Berkeley, California Will ‘Degenderize’ City Its Municipal Code, Getting Rid of Words Like ‘Manhole’ and ‘Ombudsman’

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The progressive bastion of Berkeley, California, is eager to make its laws as inclusive as possible by eliminating gendered terms from its books.

On Tuesday, the city council passed an ordinance that instructs city staff to “degenderize” its municipal code. Instead of using “he” or “she,” the city’s laws will now reference a gender-neutral “they” or use formal titles like “director” and “councilmember.”

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

Robinson’s bill further smashes the patriarchy by offering gender-neutral replacements for common terms found in the city’s code. “Manhole” will now be “maintenance hole.” Ombudsman is to be replaced with “investigating official.” “Sororities” and “Fraternities” are to be referred to as “Collegiate Greek system residence.”

You can see the whole list here.

If you find yourself in the city jail, you might have to pay a “bonds-person,” not a “bondsman,” to get out. Instead of waiting six months to a year for city approval to build that “granny flat” in your backyard, you can now spend the same amount of time wondering when permits for your “accessory dwelling unit” will come through.

Berkeley’s push for gender neutrality isn’t offensive or wrong. But it is kind of silly. Few people deploy words like “manhole” or “ombudsman” as exclusively male terms, even if they are technically gendered. Replacing them with terms people don’t use doesn’t make the city’s laws more inclusive, but it might just make them less intelligible to the general public.

Like it or not, English is a gendered language. Trying to change that in one fell swoop often results in clunky and imprecise phrasing. Microsoft Word’s gender bias spell check feature runs into this problem by suggesting users replace words like “landlord” and “girlfriend” with “property owner” and “partner.”

It’s also not like Berkeley officials don’t have other, more pressing problems. The city has some of the highest home prices in the nation, and, as a result, its homeless population has more than doubled in the last two years. 

If city politicians really wanted to make Berkeley more inclusive, they should start by blocking fewer housing projects. Doing so might result in fewer homeless people sleeping on top of “maintenance holes” at night.


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