No more 'manholes': Berkeley, California, removing all gendered language from city code

"A male-centric municipal code doesn’t reflect the reality of the city of Berkeley," a city council member said.
Image: A sticker designates a gender neutral bathroom at Nathan Hale high in Seattle.
A sticker designates a gender-neutral bathroom at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle.Elaine Thompson / AP file

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By Ben Kesslen

Berkeley, California is doing away with "manholes" — kind of.

The city with a long history of progressivism is moving forward with a plan to remove all gendered language from its city code.

Soon, Berkeley will formally refer to the "manholes" as "maintenance holes."

The City Council adopted the first reading of the new ordinance on Tuesday, which would replace all instances of "he" and "she" in the city code with the gender-neutral "they."

“Firemen” in Berkeley will become “firefighters,” “man-made” will be “artificial” and all instances of “men and women” will be replaced by “people.”

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Many governing bodies have taken up similar efforts. In 2008, the European Parliament adopted gender-neutral language. Canada's Department of Justice uses gender-neutral language, saying not only is it respectful, but it's also more accurate, and in 2018 the country changed lyrics in its national anthem "O Canada" to replace "all thy sons" with "all of us."

In 2013, the Washington governor and now 2020 Democratic hopeful Jay Inslee signed a law in his state to adopt gender-neutral language. The law was part of a six-year effort by the state to pour through their legislation, replacing words like "fisherman" with "fisher." Washington first passed a law in 1983 to write statutes with gender-neutral language when possible, in an effort to rid the state's legislation of gender bias.

The Berkeley effort has a similar goal, but is also about recognizing the city's nonbinary residents, according to City Council member Rigel Robinson, who spearheaded the effort.

“It is Berkeley being Berkeley, and what that means is it’s Berkeley being inclusive,” Robinson told NBC Bay Area. "A male-centric municipal code doesn’t reflect the reality of the city of Berkeley."

Robinson said the change to the city code, which will cost $600, is important because “language has power.”

The ordinance to make the changes will be reviewed again next week and would go into place in late August.

Berkeley’s efforts align with California’s broader effort to include people who don’t identify as men or women into state policy.

In 2018, legislation to make language gender-neutral in state policies and regulations was introduced to the California Assembly, but never got off the ground.

Still, the state has been a leader in nonbinary inclusion.

In 2017, California became the first state to allow nonbinary gender markers on birth certificates, and the second state, behind Oregon, to allow residents to be identified by a gender marker other than "F" or "M" on their driver's licenses.