Why I Did It: The Gendered Language Manifesto

by Abigail Spencer

I want to begin by saying that I do not expect every person in the debate community to agree with me. If you read this entire article and still don’t support the argument at your core, that is alright. I am not asking you to agree with me, but I am asking you to hear me. 

The first time I started saying “y’all” happened when I was a sophomore Policy debater. I attend a pretty heavily conservative school, and my captains told me not to say “you guys” because “people will lie about their gender and say it offends them.”

I didn’t do it for the right reasons, but I started using y’all. It wasn’t until my junior year, after experiencing some of the worst gendered violence imaginable from the debate community, that I began reading into these theories. I came to understand just why y’all–or “you all”–was preferable to “you guys.” I even got a sticker for my old laptop that said “#y’allmeansall.” Slowly, but surely, the initial fear I felt of hitting this theory argument caused a paradigm shift.

I talked to other debaters who used y’all, asking why they did it. The general consensus? “You guys” is colloquial until it is not. Let me elaborate: the first time I heard that this language was gendered, I didn’t see why. I thought “you guys” referred to both genders. I had never had a problem with the phrase before and even whilst using y’all, I never stopped to ask teammates to do the same.

It was this bout of aggression–a year that reminded me I was not welcome in debate because of my gender–that made “you guys” no longer colloquial. It was this aggression that made me feel shame when I picked up the first place trophy in my speech event at a local tournament where the trophies for top three were male figures, and the trophies for fourth, fifth, and sixth, were female figures. 

I have been on both sides of the pond. I agree that I am “more sensitive” on this one, but I don’t think that is something to be ashamed of. Sensitivity is a powerful tool for good because it means you acknowledge that even if 90% of non-male debaters don’t care about this rhetoric, 10% do and you are so concerned for their inclusion in the debate space that you change one word in your vocabulary. Two of our judges, one from both quarterfinals and semifinals, cried giving their RFD and talked about their experiences as non-male debaters. Both said they did not consider the rhetoric offensive initially, but found the arguments to be incredibly empowering of womxn in debate and supported the paradigm shift.

Now that I’m delving into the RFD’s, I should probably explain what happened at the Arizona State HDSHC Invitational for those who were not in attendance, or heard about the round via word-of-mouth.

Before the tournament, I wrote an article called “You’re Allowed to be Here” for Beyond Resolved. Seeing the immense support for this article, as well as personal thank you’s I got for addressing the structural disadvantages non-male debaters face in the masculinized debate space made me feel like I could be doing more.

I found my old policy file on “Gendered Language K’s.” I talked to both my partner, Dylan Beach, and my coach, Conrad Palor, about reading it. They were both highly supportive. Conrad had already been saying “y’all,” but Dylan was at this point still saying “you guys.” He was really impacted by the arguments against “you guys” made by this file, and agreed to change his language for the ASU tournament and going forward. On 12/30/19, I uploaded our interp for this shell to our NDCA Wiki page. We were not trying to trick anyone. I wanted to expressly state my intention to read this shell in the event a team used this rhetoric, and encourage them not to.

We agreed not to read the argument unless we made it to out-rounds. We did not want to use it to win rounds, we wanted to use it to produce discourse. Prelims would affect one other team and a judge, and we felt this risked the argument becoming “just a way of winning debates.” Once making it to out-rounds, we actually hit some really cool teams that did not link into the K! I appreciated the teams prior to Quarterfinals using “y’all” immensely, but I was motivated to continue advancing through the bracket for the opportunity to read this argument.

In Quarterfinals, we hit two of the sweetest opponents ever. I have nothing but respect and admiration for Saratoga SP. The first thing I heard from them in round was, “Are you guys ready?” We were first speaking, and I said to the judges “I need a moment.” They were frustrated and put me on the spot, as to why I was taking additional prep after round was supposed to have started. I was terrified but I knew this was my opportunity and said “I just need a minute to put something in case. I promise it will warrant this.”

I read this shell at the top of our constructive:

Debaters using “you guys” to describe non-male identifying folk is creeping sexism and a reminder of our inferiority in the debate space—reject the team to preserve debate as a safe space for all identities.

This is the most real-world impact. I am is the only non-male debater in this round, overall only four out of the sixteen debaters in quarterfinals are non-male presenting. The only thing that spills over from the round is discourse, and theirs normalizes exclusion in the debate space.

The original intention wasn’t to go for the argument, which is why it wasn’t formatted like a traditional shell. However, the reactions of our opponents, judges, and spectators are what caused us to reconsider. This discourse needed to happen and we were willing to lose the case debate to make it. We read evidence on how “you guys” is a form of gendered language that perpetuates exclusion in the next speech and we impacted to more exclusion, pleading for a more inclusive norms-setting. We were criticized for not reading a traditional role of the ballot, but we were asking judges to evaluate this argument in the context of simply being judges. No strings attached, we believed judges should evaluate their ballot through the lense of a judge determining the winner of the round and which team better solved for the impact.

We expected to lose. We thought the spectators would sneer at us (they did). What we didn’t expect was Saratoga offering after my constructive to concede the round. I told them that if they were comfortable, I would prefer we continue with the debate, because I believed in our impact. I did not just want to win. I wanted to show how discourse shapes the community, and that discourse could only be accessed by having the debate. They agreed to continue with the round.

We won on a 3-0. We did not win because Saratoga was a bad team or rude. We won because even though they apologized, this was not enough to solve back for the discourse the round would generate. I asked both them and our judges: “What does the ballot of this round do for discourse? If we win, people will see this argument and understand that even if it’s a complete accident and you apologize, you still cannot say this masculinized rhetoric. If you win, people will laugh at the idea that Coronado BS read a ‘ridiculous feminist theory’ and lost for it.’ Which of these creates better norms for the community?” The judges understood this, and with their ballots, generated a revolutionary change in the community.

The judges didn’t vote against the other team, but for the theory. They voted to signify that, with their new understanding of how even colloquialisms that are masculinized re-entrench patriarchal systems into everyday activities, the phrase “you guys” must always be rejected.

I cannot express how grateful I am to Saratoga SP for their role in this round and allowing us the opportunity to present this argument to the room. I can only hope that they choose to modify their discourse and one day we may debate again, without needing to read this off case.

The team we were now poised to hit in Semifinals, Valley LB, approached us after round. They asked how they could avoid linking into the K. I told them if they could to use y’all, you all, you folks, or simply you. Their questioning of what to say instead only furthered the sense of fulfillment I experienced from reading this argument. Because we read this argument, already a team that spectated was asking what they could be doing better.

Dylan and I had no intention of reading this theory in Semifinals, or baiting the other team into linking into our argument. Ideally, the other team would not use this rhetoric and we would not have to say anything. Unfortunately, one of the debaters did make the mistake of using the phrase during first cross. I wholeheartedly believe that this was an accident and not ill-willed, but I still knew we had to read the K. Again, I was terrified to put this at the top of Dylan’s rebuttal. One of our judge’s RFD’s even said “Progressive arguments- Don’t do it. I will not flow it. I hate it.”

Still, I could not let the sacrifice Saratoga SP made be in vain. They used the phrase accidentally as well, but they were willing to concede the round over it. They ultimately had a round with us to spread discourse about this argument. I was not, despite my own fears, willing to “leave this in Quarterfinals.” I also knew that if we read the argument against Saratoga but not this team, it would only further the suspicions that our theory was disingenuous. Saratoga lost because we said you must ALWAYS reject gendered language. I knew I had to take this argument to the end.

Again, we won on a 3-0. My greatest takeaway from this round was the judge whose paradigm disincentivized me reading this argument admitting “I know my paradigm said I hate progressive arguments, but this argument matters.” 

I would like to focus less on what happened in Semifinals, but ultimately I am grateful to both teams for giving us a platform. I am grateful to all judges, all spectators. I am grateful to my coach, Conrad Palor, for empowering me to challenge what Public Forum is. I am grateful to my partner, Dylan Beach, who openly expressed that he didn’t care if we dropped for reading this argument, but asked the hundred spectators of Semifinals to genuinely consider this argument because I believed in it so strongly I was willing to lose Semifinals at this tournament just to generate discourse. 

I understand if at this point, you still don’t understand why “y’all” matters. I don’t know how to convey to you that it should. I would like to leave you with three conclusions.

1. Do not fear me.

I promise you, we will never bait a team into linking into this argument. If you don’t use the rhetoric, we won’t look for ways to read the K, we won’t. I had a very interesting conversation with Ryan Gumlia of Fairmont GJ prior to Finals. I said “Please don’t link into the K–I am very tired but I will still have to read it if you do.” Gumlia expressed concern citing how casual the phrase “you guys” had always seemed. I said “I believe in you. Don’t use gendered language, and let’s debate Venezuela.” I am extremely happy to report than neither side used this language, and consciously chose “y’all” in cross-fire. Fairmont GJ won the tournament but also won my heart for being so receptive to an argument they had never even heard before and consciously changing their rhetoric. I don’t in any way wish that they had linked so we could “win Finals on the K”–that round was the perfect way to conclude the tournament and I am grateful to Fairmont GJ for the example they set.

2. Don’t say it. Just don’t.

Regardless of whether you personally understand the meaning behind the phrase “you guys,” someone does. You all. Y’all. You folks. You. Each of these slight shifts in vocabulary are a small change that makes a big difference. I am asking you to make this difference.

3. I believe in this argument.

I always have. If you are interested in running it, you can always reach out to me. The best way to contact me would be Instagram direct message, my username is @ThingsDislocate. I will send you our shell (it is also on the Coronado BS NDCA Wiki page) but I am willing to share cards and extensions because I hope that other teams are able to read this argument not to automatically win rounds, but to engage in thought-provoking discourse about gendered language. The literature is also phenomenal, and might help you understand just how problematic this language is.

If you are planning to read this argument in the future, you should recognize that there are also different ways to read it. In Policy, where we have already seen a paradigm shift against colloquial gendered language, apologies and a promise to change one’s discourse can be a great way to not lose on the K because they solve back for the impact of discourse. Unfortunately, both Saratoga and Valley International Prep had to drop the rounds to set a precedent–so when you angrily type out: “I understand the argument, but I don’t see why they had to lose because of it!”…realize you wouldn’t be talking about this if they had not lost the rounds. 

With that, I will leave with you a message I encountered when I brushed the dust off of my old Gendered Language K file. A message typed by a small-school debater with a strong desire for change, who maybe didn’t entirely understand why “you guys” was harmful, but was willing to find out. A message from me to me, but more importantly a message from me to you:

“Gale here. Let’s make the world a nicer place and stop saying things that have the power to hurt people. Below is a series of words/phrases that really probably don’t belong in our debates, or anywhere for that matter. Don’t sacrifice the dignity of these arguments just to “win debates”—

apologies can (sometimes) be the best force for change. Your role is to educate everyone in the round on the power [of] words with this file. Good luck!”

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