Changing gendered language on NHS websites doesn’t erase women

Now, NHS web pages – like NHS Inform – on ovarian, womb and cervical cancers no longer explicitly refer to women – but are described as a ‘cancer that affects the female reproductive system’ (Picture: Getty Images)

I am extremely proud to be a woman. Aside from feeling like a second-class citizen most of the time, I would say that I love being a woman.

I am proud of my body – both of its strengths, and weaknesses. Its stretchmarks, quirks and its weird, unexplained oddities; like that hair on my left shoulder, or the way my feet look quite square in open-toed sandals. Anyway.

What I don’t love about being a woman (apart from the entrenched social inequality, gender pay gap and all that bulls**t that I need at *least* a small glass of wine to start on) is its self-prescribed, rigid and quite frankly ridiculous gender ‘rules’.

To me, I am not a woman just because I was born with a vagina, breasts and an often annoyingly pear-shaped figure, though. These traits do not make me a woman, by my terms – just by the unwritten ‘rules’ of generations that were assigned to me before I was even born.

Let me get this straight: you don’t need a vagina to be ‘a woman’, nor do you need a penis to be ‘a man’. Sexual organs do not equal pronouns.

I am lucky to have felt like my body, my shell, is home. I have never had the heartbreak of not feeling truly myself, not even for a second.

I will never understand the pain of someone seeing me as something I know that I am not; to have to live by unwritten gender ‘laws’ that I didn’t give consent to, and do not have a say in.

Though I am and identified as a woman, I welcome the news that the NHS has recently started using the term ‘woman’ less in its online healthcare guidance in the UK.

Now, NHS web pages – like NHS Inform – describe ovarian, womb and cervical cancers as ‘cancer that affects the female reproductive system’. These webpages have begun to adopt gender-neutral language, alongside the term ‘woman’.

These guidelines have thankfully been rewritten using gender-neutral language for those who have body parts commonly associated with being female, but do not identify as women.

Say, if you were to search for ‘ovarian cancer’ on the NHS’s help pages, you would once have read ‘one of the most common types of cancer in women’.

Instead, it now states: ‘Anyone with ovaries can get ovarian cancer. This includes women, trans men, non-binary people and intersex people with ovaries.’

Of course, this has been met by criticism and disdain by some who believe it risks causing ‘harm’ to patients.

It’s indicative of the knee jerk reaction that we saw last year when Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust revealed that it would finally be using gender-neutral terms in its birth services, with phrases like ‘chestfeeding’, ‘human birth milk’ and ‘human birth’ parents’.

What’s really harmful is the fact that one in seven LGBTQ+ people avoid seeking out healthcare that could be life-saving as they’re afraid of discrimination of discrimination

Backlash to this policy change was referred to as ‘PC nonsense’ by Piers Morgan, nonetheless, adding that he thought it was ‘exclusive and alienates people’.

On this most recent occasion, a senior government source apparently said that gender-neutral terms were ‘harmful and can people from finding the help they prevent need’, and that NHS guidance should ‘use clear and commonly understood terms’.

Sadly, our own health secretary, Sajid Javid, said ‘biological sex matters’ in response – adding that he doesn’t think ‘it’s right’ and we should be using ‘common sense’.

But what is there not to understand, pray tell? It’s crystal clear, sure. What’s harmful is the fact that one in seven LGBTQ+ people avoid seeking out healthcare that could be life-saving as they’re afraid of discrimination from staff.

There’s still parts of the NHS’s healthcare pages that do refer to women, but you have to click through to read them under sub-sections – for example, under the ‘Causes’ section for ovarian, womb and cervical cancer, it is stated that ‘ Women, trans men, non-binary people and intersex people’ with these reproductive organs are at risk.

What a chore that must be to have to click the mouse once more, for an extra millisecond, to desperately see the word ‘woman’ instead of waking up for decades in the wrong body.

It does not make women ‘less prominent’ in healthcare – as some outlets and so-called ‘experts’ have claimed – but it is expanding to include others in this country’s National Health Service.

It doesn’t mean that women are being erased, far from it, it means that those with female reproductive organs and don’t identify as women are finally being included in important conversations.

Everyone has a basic human right to access healthcare in a welcoming, inclusive manner, so I’m struggling to see what the big deal is.

The NHS responded, saying that they need ‘only mention sex, gender or sexuality if they’re relevant, for example, to signpost people and help them get the health information and access to treatment they need’. And I agree.

If senior officials from our government still believe that sex and gender is relevant, then I missed the memo about heading back to the dark ages. But then again, we might as well be living in caves if we can’t afford the electric bills soon.

Gender-neutral language does not make you less of who you are. It does not take away my ‘woman-ness’, it helps me feel part of a more inclusive society.

I understand the worries of those who do not speak English as their first language, as I can imagine it can be a struggle at times to digest healthcare jargon – but this isn’t about nuance.

This is about it being our fault that we’ve given gendered language a section in the VIP area and woven it so tightly into everyday life for far too long that it is now above all manner of sense.

Perhaps if we started teaching gender-neutral language in our schools, rather than the exclusive terms for gender – maybe then it would be less confusing, including for those who are unwilling to educate themselves.

It does not make me any less of a feminist to discourage the use of the word ‘woman’, either.

In fact, it makes me more of one as feminism is about achieving equality across all humans, regardless of sex, gender or sexuality. Not exclusion.

Changing our language and softening the rigidities of sex and gender is key. Rewriting gendered terms is a small step in teaching our younger generations about the importance of equality, of humanity.

It’s a landmark move from the NHS that I sigh wholeheartedly with relief at. It gives me hope, truly, that those who do not feel at home everyday feel less afraid, less ridiculed and less humiliated.

It’s important to strip down these ridiculous, untaught and unwritten ‘rules’ and encourage a society that welcomes all to the party without shame or fear with open arms.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk.

Share your views in the comments below.

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