About Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.

We move in a space where gender is fluid as the terminology we create to define it. However, I’m wondering if we should leave the marriage lexicon as it previously stood.

 

 

When people like Tony Abbott say that the use of gender-neutral language is political correctness gone mad, you know you’re onto something. Qantas recently introduced an initiative to help all people feel included, in particular the LGBTQI community and it got our Tony into a twist. Among other terms, their policy directs staff to use “parent” rather than “mother” or “father” and “partner” rather than traditional words denoting one’s spouse, the idea behind it that the possibility of offending people is reduced when gender-neutral language is used.

Of course, certain gender-neutral terms have been accepted for generations. No one says “manageress” or “authoress” or “aviatrix” anymore, thank God for that. It was always a put down, a qualifier, as if being a woman somehow made you a less effective manager or author or pilot. You still hear people saying, “I went to a lady doctor” when what they mean is that they went to a doctor. Sure, we still refer to waitresses, actresses, postmen and so on, but there is a definite move towards making people feel included and that’s good.

How about our national anthem? The opening line used to be, “Australian sons, let us rejoice” but with a simple change – “Australians all, let us rejoice” – Australian daughters are now included. That change had the added benefit of including immigrant Australians, so it was a doubly winning modification to the old lyrics.

Using gender-neutral terms doesn’t have to be laboured. For years we’ve referred to the person who delivers the mail as a “postie”. Air hostesses are now known as flight attendants, firemen have become firefighters etc, and eventually society will accept more of these generic terms and they’ll become part of everyday parlance.

 

I don’t know if anyone has used “groomsmaid” before… They could’ve gone all “groomsperson” or “bestie” or “attendant”, but the groomsmaid herself was delighted with this appellation.

 

This isn’t about political correctness or creating a set of hard and fast rules, it’s about recognising that both men and women are equal and should be treated as such. Words suggesting that women are somehow inferior should be discouraged. The point is that no matter our preferences, we are all people, all part of the human experience and appropriate language can help us to recognise this. So, gender-neutral language is not just acceptable it’s also desirable.

On a slight deviation but the same broad subject, let’s consider the term “gay marriage”. Now that same sex couples are free to marry and the law actually states that marriage is between “two people”, the phrase “gay marriage” is as redundant as the phrase “straight marriage”. So let’s phase that one out and simply say “marriage” without the qualifiers.

Since same sex marriage became legal in Australia, small changes have appeared in the words of the ceremony. Traditional labels like “husband” and “wife” are fine of course, but now it’s also permissible for people to say “I take thee to be my lawful wedded spouse”. It’s a choice, so whether it catches on or not only time will tell.

Now, having made the case for gender-neutrality, it has to be said that some situations still call for gender-specific terms and as we’re talking about weddings, I want to share with you my experience at a wedding I recently attended where two lovely men became husband and husband. They were thrilled to be able to use that term for one another. No “spouses” for them – for 50 years they shared a life together and now they could legally marry, no one was going to take away the thrill of having a husband. It was a day of excitement, trepidation and relief given the times through which these men had lived. They could be married, joined at last in conjugal bliss.

The lead-up to the event was like many another wedding – a celebrant to be booked, a venue to be found, menus to be planned, invitations to be sent – but as planning got underway and the men chose their wedding attendants, discussion turned to some of the language we were using. Some time-honoured words were adapted to suit the situation.

 


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In straight/traditional/old-fashioned (take your pick) terminology, there are best men, groomsmen, matrons of honour and bridesmaids. At this joyous event, the happy couple was indeed attended by a groomsman, but they also had a groomsmaid. I don’t know if anyone has used the word “groomsmaid” before so let’s just say you heard it here first. They could’ve gone all “groomsperson” or “bestie” or “attendant”, but the groomsmaid herself was delighted with this appellation.

They’re also personally claiming the term “groomal table” for the official party. These two examples might be made-up words, but you can’t get much more descriptive than that. If there can be bridal tables, why not groomal tables? This wedding didn’t have a groomal waltz and the grooms didn’t carry groomal bouquets, but there was music and there were flowers. As we saw in a recent article, language is fluid, always changing, adapting and inventing, so perhaps these words may one day be added to the lexicon.

Weddings are celebrations and the invention/adaptation of a few gender-specific terms added to the fun. As well, they emphasised a point. Until the law was changed at the end of 2017, same sex couples were denied the opportunity to make a public and legal commitment to their significant others. Now they can – huzzah for fairness!

But back to the point, which is that gender-inclusive language is a strong tool to help break down stereotypes and foster equality. We should at least try to embrace general terms over gender-specific ones, particularly when someone’s gender isn’t at all relevant to the conversation. A lawyer is a lawyer, a tradie is a tradie, a nurse is a nurse, a tax agent is a tax agent and so on.

Still, it’s probably a safe bet to say that a bride will always be a bride and a groom will always be a groom. Gender-neutral language certainly has its place, but maybe not at a wedding.