ASL and Gender Neutral Signs

Today during my Introduction to Interpreting class, the professor asked us to think about how we might get ready for an interpreting assignment. Do you know where you’re going, where you will park, which room you’re needed in, etc.? Do you know for whom you are looking? The professor gave an example of a client with a Hispanic name that ended in the letter “a,” so she assumed the Deaf person was a woman. And yet she was directed to a man in the waiting room. Though I have no experience interpreting yet (this is my first terp class!), I understand what the professor means when she had mentally prepared herself to meet a female participant.

If you think about it, a meeting may go differently if the Deaf person is male or female. Also, the terp’s gender may change the dynamics too, from what I’m learning. I tried to place myself in the situation. What if this were a doctor’s appointment that involved gender-specific tests (pap smear, prostate check, etc.). Are both the Deaf person and the interpreter comfortable with that? We’re all human, so imagining and preparing for a situation can help us be calm. But, what my professor learned is that while this Deaf client had the feminine “a” at the end of their first name, this person was trans, female to male, but hadn’t changed names yet.

We talk about gender a lot now, and it’s important. But ASL doesn’t have gender; he/she/it are all the same sign. And yet, language changes! I’ve seen videos online from the Deaf LGBTQ community sharing signs (here is one from Rogan Shannon) they use for masculine/feminine presenting, gender expression, and gender fluid. But if terps are not sure what to do, there are some work arounds. For instance, I learned you can now sign the gender-neutral SPOUSE. Instead of putting your non-dominant hand near your forehead (HUSBAND) or chin (WIFE), start at your heart and complete the sign. I love it! Or, instead of asking if someone has a boyfriend or girlfriend, which assumes an individual’s gender and sexuality, sign SWEETHEART instead (which I think is a fun sign anyway). What are your thoughts on gender in ASL? Have you seen or do use the sign for SPOUSE?

Published by Grab the Lapels

I'm a graduate of the MFA fiction writing program at the University of Notre Dame, which inspired me to follow along with trends in teaching, publishing, and reviewing. I also have an MA and BS from Central Michigan University. I used to teach composition, creative writing, and literature in higher education, then did a brief stint at a civic theater, followed by two years at a references desk at a public library. I'm now working toward my ASL Interpreter license.

2 thoughts on “ASL and Gender Neutral Signs

  1. Gentle reminder that physical characteristics don’t determine a person’s gender. For example, men can get pregnant. Gender identity is about how a person sees themselves – and presentation can vary a lot for multiple reasons. Thank you for sharing some of the gender-neutral ASL. We can get better at not assigning people gender when we talk. Happy Spring


    1. Thank you for the reminder. I’m trying to do better with my language, but because I don’t have much exposure in real life (though I do in books), I make mistakes. I appreciate your kindness. Happy spring!


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