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From ‘councilman’ to ‘councilmember’? Change part of bigger push to rid gender from titles

Philadelphia voters will decide in May whether to remove gender-specific Council titles from the city charter.

Councilman Derek Green sponsored legislation that would eliminate gendered references to council in the city charter.
Councilman Derek Green sponsored legislation that would eliminate gendered references to council in the city charter.Read more--- David Maialetti / File Photograph

Philadelphia voters this spring will have the chance to vote to strike the word councilman from the city’s Home Rule Charter, a move backers say will make the document that serves as a local constitution more inclusive.

City Council on Thursday unanimously passed legislation allowing for a ballot question that will ask voters whether they approve of such an amendment to the charter. The amendment would, on a handful of occasions, change the words councilman to councilmember, councilmen to councilmembers, and councilmanic to council.

For example, the sentence “one councilman shall be elected from each councilmanic district” would read “one councilmember shall be elected from each council district.”

The changes are meant to ensure the document is inclusive toward women and people who are nonbinary, or who don’t identify as man or woman, according to Councilman Derek Green, who sponsored the legislation. Aides to Green said the question is expected to appear on primary ballots this May.

The move is part of a push nationwide to remove gendered references from employment titles, largely to better embrace nonbinary and transgender workers who may identify outside the gender binary. For example, some restaurants explicitly use server rather than waiter or waitress. Other organizations have changed the words chairman or chairwoman to chair.

Amber Hikes, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs, called the move “monumental" during the public comment portion of Council’s session Thursday.

“Titles such as councilman create an environment in which women and nonbinary people have to carve out space for themselves in ways that men do not,” she said, adding: “This legislation gives transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary people a chance.”

Green said he introduced the bill last year after attending a National League of Cities conference when he noticed local legislators there were referred to as councilmember instead of a gender-specific term. When he returned to City Hall, he started noticing inconsistencies within Council: Some signs use gendered terms, others don’t. Plaques on the floor of City Council read councilmember, but some members and their staffs have business cards that read councilman or councilwoman.

“It’s also just about being consistent throughout our code in reference to how we define people,” Green said. “Words have meaning.”

While the amendment would change the language related to Council, it wouldn’t remove the term chairman, which appears a handful of times in the charter and code in relation to various boards and commissions. Kyra Harris, Green’s spokeswoman, said he intends to introduce additional legislation addressing that term pending the adoption of this first change in May.

Changing the Council-related terms, she said, is important to accomplish before the next Council is seated. All 17 seats are up for election this year.

Talks in 2019 about gender-neutral titles are “a whole different conversation” compared with 10 years ago, said Denise Brown, executive director of the Leeway Foundation, a Philadelphia-based grant-making organization that supports women, nonbinary, and transgender artists and cultural producers. The foundation developed a guide for organizations to better support women and LGBTQ communities.

She added that it’s important that Council, as a workplace and government entity, is inclusive “within an organizational context.”

“You really have to find a way to make it part of the organization’s culture and values,” she said, “and that really is what helps you make the shift.”

Jasper Katz, a legal intern in the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs, testified in favor of the legislation last week before the Committee on Law and Government. Katz, who speaks frequently about issues related to gender and identity, is nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/them.

Katz said the “simple change” will show women and people who are transgender and nonbinary “that they are not only a part of this city and a part of this government because it’s required, but also because we’re needed and we’re wanted.”

“Communicating that to folks who often don’t hear that message is critical and incredibly powerful,” Katz said.

Other workplaces in Philadelphia have embraced gender-neutral titles, including some schools with nonbinary teachers. Maddie Luebbert, an English teacher at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, uses the pronouns they/them and at the beginning of this school year started using the gender-neutral honorific “Mx.” (pronounced “mix”) in the classroom.

Luebbert, 25, said the “vast majority” of students had no problem with the adjustment.

“I’m really passionate about being authentic and honest with my students,” Luebbert said. “Using the title is not only beneficial to me, but it’s actually showing students at a much younger age what the possibilities are and just building empathy for other people.”

Likewise, Alma Sheppard-Matsuo, who identifies as nonbinary and genderqueer and uses the pronouns they/them, uses the honorific Mx. while teaching English at Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School. Sheppard-Matsuo, 31, voiced support for Council’s move to neutralize gendered references, and said it’s part of a conversation that’s “opened up more.”

“More places are maybe having some policy or conversation shift,” Sheppard-Matsuo said, but “there’s still a lot of pause, because gender identity can be all over the place with visibility. So actually implementing that policy or those conversations is still taking some time.”