The end of gender?

The media has been aflutter lately with gender panic. News of genderless children, boys with pink toenails and now genderless preschools have had the press questioning whether we might be at the end of gender.

I can only dream.

Gender, if we look past the headlines, is alive and well. And to be honest, I would never push for the end of gender. Despite identifying as genderqueer myself (which I define as a recognition of my discomfort with the gender I was assigned at birth–female), I would never advocate for a move toward a gender-blind society. On the one hand I think it’s an unrealistic goal, and on the other hand I think gender is pretty damn cool. I think it gives us a context through which to express ourselves, understand ourselves, relate to our bodies and to the world.

What I would advocate for, however, is an end to forcible gender categorization and policing. I think the stereotypes that go along with gender identity–the characteristics we very quickly ascribe to women and men–are really limiting and damaging. We have made a lot of assumptions about how men and women differ. These differences are loosely attributed to biology but often go way beyond what we might actually know about the impact of hormones and genitalia on a person’s life.

It’s impossible to separate the impact of biology from the impact of socialization because it’s unethical to raise people in vacuums and see what trends develop across gendered lines without socialization. We may never know exactly how the characteristics we use to place newborns into gender boxes impact each of us.

But what I do know is that these gender delineations are really powerful tools of sexism.

If you can’t differentiate between the two groups, how can you treat them differently? And if you can’t ascribe characteristics of inferiority to one group, how can you ensure the dominance of the other?

Sexism very clearly uses and perpetuates belief in inherent gender difference. Women are weaker, more emotional, more volatile, less intelligent, not as good at math and science goes the stereotypes. Promoting these ideas as biological facts allows for discrimination to be justified.

The Swedish preschool making news for enforcing gender neutrality is taking an interesting step toward creating an equitable environment. They take as a basic principle that separate can never be equal, and that even from difference, value can be inferred. It’s an idea that we have by no means embraced when it comes to gender.

AT THE Egalia preschool in Stockholm, gendered pronouns are out. Staff avoid using words such as ”him” or ”her” and address the 33 children as ”friends” rather than girls and boys. From the colour and placement of toys to the choice of books, every detail has been carefully planned to make sure the children don’t fall into gender stereotypes. ”Society expects girls to be girlie, nice and pretty and boys to be manly, rough and outgoing,” says Jenny Johnsson, a 31-year-old teacher. ”Egalia gives them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want.”

While I might consider their tactics to be a bit extreme, I think the ideology behind the curriculum makes sense, as does the ideology behind Storm’s parents decision not to gender their infant. Gender is intrinsically and forcibly scripted into everything we do, how we live our lives. In order to counteract these norms, we have to approach things with an entirely different lens. Working with young children seems like a logical place to start, as they often demonstrate exactly how our norms about gender are learned.

Join the Conversation

  • KaraC

    Interesting article – thank you! The school idea is a little extreme as you say. I would prefer that, rather than “eliminate gender” society gave people the freedom to allow people to move back and forth along the gender spectrum.

  • nazza

    To quote Churchill, and respond to your title, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

  • Kyrie

    I am curious to see how this unfolds. It is strange how labels work and don’t work in our society. As a culture we’ve been so married to the concept of the nuclear family that a lot of us, even though we do not really fit in that framework, have been in a position of what seems like suspended animation. It’s a long road to climb but even one step gives us that much needed breath of real fresh air. Thank you for your writing.

  • Raymond Ferreira

    I’m not one to usually disagree with the ideas proposed by an article, but occasionally this has to be done. Firstly, I disagree that that which is “impossible” should not be attempted. The impossibility of something, in this case eradicating gender, provides us not with a limit, but rather something to push against.
    I agree that forcible gendering is damaging, but is there really anything damaging about attempting to create a gender neutral society. After all, gender neutrality is equivalent to ending gender. Some may disagree with me here, but let me explain. A truly gender neutral society wouldn’t provide a system of class distinction that reflects power dynamics. In fact, the assumption would be that gender would not play into power dynamics since the binary would hold not power. If this is the case, does the binary still exist? No, and neither does the so called gender spectrum which is just a play on the binary system.
    Now, yes, gender can serve as a way of relating one’s body to the world as a whole, gender is also a system that creates and reaffirms inequality. This very point is affirmed by Miriam herself. So what is so bad about the system, or the rather rejection of the stymieing system? Should these people not be praised for their “extremism”? I would say no. No one should be praised for doing the right thing, but we should at least acknowledge that they are attempting to promote an equal society in some small department of our complex identities.
    Maybe this is the end of the beginning, but we cannot reject a goal because it is impossible.

  • A Viescas

    Gender is overrated. There are loads more ways to define oneself than a binary link that will never escape its biological connotations no matter how hard we try or the awkward “two plus” solution that we as a community eventually settle for, with a metaphorical shoulder shrug.

    It’s difficult to fight, sure, but that doesn’t mean we have to lie down and live with it.

  • Carolyn

    I definitely applaud Egalia preschool for making efforts to ensure that their students are not defined by their gender but rather given the opportunity to be grow based on their own individual preferences. I would love to know how much of an influence these practices will have on the children’s views about gender in a few years. The rest of the world could definitely learn a thing or two from Sweden.