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Originally published May 14, 2013 at 5:27 PM | Page modified May 15, 2013 at 7:53 AM

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Guest: The backlash over making state laws gender neutral

Gender-neutral language, contrary to what the critics have said, does not expunge the term “man” from the English language, writes guest columnist Jeanne Kohl-Welles.

Special to The Times

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WHEN I agreed to sponsor legislation to update state statutes with gender-neutral language, I could not have imagined the backlash that would result.

In phone calls and emails from people across the state and country, I’ve been called a host of names, many of them unsuitable for print here. To put things in perspective, “femi-Nazi” was one of the more polite terms used.

It was disappointing to see the obvious misunderstandings of the bill and the anti-government, misogynistic and homophobic vitriol thrown at it, and me. I wasn’t surprised, though, as the bill and I had been mocked on Fox News and in a Washington Times editorial.

The more benign called the state legislation a waste of time and resources, even though drafting the bill consumed little time and its implementation will reduce staff workload for years to come. Others seemed to view gender-neutral language as a campaign to obliterate mom, apple pie and the American way, as well as a way to expunge the term “man” from the English language.

Senate Bill 5077 does none of those things.

First, the use of gender-neutral language in state statutes is nothing new. Under a 1983 law, all new legislation since then has been required to contain gender-neutral language. That means words like “policeman” and “councilman” have given way to the terms “police officer” and “council member,” and “he” to “he or she.” These are not earth-shaking changes.

Second, drafting and implementing this bill does not divert resources from urgent legislative matters. In fact, it saves, rather than squanders time. The bill was requested by the Statute Law Committee to reflect the drafting done by the Code Reviser’s office during the legislative interim, when the workload is less hectic, instead of during the legislative session.

Until now, the implementation of any new bill has required the Code Reviser’s Office to individually update language in any pre-1983 statute amended by a new bill. Updating all the pre-1983 statutes proactively and uniformly with SB 5077 removes the need to update them individually each time a new law is passed.

Third, the new law pertains only to statutes. It does not require anyone to use gender-neutral language in conversation, in the workplace or in other everyday venues. Schools are not required to refer to students as “first-year students” instead of “freshmen.” Individuals are not required to use the term “fisher” instead of “fisherman,” or “handwriting” instead of “penmanship.” The law does not ban the term “man” from the English language.

Lastly, this is not unusual. Florida adopted gender-neutral laws in 1993, North Carolina in 2009. California, New York, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island and Utah have gender-neutral state constitutions. Legislatures in Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Wyoming are deliberating comparable changes.

What’s more, the legislation received overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans, passing unanimously in the Senate and by a 70-22 vote in the House. The legislation simply reflects society’s steady progression to update outdated or insensitive terms. Words matter, and language that accurately references gender should not be threatening to anyone.

If anything, the hysterical and misogynistic reactions to my bill suggest the need for intelligent, reasoned discussion that advances mutual respect for gender and common courtesy. But I don’t believe it means we need to legislate that respect or outlook.

I can understand that someone who has gone through life using terms like “policeman” might feel defensive when it’s suggested that such a term is outdated. But I also wonder if society’s gender history were reversed, whether a male firefighter wouldn’t chafe at being called a “firewoman.” Sometimes it’s difficult to understand how others feel unless you take a walk in their shoes.

I look forward to the day when an issue such as this receives nothing more than a yawn.

State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, represents the 36th Legislative District.


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