The End Of Gender?

June 23, 2011

Linton Weeks

Look closely and you may see signposts.

• Kathy Witterick and her husband, David Stocker, are raising their four month old child, Storm, without revealing the child's gender. According to the birth announcement from the Toronto couple: "We've decided not to share Storm's sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm's lifetime (a more progressive place? ...)."
• Andrej Pejic, an androgynous Australian model, worked both the male and female runways at the Paris fashion shows earlier this year.
• A recent J. Crew catalogue drew national attention when the company features a young boy with his toenails painted pink.

Could we be heading toward the end of gender?

And by gender we mean, according to Merriam-Webster, "the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex." In other words, the cultural expectations that go along with saying that someone is a boy or a girl. In other other words, not someone's sex — their gender.

"Sex differences are real and some are probably present at birth, but then social factors magnify them," says Lise Eliot, an associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It. "So if we, as a society, feel that gender divisions do more harm than good, it would be valuable to break them down. "

As history shows, one enterprise in which Americans excel is the breaking down of divisions.

Gender Neutrality

Perhaps you have a friend or family member who is more comfortable with a new gender. Or maybe you have had dealings with someone of indeterminate gender in the checkout line. Maybe you have seen the old "It's Pat" routines from Saturday Night Live.

Because there is a growing societal awareness of gender consciousness and of a certain blurriness of genders, the question "Is it a boy or a girl?" may not just be for expectant parents anymore.

And so what. Does gender matter? In a country with the ideal of treating everyone fairly and equitably, do we really need to know if someone is a boy or a girl? These questions are driving decisions and actions around the country.

* In Muskegon, Michigan, officials at Mona Shores High School declared this year's prom court would be gender-neutral — with no "kings" and "queens" --after denying a transgender student the homecoming-king crown last year.

* In Johnson City, Tennessee, East Tennessee State University recently announced that it is exploring gender-neutral housing for students – following the lead of Stanford University, the University of Michigan, Rutgers University and other colleges. These are not just coed dorms, but dorms for anyone regardless of how they express their gender. The roommate you choose can be gay or straight or whatever.

* Around the beginning of this year, the State Department began using gender-neutral language on U. S. passports — replacing "Father" and "Mother" with "Parent One" and Parent Two" — to make it simpler for nontraditional parents, beyond the male/female combination, to get passports for their children.

Everywhere you turn, it seems, there is talk of gender-neutral this and gender-free that: baby bedding (Wild Safari by Carousel); fashion (Kanye West in a Celine women's shirt); Bibles (the New International Version).

Gender neutrality, writes one blogging parent, is the new black.

'High-Stakes Social Constructions'

A female-to-male transsexual and advocate for transgender rights, Dean Spade writes often about gender issues. Spade is an assistant professor at Seattle University School of Law and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City that offers free legal guidance to transgender, intersex and gender nonconforming clients.

In a 2008 paper, Documenting Gender, Spade examines the gender reclassification polices of public agencies and departments in the United States. In the past 40 years, Spade observes, society has come to recognize the existence of a group of people, currently known as "transgender," who identify with and live as a different gender than the one assigned to them when they were born.

In an interview, Spade makes a passionate pitch for the elimination of gender categorization in most government recordkeeping. "I really don't think that data needs to be on our ID's or gathered by most agencies and institutions," Spade says. Tagging someone as female or male "enforces binary gender norms and it pretends that gender is a more stable category of identity than it actually is."

Spade says, "I can see why we might want institutions to be aware of gender at a general level in order to engage in remediation of the sexism and transphobia that shape our world."

For example, Spade says, gender-based affirmative action — that rectifies discrimination against women — might be called for in certain programs and institutions "so we might want institutions to do an analysis of who is getting to participate." But, Spade adds, in order to gain a general idea of the gender makeup of a particular population, it is not necessary to then turn around and post that information on a particular participant's personal record.

Developing policies to counter the impact of sexism and transphobia, Spade adds, does not require a belief that gender categories are "real — stable, unchangeable, natural. We can engage such strategies while understanding that gender categories are high-stakes social constructions deployed in ways that endanger and harm socially determined groups."

Boychicks

To chronicle her adventures in gender-neutral parenting, Arwyn Daemyir writes a blog called Raising My Boychick. She describes herself as "a walking contradiction: knitting feminist fulltime parent, Wiccan science-minded woowoo massage therapist, queer-identified male-partnered monogamist, body-loving healthy-eating fat chick, unmedicated mostly-stable bipolar."

She describes her boychick, born in March 2007, as a "male-assigned at birth — and so far apparently comfortable with that assignment, white, currently able-bodied, congenitally hypothyroid, cosleeper, former breastfed toddler, elimination communication graduate, sling baby and early walker, trial and terror, clichéd light of our life, and impetus for the blog. Odds are good he will be the most privileged of persons: a middle class, able bodied, cisgender, straight, white male."

The adjective, cisgender – as opposed to transgender – describes someone who is at peace with the gender he or she was assigned at birth.

Daemyir lives in Portland Oregon. She and her straight male partner are expecting another baby in September.

For Daemyir, gender-neutral parenting is not an attempt to eliminate gender, "because the 70s'-era gender neutral parenting movement proved that's not possible."

But, she adds, she has concerns about the ways we designate and segregate gender in public, "starting with the idea that there are two-and-only-two genders — a construction, and a myth, in our society that excludes many."

To that end, Daemyir supports, among other changes, gender-non-designated single stall bathrooms and an option for unisex washrooms and locker rooms. "Right now, when an establishment only has one toilet stall, of course it is non-gendered. Why, when there is room for two, must they arbitrarily be designated for 'Men' and 'Women'? When a place has room enough for several large rooms of toilets and free-standing single-stalls, why must they all be gendered, when it would be as easy to make some single-gendered and some not, giving people the ability to make choices that are most comfortable or convenient for them?"

Daemyir does not think that eliminating all single-gender areas "is beneficial or safe either, necessarily, but ... we over-designate many of these things when it's simply not necessary, and actively harms a particularly marginalized population — people with non-binary genders."

Lise Eliot, the neuroscience professor, is not so sure about total change. "Perhaps I'm too old-school — or fussy-- to argue for the elimination of men's and women's bathrooms," Eliot says, " but certainly employment forms and loan applications should not require gender information. Also, if parents did not buy into the gender stereotyping of children's toys and clothes, kids would stay open-minded longer during childhood. The goal is to keep girls physically active, curious and assertive, and boys sensitive, verbal and studious."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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