So this is how I've started to think about gender. It is just a metaphor.
Once upon a time there was a country called Gender. The country consisted mainly of two large cities, one called Male and one called Female. Most people lived in one of the cities, and people who didn't were frowned on, but sometimes someone would leave one city and go and live in the other, if they were allowed in. Other times, people would visit the other city and come back.
Some people didn't want to live in the cities at all. They left and went to the space in between, or to a different part of the country altogether, and built their own houses there. They even founded villages with other people who didn't take to city life.
Some of the people who'd left tried to persuade the city-dwellers that it was OK not to live in a city. Just because most people lived in cities, they argued, it didn't mean that everyone had to, or that cities were better than villages, any more than villages were better than cities. But most of the city dwellers were very suspicious of the people who'd left, and often mocked them or even hurt them, because they felt that leaving the cities was weird and wrong, even though it wasn't doing anyone any harm.
(Responsibility for this metaphor rests entirely with me. This metaphor is entirely my own opinion and is not legally binding. Use of this metaphor is at your own risk.)
I'm someone who's always lived in the city of Female, but I know quite a few people who have gone visiting, or have rejected city life altogether*. They might describe themselves as nonbinary, non-gendered, genderqueer, genderfree, trans, androgynous or all or none of the above or something else entirely. What they have in common is that they can't or won't fit into a simple binary definition of male or female.
For example, when I asked some friends to describe their gender in one or two sentences, the answers included:
"Fluid, intermediate, opportunist, and very much free from gender when I am alone. It's others who gender me. I just do what I can to work that system in work and social situations." (Ash)
"The flip answer would be something like "Not as simple as you think it is". The sensible answer would be something like "One of the many datapoints which combine to make the person I am." (Klepsie)
"Indecisive tomboy feminine-in-some-ways dandy butch genderqueer woman. I think. Today, anyway." (Yoyo)
"I've never really had a gender identity - I can't decide if it's more like being ambidextrous, or more like being tone-deaf." (Ed)
This is obviously a world away from the way many people think about gender. It makes it clear that pink and blue aren't the only colours in the world - no matter what toy shops may believe. So why do we feel the need to be so rigid about being male or female, and about what that means? Why do we teach young people that they have to fit neatly and naturally into one box or the other in order to be acceptable?
Rose Fox comments:
"A friend of mine has a delightful young child, M, who drew a picture of "mom's friends" for school. M explained to her fellow classmates that the person with the short hair is Rose, who is a girl, and the person with the long hair is Dave, who is a boy. The five-year-olds had no problem with this. Why should they?
Another friend's nine-year-old, Y, met me shortly after I'd buzzed off all my hair. "You look like a boy!" Y declared. "Thank you!" I said. Over dinner, I mentioned something I was doing that's culturally male-coded, and Y exclaimed, "Wow, you really ARE like a boy!" I replied, "That's right: a boy who likes to knit and wear dresses." Other than that, gender was not at all a topic of conversation, and Y seemed perfectly comfortable hanging out with me and chatting about subway trains and origami and other items of mutual interest.
...So, no, I don't think my mere existence poses a danger to children, nor do I think I should somehow be hidden away from them in order to protect their fragile little minds. They don't know anything about sex or gender until we tell them, so why shouldn't we tell them the whole story?"
Klepsie agrees: "The vast majority of things in life which are presented dualistically are in fact not so, and children are going to learn about these things one way or another - why not make sure that they get accurate information?"
Giving people more information about how other people work doesn't spell decadence, doom or the end of civilisation as we know it. Nat of Practical Androgyny says:
It is my experience that children are happily open minded to the idea that someone could be neither [male nor female]. I often turn back the question when kids ask me if I'm a boy or a girl, asking which they think I am and if they think it matters. I've yet to receive a negative reaction from doing this. I was once amused to cause a group of children to argue amongst themselves shouting, "He's a girl! No, she's a boy!"
And Ed points out that:
"If you made everyone in the world think about their socks for ten minutes, then many people would probably decide to buy more interesting socks. But loads of people would still identify as men or women (and most people would stick with their existing socks)."
All that's required here, to go back to my original metaphor, is more freedom for people to get out of the city if they want to, take a deep breath, and explore their surroundings.
I asked my friends other questions about gender too - read the full text here.
*This is mainly because I attend BiCon, the excellent UK annual bisexual convention/conference, which attracts any and all genders.