Ever since I found my own gender (in 2019) I’ve noticed that I’ve become highly attuned to the subject. Gender wasn’t something I knew much about, growing up, even as – for my fem studies honors thesis – I delved into a fictional world that featured a genderless Amazonian tribe. Even though the main character, Sam Costa, was supposed to be a Ph.D. gender studies (and, like the other protagonist, Pat, had a deliberately gender-ambiguous name). Throughout all of this, I believed that “gender” wasn’t real. I thought that gender was 100% a social creation, and the only “real” thing was your body’s sex, which I thought depended on chromosomes and couldn’t be changed.
This was in 2013. The terminology for non-binary people hadn’t been developed, or at least my Google searches didn’t unearth it. No one used “they” pronouns. In a first draft, I used “they” pronouns (which use I thought I’d invented myself) to refer to the characters from the genderless tribe. My writing advisor (Pulitzer-prize-winning Adam Johnson) sent in back in disgust. “This is way too confusing. Who are ‘they’?” I rewrote the whole thing to meticulously avoid ANY mention of pronouns for the genderless characters, without sounding awkward, and that’s how it got submitted.
Now we’re a mere seven years later. But if you say “non-binary” today, most people don’t think you’re talking about computers. We’ve made some advances. And what particularly surprises me most is how far upwards these advances have traveled. It’s not just a small group of rebels. It’s becoming mainstream.
The first time I really noticed this was in a webinar I was watching: a presentation from my workplace, upwork.com. During the presentation, the following slide came up:
And… yes? What about it? It’s just a person in an office. And I say, exactly. A person. Not a guy in an office, not a girl in an office, but a person: a human being. And what’s their sex, male or female? I can’t tell. After a gut reaction of trying to figure it out, and drawing a blank, I gave up trying.
Is this person non-binary? Possibly. I don’t know without asking them. But even if they’re not non-binary, I think that whoever designed this slide did a very forward-thinking thing. By including an image of someone whom you can’t obviously classify as male or female, the slide designer forces us to take a step back, and realise that we’re unconsciously dividing humanity into these classifications.
Of course, this photo isn’t perfect. It may feed a bigger misconception: that non-binary people need to dress androgynously to express their non-binariness. This is false. Non-binary people can dress however they want. A female-bodied non-binary person might want to wear a sleeveless dress and a padded bra. It doesn’t make them a woman – just presenting, momentarily, as such. A male-bodied non-binary person might want to wear a tux and sport a goatee. It doesn’t make them a guy. Non-binary people who are gender-fluid feel like women one day, and men the next; and we should allow them to dress however they want without assuming their genders.
This slide, while leaps and bounds ahead of many gender-related things that I’ve seen, isn’t perfect. We’re not 100% there yet. But the slide should, at least, make most people stop and question their assumptions. For example, the presenter is female-bodied. (You can see them on the left.) I’d hastily assumed that they were a woman. But this might not be the case!
Why is it that we attach so much importance to knowing whether someone is female or male – “woman” or “man”, in many people’s minds? Why can you start a story with “I saw a guy” or “I saw a gal”, and no one will ask about their height or their race, but if you start with “I saw a person”, they’ll look at you funny. Why is it that parents feel so much better the moment they know the sex of their unborn baby? This tells you nothing about their gender. Sure, it tells you is what their gender will PROBABLY be. But you might be wrong. And – in the rare case when you are – these non-binary or mis-gendered kids will be much better off if our society just accepts that an error has been made – that an error can be made – and starts treating them as the gender that they really are. (Including medical treatment if they need it!)
Here’s an interesting observation that I made in the novel that I wrote for my fem studies honors project. My character was trying to remember the details around a boy who’d been in a poetry class that she took as an undergrad:
What about this “poetry-boy”; this is: what did I know about him? I told myself: nothing; however, this is not entirely true. I knew that he was a boy. I knew this much for certain: his sex; beyond that, I could question everything else. And it didn’t bother me. As long as I had that baseline I could visualize a (generic) male and put him in poetry-boy’s shoes; this would appease me.
That was written in 2013, or maybe in 2012. Today it’s almost a decade past that. And today, finally, I see some things changing. Today, finally, some people are aware that gender is not bodily sex. I hope that, in the future, people are okay with not having this baseline of sex. I hope that our kids – or maybe our kids’ kids – are okay with just remembering people as people, without caring whether their bodies were female or male.