I do wish people would stop writing wild guesswork articles about long-gone cultures with different numbers of genders as if it proves anything about ‘gender identity’. Words and ideas change with every new generation, so I don’t know how those people thought, and I’m yet to be convinced that the writers of these articles do. I do know a fair bit about language though.
Oh those German girls!
Linguistically speaking, ‘gender’ is a grammatical feature that most languages use, one way or another, to categorise people and things. It often includes a word for ‘masculine’ nouns and a word for ‘feminine’ nouns, and they are generally applied to people and animals according to sex. Not always – the word for ‘girl’ in German for example, is neuter, not feminine.
Eeee I remember when…
So yes – some cultures categorised people in ways other than or additional to ‘male’ and ‘female’. There’s nothing there to wax lyrical about – categorisation beyond the utilitarian is a sign of repression, not tolerance. (How progressive would it be if our millionaire Tories started experimenting with a caste system for claimants and non-cliamants, or born Brits and immigrants, citing those groovy, beautifully well-defined classical Indian cultures, or adopted classic French or Spanish style pronouns to indicate social status?)
Didn’t we have all this gender-role dictation damn nigh sorted in the ’70s and ’80s though? Most people then were happily picking and choosing hair styles, clothes, names, mannerisms and everything else from both the male and the female traditions of our own culture and from any other culture they managed to grab some ideas about.
Talking of appropriation…
That was also the era of ‘New Age’ experimentation. I loved all that – but I also felt somewhat sceptical of the myriad articles doing the rounds at that time about Native American and Indian shamanism, and Southern American voodoo and other mysterious goings on. The writers understood all this stuff in such detail… somehow. They’d probably been on drug-induced astral journeys to research it all.
Get back in your box
Now, times are harder, people are less tolerant, and so everyone starts feeling the need to find a category with a label and stick to it.
I hesitate to say anything about my sexual history for example, because people will start wanting to work out if I’m ‘bi’ or even ‘non-binary’. Back in the days when I did have girlfriends – it happened, because I’m not prejudiced, that’s how I see it – (I am quite willing to accept that’s not how it is for other people – we are not all the same) but when it did happen, I was supposed to worry about whether I was a ‘butch’ or a ‘femme’.
No one wanted to apply a label to the fact that I generally lived in jeans and scruffy jumpers though – plenty of people did that, then, so it didn’t need one. At least I’ve found the term ‘gnc’ now (gender-non-conforming) that’s not a category, it’s the rejection of a category so I’ll (grudgingly) accept it as applying to me.
Follow the money
And the other reason this ‘weren’t they wonderful, they had 5 genders’ line is silly is that as far as I’ve seen, no-one has come up with any evidence that those categories interfered with any of the sex-based rules that are currently under dispute in the UK. I bet all those tribes could tell male from female. I bet they knew who was likely to get pregnant and who might or might not have been the cause of it. I bet they knew who went in the red tent (or whatever) and who went in the warriors’ lodge (or whatever). And I absolutely guarantee that they weren’t selling hormone treatments, facial re-alignment or mastectomies to kids who looked like they didn’t fit.
If it’s different for girls, then sex matters
I saw a film on Facebook the other day praising the ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’ mood in Indonesia, that ‘allows’ feminine boys to become ladyboys, tart themselves up and work in nightclubs. How lovely! … Wouldn’t it be more liberal to leave feminine boys to do anything they damn well want to? And what happens to girls who don’t conform? If those countries so famous for sex-tourism and wives-for-sale are so liberal, why is it that lesbians in the UK are setting up refugee services especially for lesbian asylum seekers who turn up, often alone and in a terrible state, from Africa and the Middle and Far East, all telling stories of families who really would rather have a dead daughter than an unmarriagable one?
The men who know what lesbians look like
Oh and – the reason we need volunteers to provide special services to help lesbians is this: our oh-so wise immigration offices tend to reject women’s claims for asylum on the grounds of lesbianism if they ‘don’t look like a lesbian’. One of the most memorable moments at a recent feminist conference I attended came from a young woman whose permission to stay in this country hangs on that. “Please, please explain to me,” she said, “tell me what a lesbian looks like, so I can do it and get asylum granted.” – that is where prescribed categorisation gets you.
Sex is still sex
Whether it’s Munroe Bergdorf waxing lyrical on how ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ Brighton is for producing so many ‘trans’ and ‘non binary’ kids; or Goldsmith’s in London replacing the word ‘woman’ with a new cateogory ‘womxn’ which, according to Sophie Cook, “is more inclusive of groups such as women of colour”; or Scotland, negotiating its way to ‘a third gender’ – well, if that’s what rocks your boat, then fine – but if you’re going to reduce the categories of ‘women’ and ‘men’ to their stereotypes and put everyone else in a more groovy category in between, please ask yourselves why you’re doing it because sex is still sex and somehow, when the forces of prejudice and oppression are at work, they always seem to root out the female of the species, however she may be disguised.
For as long as that goes on, the sex class formerly known as ‘women’ will continue to campaign against being labelled, categorised, marginalised, short-changed and generally left out.