Unsubscribing from gender

We are bizarrely obsessed, as a society, with knowing someone’s gender. And trying to draw lines around what we define as “real” gender. Recently, while listening to my non binary 15 year old casually referring to one of their friends as he, they, and she in the space of just a few sentences, happily careening from pronoun to pronoun, it occurred to me that our desperate societal attempt to cling to rigid gender categories is doomed to rightful failure.

Our society has some really weird attitudes to gender, but I’ve been slow to realise that, perhaps, the weirdest attitude to gender is the idea that it matters at all.

Screenshot of a post on Mastodon from kit (@kitty@im-in.space) that says:
If you have a moment, please tell us why you’re unsubscribing. Check all that apply.

100% This gender is no longer relevant to me.

100% I receive too much gender.

100% I never signed up for gender.

100% This gender is inappropriate.

100% Gender is spam and should be reported.

My parents, born in the 1930s and raised in white, middle class, conservative families, would often say in too-loud, whispered asides “You can’t tell whether that’s a man or a woman!” when they saw anyone whose gender was at all ambiguous. (And, it must be said, their idea of ambiguous gender presentation was a man with long hair…) It seemed to them to be the most outrageous, bizarrely extreme idea ever that a person’s gender was not writ large upon their presentation. The idea of trans folks was one they simply could not wrap their heads around. The culture in which they were raised did not allow it. People must be labelled on sight, and squished firmly into one of two boxes. In hindsight, maybe that was one of the reasons our relationship was always rather fraught. I have never been very good at staying in my box. Or my lane.

I do notice, though, that if I don’t catch myself, my brain tends to run along disturbingly similar lines. When I see someone new, I automatically try to categorise them. To fit them into a box. I have rather more boxes than my parents did – my boxes include non-binary, agender, and in a nod to the mountain climbs in the Tour de France, one I think of as “Hors Catégorie” (“beyond/outside category”) – but they’re still boxes. To some extent, boxing people is a trait that’s built into the human brain. It’s helpful to categorise, in order to save our brains from continuously calculating every detail of a scene. Even if it’s only “threat” or “not threat”, we do need to categorise. But why are we so hung up on knowing people’s gender?

If young people can throw pronouns like confetti, and be wedded to none of them, why must society still insist on fitting people into neat little gender boxes?

In actual fact, why do we ever need to know? I can see why, medically, sometimes it’s important to know what organs a person has, (which, of course, does not tell us anything about their gender) but beyond that, it really doesn’t seem relevant. Perhaps we could stop. Perhaps, when a baby is born, instead of asking if it’s a boy or a girl, we could ask for their name, and whether they are healthy.

My business is legally required to ask if my employees male or female, for tax purposes – it’s likely part of the identity verification process, but there’s absolutely no meaningful need for it. We could scrap that, for starters. Clothing in shops – easily fixed, sort it by style, not by gender. Dresses. Skirts. High waisted, fitted jeans, low waisted, straight jeans. Clothes for tall folks (oh, please!). Clothes for shorter folks.

Toilets? Urinals, and stalls. Easy. Toys? How about we let kids pick the toys they are genuinely interested in, instead of forcing them into an avalanche of strongly gendered choices.

Sports? Why not sort them by strength, size, speed, or ability, instead of gender? I know a young man who is extraordinarily good at volleyball, but it’s all but impossible for him to play professionally, simply because he is “only” 183cm tall. How is that fair? Miguel Indurain, record breaking professional cyclist, had a lung capacity much larger than average, which was a huge part of his advantage. How was it fair for him to race against cyclists with normal lung capacity? Splitting sport into mens’ and womens’ is a lazy bigotry that has nothing to do with fairness, and everything to do with reinforcing stereotypes.

Maybe we have actually reached the point where we can move past our obsession with gender and work, instead, on obsessing about health and happiness, and making sure everyone has the support they need to reach their full potential.


One thought on “Unsubscribing from gender

  1. Darren

    I’ve always wanted a CS Olympics. To qualify you’d have to pass a basic algorithms test (balance a binary tree or something ) and then you’d really compete on javelin or 200m breaststroke. It would be hilarious. .

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