87th LegislatureState HouseState SenateLawmakers Seek to Make Language in Texas Code Gender-Neutral

Some bills approach gendered wording head-on. Others propose small, marginal edits to make the law gender-neutral.
February 12, 2021
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Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives took a red pen to the House rules to make them gender-neutral. “Sibling” replaced “brother” and “sister,” “parent” replaced “mother” and “father,” and “seafarer” replaced “seaman.” Pronouns like “himself or herself” became “themself,” perhaps the most notable change in the text.

While the controversial “themself” does not appear in Texas code or any filed bills, a number of state lawmakers have subtly proposed similar changes to the wording of Texas laws without addressing the state’s grammar rules directly.

Because English lacks a gender-neutral pronoun to describe a single person, Texas code abides by the masculine rule, meaning it uses the word “he” to describe a neutral subject that could be a man or woman. This allows ambiguous words like “everyone,” “someone,” or “a person” to agree neatly with singular verbs. Texas code also accepts the lengthier “he or she,” but remains clear that “the masculine gender includes the feminine and neuter genders.” The U.S. Constitution follows the same rule, from the original articles down to the most recent amendments: “In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President,” Amendment XXV reads.

Editors of newspapers, books, and other printed media have abided by the rule for more than a century, though its respect among editors has waned as criticism of the rule has waxed over the past few decades.

A few freshly filed bills in the Texas legislature address the pronoun issue on its face. For example, Sen. Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas) and Rep. Michelle Beckley (D-Carrollton) have introduced a bill that would require Texas marriage law to adopt gender-neutral wording. Another by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) would draw a line between gender and physical sex in the law.

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However, other lawmakers have preferred the scalpel to the axe, making small changes to the wording of the law in bills entirely unrelated to gender.

Although the bulk of one bill by Rep. Kyle Kacal (R-Bryan) deals with the certification of seeds and plants, it also strikes all instances of “he or she” and replaces them with “the person.” Rep. Yvonne Davis (D-Dallas) makes a similar change in a bill mainly concerned with child abandonment.

Legislation tackling issues from liquor to trials to firearms includes the same kind of erasure in the margins. A bill to abolish the death penalty would also wipe gendered pronouns from the current code, replacing all instances of “he” with “the juror” or “the clerk.” Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) has snipped “he” from her bill to ban guns from public demonstrations and her constitutional amendment proposing a yearly budget.

The practice is not new to the 87th legislature. Sen. Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen) successfully neutralized the wording of a swath of Texas Water Code in the last regular session.

No legislation has been filed to address Texas’ wording rule directly.

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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.