Skip to main content

Gendered phrases make unsafe spaces

By Joseph Rand

graphic: 92% of lgbt youth say they hear negative messagesIt’s nice to say you’re an ally to marginalized groups, but what actions are you taking to create change? “Ally” is a verb, and requires action. So if you want to be an ally for youth, you have to speak up!

I was reminded of this by a speaker at the Ohio 4-H LGBTQ+ Summit recently. How are you making marginalized groups like LGBTQ+ youth and families feel included? One simple way is through inclusive language.

The Human Rights Campaign reports that 92% of LGBT youth say they hear negative messages about being LGBT; the top sources are school, the internet, and peers. GLSEN reports that that rate is higher for rural and suburban students than it is for urban students.

We as youth development professionals must ensure that out-of-school-time spaces are safe and inclusive. Here are four actions you can take to be an ally.

Think of ways to separate groups or label activities other than than boys and girls

Reinforcing this binary can be damaging to youth who are exploring gender identity and may not feel that they fit into either category. Instead of having a boys’ lock-in or girls’ spa night, promote co-ed opportunities that that are welcoming to everyone. Don’t reinforce that boys should play video games and have nerf wars and girls should paint nails and do hair. Additionally, think about other events you have that pair parents and their children by sex, like father-daughter banquets, or mommy and me classes. For families of diverse makeups, these events can feel exclusionary. One easy way to be inclusive is to give events a topic or theme.

Don’t assume all young people have a mom and a dad

I often hear youth workers, especially with younger youth, use the phrase “moms and dads.” But what about the many youth who don’t have this sort of family? Instead, use words like guardians, caretakers or caring adults. This simple adaptation affirms not only LGBT youth, but all children who may not have or live with a mom and dad.

Stop using the phrase “you guys” 

Although it’s meant to be inclusive, this phrase perpetuates heteronormative attitudes and male dominance. There are more effective terms, like “y’all” or “you all.” You could also use words like “students” or “4-H’ers” or “campers,” or “friends.” This is a hard habit to break. I still catch myself saying “you guys” once in a while. But it’s a subtle change that can make a big difference.

Speak up when you hear discriminatory words and phrases

I still hear the phrases “That’s so gay!” and “No Homo!” or “tranny” and “fag” from youth who know better. Even when intended to be funny, these and other phrases are microaggressions LGBT youth face on a daily basis. By allowing them, the safety of the environment is jeopardized.

It’s uncomfortable to call out young people when they use hurtful language. But it’s still the right thing to do. It can be as simple as saying something like, “We don’t use that word in this group because it’s disrespectful.”

The process of correcting these behaviors is important. Participants should understand that a word was inappropriate, but not be embarrassed in front of the group. Just address it simply in the moment and move on, postponing the more in-depth conversation for later, one-on-one.

It takes practice, but using inclusive language will enhance the safety and inclusion felt by marginalized groups.

What are some strategies you have used to be more inclusive? Do you have ways that you make events more inclusive? Have you intervened when discriminatory language was used?

-- Joseph Rand, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. I'll be using your response to the use of offensive language when I train my Youth Teaching Youth teen teachers. They almost always address those comments directly, but I love how simple and direct your response is! -Layne

    1. Thanks Layne! I'm glad that you're on top of this. You are such a great example for youth. Thank you for standing up for those who might be marginalized.

  2. Thank you for the examples of simple changes to make in my language to be more inclusive. I will be using "You all" and "caring adult" more often. Thanks for the advice.

  3. Joe, this is such a concrete and helpful set of recommendations. I agree about the importance of a two-part intervention when hurtful language is used: first to set a public boundary, and then a private conversation to help the young person explain why it is an issue. I have found it very effective in those conversations to talk not only about language being disrespectful, but about how those words hurt the hearts of people I know and care about. Most people don't want to be jerks, they just aren't thinking about the impact. I find this heart-centered approach has worked well.

    1. Joe and Kathyrn - I appreciate the concrete examples from you both. The two-part intervention makes much sense and helps us think of the impact on others. Will put this strategy in my tool box.


Post a Comment