How to use gender-inclusive language for pagan outreach

You’re planning a ritual or event and want to ensure people of all genders feel welcome. But our understanding of gender is ever-evolving, as is the language surrounding it. How do write your invitation language to be inclusive of nonbinary people, agender people, and people of other gender identities?

Liminal gender as a concept

As pagans and magickal folk, we should be at least somewhat comfortable with liminal concepts, and yet many of us still lean heavily on binaries. This is not a problem unique to magickal communities, however. Language throughout our society tends to be written as “this or that” much more than “this, that, both, neither, or something else entirely.” So before we get into the actual language to use for outreach, I think we need to spend a little time on nonbinary/agender/xenogender identities and what they mean.

To start with, nonbinary gender identities, which are many and varied, are NOT the middle part of a linear spectrum between “masculine” and “feminine.” Many nonbinary people do not think of themselves as “between” masculine and feminine, but rather separate from those concepts.

A line with arrows on each end, one end saying "man" and the other saying "woman" with "nonbinary" in between. This image is covered by a red circle with a slash through it.

It’s more helpful to think of gender not as a linear spectrum, but rather in a framework akin to this structure:

A triangle, with one point being "man," another point being "woman," the third point being "agender," "nonbinary" in the middle of the triangle and "xenogender" outside the triangle entirely.
Full caveats that no pictorial representation is going to be perfect here, and my art skills are “ehh” at best.

I want to set up this framework in your mind, because unfortunately there’s an ongoing misperception that nonbinary people are “men or women lite.” In reality, gender identities are much more complex than that, and honestly a lot of us are still getting our arms around the language for expressing how we feel about our personal gender identities.

One of the highlights of my experiences at nerdy conventions was meeting a pack of queer teens, one of whom said their gender identity was “alien.” Rock on, friend.
…Personally, I kind of just want to be a cloud.

Why bother with inclusive language? Won’t people just know that they’re welcome?

Heh, funny thing about that: A lot of pagan and other religious circles have, historically, been alienating, if not downright discriminatory or abusive to non-cisheteronormative people. So yes, explicitly stating people of all genders are welcome at your group or event is a good thing, and the lack of such language will keep some people from attending your events.

What kind of language should I avoid when crafting an inclusive invitation?

Try to avoid lists. Not only are they cumbersome, but they can be unwittingly exclusionary. A phrase like “men, women, transgender and nonbinary people” implies that transgender people aren’t men or women, for example.

Also try to avoid using phrases like “women and nonbinary people” or “men and nonbinary people.” This perpetuates that idea that nonbinary people are “women or men lite” that I noted earlier.

Don’t assume “LGBT people are welcome” is an all-encompassing phrase that makes genderqueer people feel included. Some genderqueer people don’t consider themselves transgender, and many non-cisgender people have experienced rejection from gay and lesbian communities.

So what are some examples of inclusive language for people outside the gender binary?

“People of all genders are welcome” is a great start. It’s short, sweet, and easy to drop into your invitation language or “about” page. The key word in the phrase is “all.” That shows you understand there are more than two genders, and that people who identify outside the binary are welcome.

When I walked into the Unitarian Universalist Church of Frederick, for example, one of the first things I saw was a huge, rainbow banner, saying: “We Believe: Love Is Love, Black Lives Matter, Climate Change Is Real, No Human Being Is Illegal, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, All Genders Are Whole, Holy & Good.” Walking into a place that explicitly says all genders are welcome is just…a huge relief, one I cannot really put words to.

Taking that one step further, having easily-findable statements on your organization’s website saying that “bigotry against people based on their race, physical or mental abilities, country of origin, immigration status, sexuality, or gender identity or expression will not be tolerated” makes people feel even safer in your space.

But what about women-only events? Are those still okay?

As with any magickal practice, first ask yourself the purpose that you’re hoping to accomplish with a women-only event. In what specific way do you feel the audience needs to be limited based on gender identity, biology, etc.? You may find yourself uncovering some hidden biases that actually do not serve your magickal work. For example, not talking about menstruation in front of those who don’t menstruate only serves to perpetuate misogyny by making this very common experience seem “taboo” or “dirty.”

It is understandable that sometimes, people would want to come together on the basis of shared experience, such as having given birth, menstruating, or the menopause. But to then claim that these experiences somehow represent the essence of “femaleness” or of what it means to be a woman, is to reduce identity to biology. Trans men and genderqueer people can also menstruate and give birth.

Yvonne Aburrow, “Let’s Talk About Gender”

If you want to create an event focused on a particular life experience, and only include those with firsthand knowledge of that life experience, craft your language around that experience rather than a gender attached to it. Phrases like “people who menstruate,” “people who give birth,” “people who have experienced miscarriages,” and “survivors of sexual violence” are useful here.

Similarly, be mindful of spelling, lest you inadvertently signal that transgender people are unwelcome in your space:

A further best practice for those of us who either facilitate “women’s” rituals or who work within Feminist Spirituality/Goddess Spirituality is to avoid the creative spellings so common to our community: womyn, wimmen, wombyn, and so forth. While they were not intended to do so when they came into usage, they have become dog whistles for transphobia, trans exclusion, and TERFy politics within the Goddess Spirituality, and to some extent, the larger NeoPagan community.

Dr. Susan Harper, PhD, “For Thou Art Goddess: Creating Affirmative Goddess Community”

If you are determined to have a gender-specific event that isn’t tied to specific biological experiences, some more-inclusive language would be: “women, femmes, and people who walk the world and are read as women” (and similarly “men, masculine people, and people who walk the world and are read as men”). I’d also recommend including a line after that, specifically stating “we welcome and affirm our transgender sisters” or “we welcome and affirm our transgender brothers.”

Beyond liminal gender inclusion

Queerness is, by its nature, intersectional. While the specific purpose of this post was to focus on gender inclusive-language, I also want to note that your welcoming language should also encompass race, sexuality, ethnic heritage, country of origin, and physical and mental abilities. If you’re looking for solid examples, the Unitarians do a fantastic job with inclusive language as a whole: you can read some great examples here.

P.S. In researching this post, I learned that some people prefer gender identity language using celestial bodies as a frame of reference. I think that’s rad as hell.

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