Each year, the US House adopts their new rules package. Current events such as the violence at the Capitol and the upcoming inauguration make it easy to overlook something so routine, but the passing of the 117th Congressional rules package on Monday, January 4, 2021 was not routine, and it deserves our attention.
For the first time, the House established a permanent office of Diversity and Inclusion. They renamed the Office of Whistleblower Ombudsman to the Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds. They also approved gender-neutral language in the official rules. Words like Chairman will be replaced with Chair, and seamen with seafarer.
These changes, while important, aren't exactly impressive. It's about time. Nonsexist, gender-neutral language is a generation-old topic. Replacing masculine words with neutral terms is something that should have been done a long time ago. But a deeper dive into the rules package revealed an even more progressive move made by the House. To honor all gender identities, they “change[d] pronouns and familial relationships in the House rules to be gender neutral or remove[d] references to gender, as appropriate, to ensure we are inclusive of all Members, Delegates, Resident Commissioners and their families - including those who are nonbinary”.
In her press release, Nancy Pelosi states that this will “make the House more accountable, transparent and effective in our work to meet the needs of the American people.” Recognizing nonbinary people in our American melting pot is a giant forward leap.
Currently there are no nonbinary members, delegates or resident commissioners of the US House, or at least none that are out. Some of them, though, most likely do have nonbinary relatives. The familial relationship changes to the House rules are:
- father or mother = parent
- son or daughter = child
- brother or sister = sibling
- uncle or aunt = parent’s sibling
- nephew or niece = sibling’s child
- husband or wife = spouse
- father-in-law or mother-in-law = parent-in-law
- son-in-law or daughter-in-law = child-in-law
- brother-in-law or sister-in-law = sibling-in-law
- stepfather or stepmother = stepparent
- stepson or stepdaughter = stepchild
- stepbrother or stepsister = stepsibling
- half-brother or half-sister = half-sibling
- grandson or granddaughter = grandchild
Additional language changes were made toward a more inclusive document, such as removing “submit his or her resignation” with “resign” and striking “he or she serves [or holds]” in favor of “such Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner serves [or holds]’’
Removing he/she from documents is an excellent method of rendering it gender neutral. The use of "they" as a singular pronoun has been a controversial one, and one I was not expecting to see codified on Capitol Hill any time soon. But just one paragraph later, the Changes to the Standing Rules states, "In clause 4 of rule XXVII, strike ‘'himself or herself’' and insert ‘themself.’"
This is not just lip service. This is real progress. Rule XXVII now reads, “an officer or employee to whom this rule applies shall recuse themself." An official government document validating the use of gender inclusive pronouns sets a precedent for change.
It is important to remember that the Congressional rules package pertains to all of the US House Members, Delegates, Resident Commissioners and their families. It does not state that gender-specific language cannot be used in other contexts.
This kind of change is not easy for everyone. While I learned and worked toward adopting gender neutral language quite some time ago, my grammar checker has not. It changed “themself” to “themselves” three times before it gave up. Soon enough, grammar checkers will be updated just like dictionaries and legislative documents are changing to incorporate what we now know about gender.
I work in the tech space with lawyers and law firms, providing training, instructional design, and efficiency improvements as it relates to the use of technology. Creating gender neutral documents is critical for law firms who want to increase their client base to include the up-and-coming Gen Z, the generation leading the charge in this gender revolution. Generic contracts, releases, and other legal documents received by potential clients need to be inclusive of all recipients.
The exception to the gender-neutral documentation rule relates to court-submitted documents. Court filings are subject to judge scrutiny, and without formal recommendation of gender inclusive language, many judges in America continue to reject "they" as a singular pronoun. Lawyers fear gender-neutral language could cause their motion to be denied if the judge is turned off by what is perceived as incompetence.The change made by the US House warrants attention. It serves as a beacon of light in the dark sea of too often sexist language in legal documents. Gender neutrality needs to include all people, binary and nonbinary. Hopefully the judicial branch will follow the lead of their legislative counterpart.
The Rules for the 117th Congress can be found here.
A summary of the Rules can be found here.