Berkeley Eliminates References to Gender in City Documents

July 25, 2019 Updated: July 25, 2019

Long known for progressive political activism, Berkeley is again at the forefront to try to change the world by redacting any reference to gender on city forms and municipal code. The view is that gender bias in language contributes to discrimination, namely against women and other gender groups perceived to be oppressed.

The ordinance was passed unanimously by the city council on July 16 and would replace words like “he” and “she” with “they,” and “brother” and “sister” with “sibling.”

Council member Rigel Robinson, who sponsored the ordinance, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Gender-neutral language creates a lot of room to acknowledge that it’s not just men running the country.”

Robinson became the youngest-ever member of the Berkeley City Council at 23, when elected last November. His political motivations appear to have been honed as a student at the University of California at Berkeley, a university in a city recognized for progressive idealism, but which fell short in his view by excluding women and binary-gendered, or people who feel disconnected to the gender of their birth.

“[B]roadening societal awareness of transgender and gender non-conforming identities has brought to light the importance of non-binary gender inclusivity,” Robinson wrote in a letter to the council in March. He proposed that City Hall get up to speed “with inclusion.”

The change in language is expected to cost the city about $600. This will include replacing “gender-specific” pronouns and giving city employees a choice of “Mr.” or “Ms.,” depending on personal preference. The measure stopped short of adding the option of “Mx.,” which is often used in the United Kingdom.

Some of the words to be eschewed in the new law have been in use across the majority of the country for many years. “Fireman” or “firewoman” will officially become “firefighter”; “manpower” will become “human effort” or “workforce.”

It’s not a “woman” who is pregnant under the new language; rather the reference is “pregnant employee.” Manhole cover” is “maintenance cover.” In all, the measure replaces more than two dozen commonly used terms in the city code.

The ordinance highlights a specific trait of the English language—it does not have a masculine or feminine nouns, like many other languages. Although Berkeley’s ordinance says nothing about what to call a Latino, a man of Hispanic heritage or Latina, for a woman, “Latinx” has also become a popular choice.

The controversial change in the municipal code caused a stir on social media, with some wondering if Berkeley had gone too far in restricting speech, while others wondered if other issues should be higher on the city’s list of priorities.