How small changes in what you say can help people feel included

Using words like ‘lads’ can make non-binary, trans and women feel excluded

Triss Finley Smythe is an Air Engineering Technician with the Royal Navy who came out as non-binary in the past year and is keen to promote using language differently to help people feel more included. 

“Gender-neutral language ... works for all parties rather than just focusing on the men. It also includes women, it includes trans and non-binary individuals.” 

As part of LGBTQ+ history month, BFBS the forces station is exploring the military as an equal opportunity employer, and asking “what does that mean for serving personnel and the way they choose to live their lives?” 

Royal Navy sailor Triss spoke to BFBS broadcaster Amy Casey about what it felt like to come out as non-binary - a term used to describe a gender that is neither male nor female - while working in a historically ‘male’ environment. Terms like ‘lads’ for groups of sailors, whether they be men, women, trans or non-binary, can exclude people and possibly lead to reduced motivation and, in turn, a less effective ship's company. Triss said: 

“A great example as well is ‘the lads’, get the lads to do this get the lads to that. 

“All you really have to say is can you get some ABs together to do this job. 

“It’s not a massive change but it is enough. They are thinking about me. I am still seen rather than just being seen as, in my case, a male. 

“They’re looking at me and going ‘well, they may not identify as that so let’s include them a bit more' and I’m more likely to go yep, no worries, let’s go because we’re all there as a team rather than 'the boys’ kind of thing.” 

After four years of service with the Senior Service Triss, who uses they as a gender-neutral pronoun, is currently with 825 Squadron at RNAS Yeovilton. They say coming out as non-binary was an eye-opening experience and overall, very positive. They said: 

“Don’t get me wrong there was a lot of, OK what is that? 

“It is a relatively new thing so to then say ‘that binary thing you know, you’ve grown up with, I’m not part of that rule’ - everyone’s kind of like ‘that’s new’. 

“However, they were all very understanding and went right, what does it mean, tell us about it and what can we do to help you?” 

One piece of advice the sailor would give to anyone considering embracing non-binary terms for their gender is to make sure they know themselves first before coming out. They said: 

"Before I did anything I was like, I have to be secure in myself because there will be questions and there’s nothing wrong with that but I need to be confident in answering them to change anything.” 

LISTEN: Triss explains to Amy how the military has reacted to them coming out as non-binary and the measures the Senior Service have taken to learn more and support them

After having honest conversations with their chain of command and explaining “here’s how I feel and here’s what we could do to alleviate those feelings or improve them”, Triss felt as though the Royal Navy was willing to compromise to help them feel more comfortable. However, they realised they also had to understand there was a limit to what could be done. They said:

“I joined the Navy to be in the Navy and as much as I’d love certain things to happen to make me feel comfortable, I still recognise that regardless of who you are in terms of gender identity, religion, sex, there will always be things which will make you feel uncomfortable.

“It’s one of those of, I’ll take what I can but I’m not going to ask for everything because it’s just not going to happen and you have to be realistic.” 

Triss feels that society as a whole could help to break down barriers when it comes to understanding what non-binary is, by being willing to sit down and have a conversation and listen, saying: 

“If you have a question, ask it and be ready to actually take it on board and be willing to listen and work and change your perspective occasionally. 

“What we really want is just that understanding.” 

The armed forces have used terms like seaman and airman for generations so to move away from that language is going to take a shift in understanding from society as a whole. Triss said: 

“The Navy could say ‘right, here are the terms we’re using'. Unless society changes with it the Navy risks being heavily criticized for doing it. 

“In the Navy, we’re not men and women we are just sailors and I don’t quite think if we went for that mindset now that society would really appreciate or accept it.” 

The Royal Navy has taken positive steps to help make Triss feel included which, in turn, has encouraged the sailor to embrace their role within the Navy even more. In September 2020, an RNTM (Royal Navy Temporary Memorandum) was released showing a variety of different ways non-binary or trans personnel can be supported. For Triss, something as simple as assigning a toilet on a shore base to being gender-neutral made them feel "awesome”. They said: 

“It had a sign on it saying gender-neutral toilet which means I didn’t feel like I was in a male space, therefore I had to be male. 

“I had my own safe space without coming out and going well, you’re not a man so what are you doing kind of thing? 

“With this gender-neutral one on my Squadron, it was a very good thing of ‘we see you; we can’t do everything in a day’ but it was a very quick and easy one which made me feel pretty good if I’m honest.”