When I was a young kid, I went to kind of a posh school. Later, when I read Harry Potter, I got this flash of recognition when I saw how the kids were sorted into different “houses”. Because that’s how it was at my school. Well, none of us were magical, and nobody was evil, but there really were differences between the kids from different houses.
Drake kids always won at sports. Head girls always came from Raleigh. Drake and Raleigh competed for the most house points and the most prizes.
And then there was my house – Grenville. To this day I have no idea who “Grenville” was, but even at age 8 I had heard of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh and knew I had been shortchanged. Grenvilles were not the important ones. Grenvilles didn’t sing the solo first verse of Once in Royal David City at the annual carol concert. Grenvilles didn’t win prizes. Grenvilles were never good at sports. Grenvilles were frequently nerds, but never in a shiningly clever way.
I never really gave this much thought until Harry Potter came along. Only when I saw that Sorting Hat did it sink in. What sorting process assigned us to our houses on the first day of school, age five? How did they know we were going to be Raleigh types, Drake types, or those inferior Grenville types?
Of course, my school had no mystical sorting hat. The somewhat unnerving conclusion, then, was that being randomly assigned as a Grenville, a Raleigh or a Drake had some influence over our school successes, possibly over our very characters. Just a name, and yet it became so much more. It became an identity. It moulded us. There was a Raleigh culture, a Drake culture, a Grenville culture, that subtly shaped who we became.
The persistence of culture
Culture is a hard thing to understand. We like to think if we’re not in control of it ourselves, that someone at least is. I want to believe, since I was one of the poorer kids in my school that we Grenvilles were assigned from the poorer families – that it was oppression at work, and that’s why we never shone.
Except I’m pretty sure Jessica in the class below me was a Grenville and she came to school in a Daimler.
So maybe it really was random, how these cultures came to be.
A senior fireman once explained to me how individual firehouse cultures emerge across a city:
“There’s one where everyone’s always falling out, they just can’t work together. Another where they’re so committed, they all volunteer, work with local youth. Another where nobody washes up and the posters on the wall are all torn and scruffy and nobody seems to care about anything.”
He had been in the job more than 20 years. Some of the firehouses he knew had none of the same people in them that had been there when he started. Every single person had changed, but the culture remained the same. Culture can be unplanned, unpremeditated, but still difficult to shake free of.
The culture of gender
When we’re born, we have genitals, and you really cannot get away from that fact. There are things we call penises, and things we call vaginas, and there are intersex genitals that take a bit more working out and alas, are often unnecessarily operated on because we feel so very strongly that we need to turn these basic little biological differences into the ultimate version of the Hogwarts Sorting Hat.
We will look at your genitals, and place you in a house for life. There can be only two houses, so we’ll cut you if you don’t quite fit. And upon entry into these houses, you will be inducted into a pre-loaded culture that is somewhat random but nevertheless inexorably self-perpetuating. Oh, and structurally oppressive towards one of the two houses, let’s not forget that.
This is why trans folk are resistant to the term “biological sex” because biological sex is the sorting hat, or at least what the sorting hat pretends to be – in fact, that process of naming and allocating and segregating for life is more about gender than it is about sex – it’s a social construction, of course it is. We can’t deny our genitals, but just as race and eye colour and religion don’t find their way onto legal documents (heaven forbid), so our genital configuration takes on another layer of meaning through the process of becoming a legal entity. It goes from an attribute to an identity. So our sex takes on an importance beyond mere biology, and sex becomes a term more loaded than it deserves.
The counter-culture of trans people
If culture is self-perpetuating, gender variant folks could be mother nature’s safety valve, an essential ingredient to help us adapt, innovate and change course.
Because you see, when the gender sorting hat gets placed on our head, what it says out loud is different from what’s whispered in our ear.
Imagine if the Sorting Hat told the room you were Slytherin, but whispered “you’re really Ravenclaw, but don’t tell anyone”. The Slytherin attributes just wouldn’t stick in the same way, you would find stuff about yourself that better matched the Ravenclaw mould – in thinking of yourself as Ravenclaw, you would become more Ravenclaw.
Growing up with an instinct that tells you you’ve been assigned to the wrong house, or indeed that this whole Sorting Hat business is entirely dubious, gives a different perspective, helps shake gender out of its habitual grooves. I do believe nature sows the seeds of transness in its infinite variation. We have our cultures too, and create our own “houses”, but our variations are beautiful and important, helping the world understand that the two-house system is flawed and inaccurate and permeable.