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A new city ordinance in Berkeley, Calif., that officially changes the name from ‘manhole cover’ to ‘maintenance cover’ has stirred up a media commotion. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The uproar over taking ‘man’ out of ‘manhole’

It is not every day that a change to a municipal code for a medium-sized city makes international news. But when city council in Berkeley, Calif., had its first reading of a proposal to remove gendered language from its municipal code, the media went to town.

The 14-page proposal provides a rationale for the changes, cites legal and grammatical support, specifies the wording that will change and estimates the cost of the initiative at a mere $600. The proposal was part of Berkeley city council’s consent agenda — that is, the portion of any agenda that is deemed so pro forma and uncontroversial that it isn’t brought to the floor for discussion. From Berkeley’s perspective, this was all pretty dry business.

Almost immediately though, the proposal generated dozens of high-profile media stories, the overwhelming majority of which touted in their headlines one particular proposed change: the replacement of “manhole” with “maintenance hole.”

CBS News (among others) claimed that Berkeley is banning gendered words. Late Night host Seth Meyers joked that henceforth in Berkeley, Hooters will be called “Torso.” One news radio host characterized the ordinance as “left-wing language lunacy.” Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly called Berkeley a “fascist enclave.” What a lot of commotion over a municipal ordinance for a small city with under 150,000 residents.

As a feminist philosopher who does research on gender, I am both impressed by the sensible changes Berkeley is proposing, and struck — but not surprised — by the force and the tone of the media response.

A progressive city

The use of gender-inclusive language is associated with reductions in gender stereotyping and discrimination. Further, for transgender and non-binary people, traditional binary approaches to language can cause stigma. That said, not everyone is ready for gender-inclusive language, and forcing it can lead to resistance and resentment.

Berkeley’s proposed changes are sensible because they are being made in the right place at the right time, in a way that is modest, feasible and evidence-based.

A maintenance cover from Brooklyn, N.Y. Joseph Liu, CC BY-SA

Berkeley is a progressive city in a diverse state. According to Gallup, the larger San Francisco Metro area, of which Berkeley is a part, has the highest proportion of adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) of any major U.S. metropolitan area. Berkeley has a vocal and influential LGBTQ community, and the municipality is more attuned to equity issues than many city councils. Berkeley is the right place to pioneer a gender-inclusive municipal code.

Moreover, California’s enactment of Bill 179 earlier this year makes now the right time to update the gendered language in the municipal code. Bill 179 responded to growing social awareness about transgender and gender non-conforming identities by introducing a third, nonbinary, gender option for official California documents. At the same time, it removed the requirement for transgender and nonbinary people to undergo surgery or legal hearings to change their gender or name on official documents.

In response to those changes, the League of California Cities recommended municipalities replace all gendered terms within their municipal codes with gender-neutral terms .

Simple changes made official

After discussing the League’s recommendation at a March council meeting, Berkeley assigned staff to work through its municipal code and recommend changes to remove the gendered language.

Most of the recommended changes simply replace a familiar gendered term with an equally familiar non-gendered term: “policeman” becomes “police officer,” for instance. Most of us made these changes to using gender neutral language years ago.

These changes are sensible for two reasons. First, research tells us linguistic changes are more likely to take hold if they are made officially. Second, it’s important to remember these are changes to a city code.

A maintenance cover in Mumbai, India. Joseph Liu, CC BY-SA

The purpose is not to constrain what people on the street say. Indeed, if a city government tried to force a person on the street to say “chair” rather than “chairman,” that government would soon find itself on the losing end of a First Amendment challenge. Rather, the code is the customer service standard for the city. It tells employees how the city wants them to interact with customers, and it serves as a style guide for city documents.

Not he/she but they

Arguably, the change that will take Berkeley employees the longest to get used to is replacing “he” and “she” with singular “they.” But it is an elegant solution to a real challenge. City employees interacting with customers can’t tell at a glance what gender they are, and the process of finding out someone’s pronouns is complicated and fraught.

Singular “they” allows city employees to circumvent that complexity using a linguistic device that is in fact quite familiar. Most of us already use singular “they” when we don’t know the gender of the person we’re talking about. “Oh no!” one might say, “someone left their book in the lounge. I hope they come back for it!”

These are modest, practical changes being made in the right place at the right time, and they don’t affect the freedoms of people on the street. So, why are dozens of media outlets in North America and abroad making fun of the proposal’s single reference to a manhole?

Like most of the terms in Berkeley’s ordinance, pushback to gender-inclusive language has been around for years. Gender is deeply bound up with our sense of self, our beliefs and our values.

Change is hard, especially when it cuts to the core of our being. Today, decades-old resistance to gender-inclusive language is inflamed by social media hot takes, renewed culture wars and increasing pressure on media outlets to get as many clicks as possible.

So, what’s a mid-sized California city — or indeed any person wishing to promote gender-inclusive language — to do? I say, weather the media storm and work to improve things in tractable ways. Media storms come and go, but with sensible models like the one Berkeley council is considering, we can make the world a little more inclusive for people of all genders.

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