D.C. Council proposes making city's laws and regulations gender-neutral

Terms such as “policeman” and “chairman” are replaced by “police officer” and “chairperson,” in a move the council says will make D.C. more LGBTQ-friendly.
Council member David Grosso attends council meeting in Washington
Council member David Grosso attends council meeting in Washington on Oct. 7, 2014.Astrid Riecken / The Washington Post via Getty Images
By Tim Fitzsimons

The Council of the District of Columbia on Tuesday introduced legislation that would strip gendered and “patriarchal” terms from the D.C. code and replace them with gender-neutral language.

The Gendered Terms Modernization Amendment Act of 2020 would change instances of “he” or “she” in the law books to “the individual” or “they.” The bill was introduced by David Grosso, an at-large independent member of the council who has been a leader on LGBTQ legislation during his council tenure.

“We believe very strongly that language matters, that it actually holds power, and that the language of our laws matters,” Grosso told NBC News. “And it’s incredibly important that people feel included in the District of Columbia code to the fullest extent.”

The 43-page bill contains a list of “suggested” terms, Grosso said, “because for me it’s important that we have a hearing and listen to the public fully on what they think we should change it to as well.”

“His” would become “the individual’s,” “men” would become “individuals” or “humans,” “brother” and “sister” would become “sibling” and so on.

“Although we have done a lot of research and a lot of work on this, it is not something we should put out there and say: ‘We’ve got all the answers,’” Grosso said.

Among dozens of other proposed changes, the bill supports modifying the D.C. Charter and Home Rule Act so, for example, “chairman” of the District of Columbia Council would become “chairperson.” Modifications to the Charter and Home Rule Act would need to be approved by Congress.

The bill is co-sponsored by 10 of the 13 council members, and was introduced on a tense day during which member Jack Evans offered his resignation instead of facing a disciplinary hearing over an alleged ethics violation.

D.C. is not the first city to undergo a "linguistic cleansing," according to Fern Johnson, a Clark University English professor. In a recent interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution about the efforts of Berkeley, California, to make its city code more gender inclusive, she said "Albuquerque, Detroit, Memphis, Minneapolis, New York and Seattle have all made language less gender-specific, but these changes are usually incremental and happen without much fanfare."

The broadening use of gender-neutral language in everyday vernacular and official documentation is accelerating. In 2017, the Associated Press Stylebook endorsed the use of the singular pronoun “they,” and this year, “they” was Merriam-Webster’s “word of the year” because of high public interest in the word’s definition and use as a singular pronoun.

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