Something I’ve been pondering lately: Why are even the most radical among us so timid about making inroads into ending sex segregation?
When I chose to start using neutral pronouns, it was because of my own gender dysphoria. I cannot claim that this personal choice was cool or radical or feminist, because that would be simply to take advantage of my entirely coincidental and pretty much life-long position outside of the binary. But my relatively unusual perspective made me think in different ways. It made me notice stuff.
Like the enforced legal categorisation and segregation of the entire human race.
I started to wonder why on earth we are not kicking up more of a ruckus about this. Babies are born, and, according to nothing more than the appearance of their genitalia, they are immediately assigned a legal status, and a set of linguistic markers that will affect them for the rest of their lives. It’s insane.
It all starts with pronouns
So even though for me, neutral pronouns are a personal choice, I’m making a case for those of us that want to disrupt this system to use sex and gender neutral language more widely. Neutral pronouns do not declare “we are the same” but that we should not be segregated based on our differences. The moment we are forced to categorise people in even the most casual interaction, gender takes on an extra importance and weight. Once we accept the linguistic segregation of “he” and “she” all other segregation follows.
Other than tradition and fear, I can’t find any rationale for this segregation. If gender is completely innate, then gender will happen anyway, pronouns or no. If gender is completely learned, then only those who insist the current order is artificial but necessary could make a case for keeping things as they are.
Homophobia or biphobia may be part of what maintains our need to categorise people with a degree of certainty that also eradicates many trans and intersex identities. But if you believe attraction is natural, then you don’t need to fear what somebody hides beneath their clothes – you will be attracted to whomever you are attracted to. If you are prejudiced, then sure enough you may need people to come with accurate labelling so you can make a choice that suits your prejudices.
Perhaps we don’t need a world that is structured according to the needs of fearful, controlling and phobic people. Perhaps we’re enlightened enough to evolve beyond that.
Separate but Equal
Men continue to convince women that segregation is “for their own good”. The culture of rape within armed services demonstrates that violence is used in part to maintain segregation, and we feminists are often caught in a double bind, preserving this segregation to ensure women’s safety, but in doing so reinforcing the false gender dichotomy that we long to overcome. And so we end up with oxymoronic positions within feminism, like those who would abolish gender but are also strict sex segregationists.
Women are being manipulated into forming a “separate but equal” society, while men continue to create the structures and networks that dominate the world. Recently, David Cameron spoke vociferously against gender segregation in Islamic education. That’s the David Cameron who went to all-boy’s school Eton, just like a rather alarming number of his cabinet colleagues and many other UK leaders and influencers.
Once we who were assigned female at birth dismantle the concept of ourselves as a separate class of beings without any power and therefore without any responsibility for how things are, we have no choice but to see ourselves and be seen as people; people who share responsibility in this world, who have power that waxes and wanes but is rarely zero. We have a capacity for strength, for violence, for change, for peace, for agency. Our vulnerability and precarious position is not disputed, but neither is it absolute or unchangeable.
It’s not about making us all the same
I’m not an assimilationist; I don’t want to wash the whole world together until we all become chewing gum grey; I get bugged by some other androgynous folks that believe what comes naturally to them is therefore some sort of ideal for everyone; my blood chills at the idea of a “utopia” where we all wear trousers and sensible shoes, or where anybody’s freedom of expression or bodily autonomy are curtailed.
Nor am I a liberal feminist; I don’t want women to simply move on up and claim a bigger place in the patriarchy. I dream of something much more radical – to dismantle the structures that rigidify our concepts of sex and gender and impose any kind of control, hierarchy or false dichotomy on them. I don’t want us to abolish sex and gender but rather to liberate them – to let them run free on the grass and do what they will.
Could changing our language be a step towards achieving this? And if so, why is it so difficult a move for even the most radical of feminists to attempt? My suggestion to all reading this is to attempt to stop assigning gender-based or sex-based language, descriptions, pronouns and terms. Try it for a day – see how it feels, see how difficult it is. Us feminists are sometimes the worst offenders, so focussed on gender that we often perpetuate the very social constructs we are trying to dismantle. I’m guilty of it all the time, but I’m trying, and in trying I am learning what a complex web we are entangled in.
I would love to rest in the binary archetype of passive victim, lacking in agency and responsibility for the ills of the world, but I rather think that as well as being trapped in this web, I, like everybody else, play my part in weaving it, and my use of language is one of the ways I participate in either changing things or keeping them as they are.
So when someone tells you sex is biological, please remind them – “sex” is a word, a category, an idea, an emphasis, a legal classification, an assignment – none of these things is in itself biology, and all these things are inherently changeable.
(Update: I would like to make it clear that I absolutely uphold the right for all trans people to use their chosen pronouns and this blog is about evolving, not enforcing changes in language)