Reading Gender Tea Leaves: The Dangers In PC Marketing

Years ago, a gay colleague brought me up short by pointing out (it was news to him, too) that reporters should not refer to lesbians as gay women.

I marked it down as one more copyediting rule to keep in mind. But I’ve since realized that it was more than that — it’s part of a sensitivity that keeps you from offending people even when you don’t know the precise rule.

I was reminded of this by a Jo Ellison column in last Saturday’s Financial Times, titled: “Woke speak is scary. Time to swot up.”

Ellison seems bemused by the fact that she is a cis woman—a woman who was female at birth, as opposed to being a transgendered woman.

“I have only a very rudimentary grasp on the new vocabulary of gender,” Ellison writes. “To engage with it is fraught with hazard.”

She goes on to quote an older gay man who asks a younger gay man: “Why is your generation so obsessed with labels?”



Good question. But they are. Axios cites a 2017 study showing that 20% of millennials put themselves “somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum” and 12% identify as transgender or gender fluid. Gen Zers are even more likely to classify themselves in those groups.

Jessi Hempel, a tech journalist, writes that this feels like “the spring that the gender pronouns migrated into email signatures,” Axios continues.

This is a dangerous area for marketers whose algorithms spit out triggered emails that have not been viewed first by human eyes. The risks do not only concern gender issues, but also ethnic and religious identities. And age.

There are at least three PC danger areas in copy:

  1. Misidentification — Let’s say you are targeting someone on that “LBGTQ spectrum.” Stay broad unless you know who’s who. And use the right terms, if you must use any at all. Ditto if you are marketing to other types of people.
  2. Stereotyping — This is even more dangerous because it can be subtle and done unknowingly in both copy and graphics. 
  3. Lack of flexibility — Skeptics might argue that we are all more complex in terms of experience and identity than one word might indicate. And people change.

Ellison concludes: “Labels are exasperating. And exhausting. And confusing.” True. But they’re worth getting right in a time when humanism is being eroded and groups of all types are under attack.


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