Are You A Boy Or A Girl?

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Meg talks candidly about their gender identity and why they believe gender is an outdated construct.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” You would be surprised at the number of times strangers (!) have directed this question at me. Even more frequent are the tentative addresses of “Sir… I mean, Miss?”, which are so innocent and well-meaning, but also a little disheartening. As someone who identifies as non-binary, I accepted a long time ago that the way we speak about gender is exclusionary. While I can walk around proudly – with short hair and earrings, in men’s shoes and a women’s coat – that doesn’t change the big fat ‘F’ stamped on my driver’s license. It doesn’t alter the fact that all my mail is addressed to “Miss” and all my tutors will automatically refer to me as a “she”. Our world is just too heavily rooted in this idea of “gender” – whatever that is – for me to exist unquestioned.

Given this fact, it’s easy for me to argue that gender is unimportant – for me, it’s a hindrance. But beneath that initial bias, I’ve always felt that gender was one of those age-old traditions that are no longer fitted to our society, like the father giving away the bride in a wedding, or only giving landowners the right to vote. You can make an argument for how gender was important for our species centuries ago – how being able to identify a potential mate to procreate with was essential for our survival. But we’re not that primitive anymore. We’ve domesticated ourselves, and I think it’s time we took a more civilised look at gender too.

The first question to unpack here would be “what is gender?”. If you look for a formal definition, gender is essentially society’s idea of people’s identities and their resulting social roles. Usually, this includes the two binaries “masculine” and “feminine” (i.e. men and women). But immediately we have a problem: what distinguishes these two categories? Of course, assuming every man adheres to the stereotype of masculinity would be ridiculous and prejudiced, but the stereotypes themselves are often hard to define. The definition of what constitutes masculine and feminine behaviour varies from person to person. Many might say that cooking is a traditionally feminine job, yet professional kitchens are dominated by men. These categories also alter with time: tights, makeup and high heels are all seen as feminine in the modern age but were all originally designed to be worn by men. If we can’t even commit to our own societal definition of gender, what can gender really tell you about a person?

The analogy I like to use is asking someone to imagine a man walking down the street. Would this invoke a different image than if I had instead asked you to simply imagine a person walking down the street? 

You might imagine the “man” being more heavily set, in a suit (or other stereotypically men’s clothing), with short hair. But all of those assumptions are based on your idea of masculinity and don’t necessarily correlate with anyone being a man. The “man” mentioned could easily be wearing a frilly dress, and have long hair and a petite figure, and could very well still identify as a man. So does a person’s gender tell you anything else: their interests? Occupation? Politics? All of these would also be assumptions made based on stereotypes and personal bias. Some might say that you can assume a man has male genitalia, but gender and sex are separate things, so one may not necessarily relate to the other. I would also argue that it’s strange to be wondering about a person’s private parts despite only knowing one thing about them.

One thing that gender can often help with is pronouns. Generally, those who identify on the feminine end of the spectrum use she/her pronouns, and those on the masculine side use he/him. Knowing that someone is a man can help you know how to address them. However, this also doesn’t always work. Plenty of people who identify with binary genders prefer to go by they/them or other pronouns, and some non-binary or gender non-conforming people are happy to be addressed using binary pronouns.

It seems that gender’s only lasting function is to supply the mind with stereotypes by which to judge people. With the amount of trans+ and gender non-conforming people living out and proud in the world today, it’s shocking that people can still see me and be surprised -or even offended – that I don’t fit into their idea of how I ought to look or behave. Let me assure you: my identity does not limit yours. It’s not a zero-sum game and allowing me the freedom to live with whatever identity suits me does not strip yours away.

But while I would happily see a world devoid of gender, many people strongly identify with their gender and would feel a loss without it. Particularly, trans+ people who have fought to have the right to their gender identity would be rightfully disappointed if gender was then stripped away from everyone.

Instead, I propose that we all treat the issue of gender with a little less animosity. To our everyday lives, gender shouldn’t be fundamentally important. Beyond knowing someone’s pronouns, which you can easily ask, gender should be someone’s private identity, something they choose to disclose if they feel comfortable doing so. Gender is so often an unnecessary question on forms and documentation, and while race and sexuality tend to have a ‘Prefer not to say’ option, gender – and particularly sex – rarely do. When thought about objectively, it’s rather strange, and a little creepy, that we so carelessly ask for an identifier like sex that basically allows us to imagine someone naked. It’s even more alarming considering the fact that children, from a very young age, are taught to associate gender with sex, giving them the ability to identify someone’s genitals based on their hair and how they dress. Logically, only doctors should be asking for a person’s sex, and gender should be another optional question.

Over time, I hope that gender becomes less of a big deal. At the end of the day, it’s not important unless you want it to be, and in my life – it’s not. Let me be non-binary, let trans+ people be trans+, and let gender be less of a big deal. Are we really going to miss it?

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