Expert advice

LGBTIQ+ and healthcare: a guide to gender-inclusive language

Non-inclusive language can create barriers to quality cancer care

Non-inclusive language can create barriers to quality cancer care for the LGBTIQ+ community

What is gender-inclusive language?

Using gender-inclusive language means speaking and writing in a way that does not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity, and does not perpetuate gender stereotypes, says the United Nations .

Given the key role of language in shaping cultural and social attitudes, using gender-inclusive language is a powerful way to promote gender equality and eradicate gender bias, it states.

Do nurses know enough about it, and why is it important?

Nurses are saying there

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Non-inclusive language can create barriers to quality cancer care for the LGBTIQ+ community

Non-inclusive language can create barriers to quality cancer care for the LGBTIQ+ community
Picture: iStock

What is gender-inclusive language?

Using gender-inclusive language means speaking and writing in a way that does not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity, and does not perpetuate gender stereotypes, says the United Nations.

‘Given the key role of language in shaping cultural and social attitudes, using gender-inclusive language is a powerful way to promote gender equality and eradicate gender bias,’ it states.

Do nurses know enough about it, and why is it important?

‘Nurses are saying there is little training or information about it,’ says UK Oncology Nursing Society (UKONS) board member Kay Bell.

‘They don’t know how to approach a patient about it and worry they will get it wrong. We know how important it is to call patients by the right name, and this is equally so.’

Nervousness stops nurses engaging with patients, says Stewart O'Callaghan, founder and director of the LGBTIQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer or questioning, pansexual and asexual) cancer charity Live Through This, who use the pronouns they and them.

‘Patients can see this lack of engagement as a lack of support. You pick up on things when you’re a minority, including body language, so if someone is apprehensive it’s felt.’

How are people who identify as LGBTIQ+ disadvantaged in terms of their cancer care?

The LGBTIQ+ community is less likely than non-LGBTIQ+ people with cancer to be given written information about the type of cancer they have, says UKONS.

It also has increased risk factors and experience a higher burden of some cancers. Additionally, it faces more barriers to accessing healthcare, which may result in more late-stage diagnoses.

What are pronouns, and what difference does choosing the right one make to someone’s cancer care?

Pronouns are used to replace a person’s name in a sentence, such as her and she. For example: Billie had left her hat on the train, so she needed to buy a new one.

For Stewart O’Callaghan, acknowledging someone’s identity in their preferred way humanises interactions in healthcare. ‘As a patient, it can be very easy to feel dehumanised by having cancer.’

Bad experiences around this issue can detrimentally affect someone’s care, for example with people not attending their appointments, they add.

A table showing a gender-inclusive pronoun guide

One service user told the charity: ‘My spouse came to many of my appointments and having healthcare professionals ask: “Are you comfortable changing in front of your friend or shall I draw the curtain?” not even five minutes after I had introduced them as my spouse is so upsetting.’

‘I felt our relationship was constantly invalidated during initial stages of treatment. In recovery, nurses were much better but still never asked for my or my spouse’s pronouns, and referred to my spouse as my friend or girlfriend.’

How can you make sure you’re addressing someone in the way they prefer?

UKONS advises it is always best to ask rather than assume someone’s gender identity from their name or pronouns.

‘You may worry about offending someone by asking these questions, but the key is positive intention,’ it says. ‘If you are respectful and there is a reason for asking, most people welcome the opportunity to share.’

Live Through This’s pronoun guide suggests introducing yourself along with your own pronouns. For example, ‘I’m specialist cancer nurse Jackie Jones and my pronouns are he and his. What are yours?’

If you make a mistake, the charity advises being open to correction, owning your mistake and then moving forward. ‘Accidents can happen at any time, not just when meeting someone for the first time,’ it says.

Gender terms nurses may come across

Cisgender/cis refers to someone whose gender identity is the same as their sex at birth

Transgender or trans is an umbrella term for someone whose gender identity is not the same as their sex at birth. Between one and nine of every 200 people identify as transgender in some way, says UKONS

Gender dysphoria describes the distress someone experiences when they are aware of an incongruence between their gender identity and either their body or others’ perceptions of their gender

Trans identities

Trans man – a female at birth who identifies as male. They can be described as transmasculine

Trans woman – a male at birth who identifies as female. They can be described as transfeminine

Non-binary – someone whose gender identity is neither exclusively male nor female

Agender – someone who does not relate to gender

Gender-fluid – someone whose gender identity is constantly changing


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