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.