding some of the new inclusive children's books, as well as in some of that post's comments.  (For more on building inclusiveness in the classroom, you can visit the Equality 101 page.)

In the Office

In a place like the Philippines, which lacks national anti-discrimination protections, LGBT persons can face challenges and difficulties that the hetero majority do not.  If they do face difficulties, there is no solid legal recourse.  They could speak to their boss about the situation, but there is no guarantee that he or she would be sympathetic, understanding, or trained in how to deal with the issue at hand.

If you own or manage a business, whether it's really big or really small, or even if you're simply an employee, there are things you can do to make your work environment more inclusive for everyone.

Humans, unlike other animals, have a habit of constantly categorizing our surroundings.  Is that a man or a woman in front of me in the line?  Is my office mate single or married?  Does she come from northern Luzon or from southern Mindanao?  We ask ourselves these types of questions all the time when we're around others.  When we meet someone who breaks outside the common categories, some people can often find it a bit uncomfortable.

LGBTs break with the 'common' notions we attach to sexuality.  The automatic assumption that most people have (that everyone we meet is hetero unless we find out otherwise), leads to a situation where an LGBT person has to 'come out of the closet' over and over again.  The so-called "heteronorm" -- the notion that everyone is straight and will present themselves in expected ways -- is why LGBTs are often not seen as "real" men and women.

The question we ought to be asking ourselves is what exactly does it mean to be a "real" man or "real" woman.  How many people actually fit all the stereotypical characteristics of sex and gender?  And how healthy is it to set such standards?  In reality we all know that it's entirely possible to be gay and be a rough and tough lumberjack and huge football fan.  The same as it's entirely possible to be a straight man who loves flowers, or enjoys baking cupcakes.  The point is that the more cemented we are in old stereotypes, the less room there is for us all to simply be ourselves, regardless if we're gay, straight, bi, or trans.

If you're straight and wanting to help create an inclusive work environment, ask yourself these questions:

  • How did you discover that you're hetero?
  • Were you born straight, or did you become straight later in life?
  • If you've never kissed someone of the same sex, how can you be sure you're not gay?
  • Are you straight because you don't like people who are the same sex as you?
  • Is your heterosexuality just a phase -- something you'll eventually get over?
  • Why do heteros always have to tell others about their orientation?; can't they just be who they are and be quiet?

Heteronormativity structures social life so that heterosexuality is always assumed, expected, ordinary, and privileged.
As you were reading that list, you may have noticed that those are questions straight people often ask LGBT people, only flipped.  The lesson:  We have to learn to think before we speak.  Maybe that's why some people dislike political correctness -- it requires us to actually use our brains instead of just speaking flippantly.  Most straight people would be offended if they were asked the questions listed above ("are you questioning my sexuality??"), and we have to be sensitive enough not to ask such foolish questions to those who are LGBT.

The first step you can take in making an open and inclusive environment at work or school, is to fight against the invisibility of LGBT persons.  In other words, avoid heteronormativity.  Since it's impossible to know if someone is or isn't LGBT, always go with these concrete tips:

  • Never assume that everyone you meet is straight.
  • Be aware of your own attitude.  Remember that "gay jokes" can be very excluding and hurtful, even if you don't mean them in a bad way.  They are never okay, the same as jokes about religious or ethnic minorities, or men telling jokes about women.
  • Have an environment of zero tolerance for homophobia and transphobia.
  • Always use simple gender-neutral language, as talked about earlier.  When you become accustomed to using inclusive language, you'll never run the risk of hurting or excluding anyone, and it soon becomes a habit that you won't even have to think about beforehand.
  • Give positive responses if someone comes out of the closet or reveals they have a sweetheart or spouse of the same sex; e.g. don't gasp, react shocked, or look at them like they're a circus act, and certainly don't gossip the news to everyone else in the office.  Be respectful of others' privacy, and be trustworthy as a friend.

So there you have it.  Some very simple steps that everyone can take toward being not only politically correct in interpersonal relations, but also inclusive of everyone, sensitive to others' feelings, and respectful.  And in case you may have ever wondered, when referring to a transgender person we should always be respectful and use the person's preferred name and pronoun, regardless of their legal gender status.  Therefore, it is appropriate to refer to an M2F (male to female) transgender as 'she' and 'her,' but is never okay to refer to them as a 'he-she,' 'it,' or 'she-male.'  Likewise it is appropriate to refer to an F2M (female to male) transgender as 'he' and 'him.'

Also bear in mind that 'transgender' is an adjective, not a noun.  Thus you would say "Sheila is transgender," not "Sheila is a transgender."

When it comes to gay men, it is not appropriate to refer to them as 'she' or 'her.'  Gay men are male and are not transgender.  The same holds true with lesbians:  do not refer to them as 'he' or 'him.'  Lesbians are female and happy to be so.

Creating an inclusive -- and politically correct -- environment isn't rocket science; it's very easy.  It only requires us to apply the golden rule and think before we speak, and when we do speak, remember to speak inclusively rather than exclusively.  Cheers to you all.

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