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September 19, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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It’s not as Simple as just Boys and Girls

The biggest problem with dealing with gender and identity, is that most of us will never really need to consider it. So why should anyone else?

Much like sexuality and race, gender is only a sensitive topic for a minority of people—those directly affected by it. Cisgendered people are born identifying with the sex they are born with, so if your genitals naturally match the gender you think you are, you are cisgendered. As an uncomfortable compromise in this article, I will simply refer to cisgendered or non-cisgendered people, avoiding terms like transsexual or genderqueer as they may offend some non-cisgendered! Even the closest friends and relatives of a non-cisgendered person (someone who wasn’t born identifying with the sexual organs they were born with) can find talking gender a veritible minefield, after the long, intense discussions about how to refer to their nearest and dearest. The complaint I frequently heard during research was that every person not only has a preferred way to refer to their gender, but in many cases they pushed their definitions on everyone else—that is, there is no hard and fast rule, at all, when it comes to how, when and where to ask who is what!
Surely, many of you are thinking; gender lines are drawn with males on one side, females on the other, and a hazy gray line in between, just to cover our bases. Well, unfortunately, not at all. John Money, a somewhat controversial expert in the field of gender, writes,

In popularized and scientifically debased usage, sex is what you are biologically; gender is what you become socially; gender identity is your own sense or conviction of maleness or femaleness; and gender role is the cultural stereotype of what is masculine and feminine.

So, your sex is defined by your genitalia and chromosomes, gender is more socially/culturally defined, and one’s gender identity is what the individual feels they are. Even sex can be hotly debated. Some people have ambiguous genitalia, genitals which aren’t definitively male or female. Some people have chromosomes which do not match their genitalia! Some further redefine sex, citing brain chemistry. It’s all quite messy, and irrelevant to what is estimated at 99 out of 100 people. But that one person in a hundred who earns the badge of ‘different,’ well, that one person is in for a hard life, often from birth. It’s not their fault.

cisgendered (physically and mentally, entirely male or female) have to find a way to function in a society where even the toilets tell us we are male, female or physically disabled. Part of this requires fitting into the language of “he” “she” or “it,” and answering the uncomfortable “so what are you” question. Now, there are ways around gendered words. There is a small but relevant movement online to use gender neutral pronouns for not only non-cisgendered, but also objects, online personas, robots and nongendered characters. Normalising gender neutral pronouns, such as ne/nem/nir (ne laughed, I called nem, nir eyes gleam, that is nirs) may make huge inroads into normalising non-cisgendered people. Gender neutral pronouns enable everyone to avoid awkward situations, where no one has to confront the gender question within minutes of meeting (as a cisgendered woman who is regularly attributed masculine descriptors, I’d certainly appreciate it). So, picking a brand of gender neutral pronouns (there are six ‘commonly used’ different sets for English), and integrating them into everyday use may help.

Why is normalising, and finding an appropriate way to approach a noncisgendered person important? If estimates are correct, and around 1 per cent of the population is non-cisgendered, you’re looking at 210 non cisgendered in the Victoria University student population, 5000 in Wellington as a whole. While cisgendered people are the majority, being non-cisgendered is not that unusual, and our language needs to reflect this important minority. If you know how to interact with someone without causing embarassment and anger on one/both sides, then life becomes much easier. Interacting with someone visibly different does not become such an uncomfortable affair, and it is easier to give an otherwise normal conversation some much deserved normality.

At the same time, if a noncisgendered person feels that they are, say, female, they have probably fought so many battles on their sexuality that referring to them in a gender neutral sense may be incredibly hurtful. You simply do not know how someone ideally wants to be treated until stepping out of line. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is as much genuine confusion, misunderstandings, and arguments within non-cisgendered, non-heterosexual communities as there is within society as a whole.

When it comes down to it, any kind of label, whether accurate in our eyes or not, may offend, even if (as I found out the hard way), the label is ‘cisgendered’ and applied to those who haven’t given their sex a second thought. Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, we all mistakenly mistreat each other in a variety of ways when we first meet them, so pick the path of least resistance, and if you know they are non-cisgendered, don’t be afraid to politely ask. There is an enormous difference between asking someone ‘what’ they are, and asking them how to refer to them. Commonly, the answer will be “call me by my name,” which gramatically can be a bit hard at first but well worth the respect and smiles you get in return. “Labels are strange to me. “Transgender” feels weird enough coming out of my mouth, let alone something as abrasively in-your-face as “genderqueer.” Ultimately, the only label that I’m truly comfortable with is “Me”.”(

The only truly positive way to move forward, and the most common request, is that non-cisgendered people are just allowed to exist without another battle. Working out how to talk to people is enough to push some people back into angry, intentional ignorance. The joy of being treated as the gender one wishes to be perceived as is great, but when actually engaging in conversation, leaving gender entirely out of it and talking to a non-cisgendered person as a real live, normal, human being who isn’t defined by gender is even better.

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