Are you a boy or a girl?

16 06 2014

Right Bathroom?

There is something deeply hardwired in us that demands an answer to that question.  It is the first thing we take note of whenever we meet a new person.  At birth or even before, it’s the first thing to be established, the first, biggest piece of your identity.  Even when meeting somebody’s pet, we want to get the pronoun right.  To help us along, we color-code our children and choose pink and purple when buying a collar for our female dog or cat.

There are silly but very telling examples of this.  In the popular online game Team Fortress 2 there is a character called Pyro who goes about heavily covered head to boot in fireproof gear.  The persona for the character is that of a frightening, psychotic maniac who scares even fellow teammates.  In a particularly perverse and intriguing move, Valve, the creators of TF2, are deliberated coy about Pyro’s gender.  They salt the backstory of the game with “clues” that imply Pyro might be female.  The result is fascinating.

There is an on-going debate about it on discussion boards that won’t go away in spite of several efforts to end it by definitively “proving” that Pyro is male.  All tongue-in-cheek of course, and yet some folks get extremely upset and adamant about it.  The very suggestion that this character might not be clearly defined as male seems somehow threatening, and Valve refuses to settle it.

Why does this matter so to people?

A particularly butch lesbian working as a waitress gets asked by a very young child, “Are you a boy or a girl?”  The child’s parents are horrified, but in truth they’d be asking the same thing if they weren’t too polite.  The question becomes an aggressive accusation, dripping with contempt, when asked by people who wish to imply that a person’s gender ambiguity is immoral and upsetting.  Even commentators who are trying to be even-handed get all caught up in the pronoun problem.  Do they call a transgender person by their birth gender or their assumed gender?  Which do you use for a cross-dresser?  It becomes a dilemma of grand proportion to people.

As I shared what I was writing with my son, since I was making reference to one of his favorite games, he rolled his eyes and sighed.  “You call them whatever they want to be called,” he said like it was obvious.  “What does it matter?”

Bless his heart.

One hopes that we can, as a society, someday reach that same level of equanimity with respect to gender.  But I think that may be the best that we can hope for.  Even if we are content to let gender identification be a matter of self-declaration and not imposed from without; even if we move beyond standard gender roles and color-coding our pets and kids (and it’s a perverse blow for equality of the sexes that fans can seriously entertain the possibility that Pyro could be female); we still need to have the label.  At our deepest level, we don’t want a genderless pronoun.

However we arrive at the conclusion, we need to know if it’s a boy or a girl.




2 responses

16 06 2014

I took one of those silly FB ‘what ____ are you? quizzes the other day, and actually was stopped cold by the boy or girl question. I didn’t want to pick one. That’s a bit odd, and the first time I ever hesitated. Hmm.

17 06 2014
Mary Jolles

I don’t think it is hard wired in us, as much as it is a societal teaching. And you are absolutely right, it does become something people worry about because they want to make sure they address the person they are talking to in the “appropriate” way. Men talk differently to men than they do to women, and vice-versa. There are many reasons for this, part of which is a sense of sharing something in common with the person. A man can joke around with another man about male topics, and a woman can joke with another woman about how dense men can be sometimes. Imagine the embarrassment when you find out the person you thought you could joke with is actually someone who found your joke offensive.

But some of the societal expectations are hard on us “tomboys.” After surgery and multiple blood transfusions at age six and coming home from the hospital, I disturbed my mother with my active antics. She scolded me with the comment, “They must have given you boy’s blood in the hospital!” As a teen, and even as a young married adult (skinny then) I was mistaken a number of times for a male, which I found annoying only because the persons who had mistakenly identified my gender either argued with me (“You’re not a girl!?!?”) or kept apologizing and exclaiming “Oh, my God!” which prevented me from getting the information I wanted (I was in a bank in Boston). I had not been offended by the misidentification and I just wanted the person to shut up. As a woman in my thirties, I was sometimes misidentified as lesbian because I was deemed “masculine,” a mistake I found amusing sometimes, other times not. Where do people get off trying to identify other people’s sexual proclivities? And what does it matter anyway?

I was–and am–a “tomboy” type but have always loved being a girl and a woman. I am just sorry that we have such societal stereotypes that make it unacceptable for boys or girls to present themselves or to behave in ways that remind people of the opposite sex, or that make people uncomfortable talking to someone whose gender they are unsure of. I guess I feel the same way about that as I feel about going into executive session to discuss a zoning board issue–never say anything in private that you don’t want to have heard in public. So I would say to both men and women: don’t “assume” anything. Always address the person to whom you are speaking with respect and friendliness, in such a way that if you find out you were mistaken about their gender, you won’t be embarrassed by anything you’ve said to them.

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