By Geertje Mak
Some weeks ago, there was an interesting news item on Dutch radio. A commission was installed to think about a good symbol to use for gender-neutral toilets. After some months of deliberation, their report came out. Recommendation: call it WC.
This is a very good example of two things. One, it shows that not only people, but also things have a gender. Second, it shows there is a possibility to undo its gendering. Genderstudies have taught it us the other way around: often, seemingly neutral concepts, such as politics or excellence, actually are strongly gendered. They are unconsciously associated with a gender and often, as a consequence, make a gendered difference. A nice example was the excited response to Tommy Dumoulin winning the Giro d’Italia: the first Dutchman to win this great tour! Only a day later it became clear he wasn’t: three times a Dutch woman already had won it. Apparently, women did not count as representatives of their nation.
So one has to be careful about de-gendering: it might be a false move. But WC must be possible. You might indicate whether there is a device to pee upright or to place your hygienic pads without giving the toilets themselves a gender. There is a lot of difference you can make without immediately gendering it.
Last week I was the examiner in a Swedish PhD defense. Marie-Louise Holm wrote their dissertation – Fleshing out the Self – on very interesting historical cases of intersex and trans (avant-la-lettre) from Danish archives between 1902 and 1967. Their approach was strongly embedded in critical queer and trans studies. And here I am already in the midst of the uneasiness I would like to address, an uneasiness which I have expressed in the above lines by italicizing ‘their’.
Marie-Louise had asked their promotor, and through her all the members of the examining committee, to use the gender-neutral pronouns ‘they’ and ‘their’ instead of he/she, her/his. And they are not alone (as it goes with plural pronouns…): an increasing number of people ask for such a use of pronouns. It is generally accepted that to respect this request is a matter of respecting someone’s person, and that to ignore the request is very disrespectful. Errors may be accepted, but the effort should be there. Also in theoretical or academic work, there is an increasing demand for acknowledging and including trans positions by using ‘they’ and ‘their’. This can also help to not refer to the generic he and his when all genders are meant, of course.
While I am trying to respect another person’s choice, I feel increasingly uneasy about my own place in the world. To me, it is as if a new line is drawn to which I am forced to relate. Do I want to be part of this new, gender-queer radicalism? Already in the introduction of my dissertation from 1997 I stated I didn’t know exactly where to belong: not at all at ease in a traditional female role or appearance, no strong longing for becoming male, I decided that my gender was a question mark. I chose to be a question mark for the female sex: to explode that category from within, both personally and through my work on the history of ‘masculine women’ and of hermaphrodites. But what if all the other not-fitting-females leave the club? And what about all other, maybe less visible, ways in which women have trespassed the boundaries of ‘femininity’? Do we now all belong to this unquestioned female sex? Does not the creation of a third category stabilize the normativity of the categories male and female? Does it not also stabilize the idea that somehow, pronouns can represent true experience or true selves?
I doubt, therefore, whether such an introduction of a third set of pronouns next to he/she and him/her is really neutral. It points to a very specific position, somewhere in between male and female, and to a very specific politics: that the acknowledgement of a third category of sex is helpful in breaking down the binary of male/female. As I have argued at several occasions, I don’t believe in these politics; historical and more recent examples show, in my analysis, that ‘third’ terms actually normalize and naturalize what is ‘male’ and ‘female’. There might still be a lot to discuss here – I might miss some important insights with respect to these policies. But I would suggest to add something to the discussion: not only the personal feelings of trans people are involved in this strategy. Also the personal feelings of all people who have worked hard to overcome, trespass, cross or dismantle gender’s boundaries from the gender position they were assigned at birth is at stake. Gender-neutral pronouns therefore can never be neutral: they always also affect what it is to be male or female. Let’s at least stop using the concept ‘gender-neutral’ and make it ‘gender-plural’.
Back to my WC example. Degendering things might be another path to go. Back to unisex fashion. Get a law that prohibits to ask for one’s gender in situations in which it is not necessary – which is almost in all situations. Maybe we can also start to degender ourselves. Not to put so much effort in making up our gender. Not to take gender so seriously, so personally. Enjoy the confusion, the variety, the instability. A bit of humor and irony. Or, simply just a little bit more sloppy gender. Which we? All of us.
Geertje Mak is Professor of the Political History of Gender in the Netherlands. Research interests include the history of gender, sexuality, migration and colonialism. Geertje is the author of many renowned Dutch as well as international texts, such as Doubting Sex: Inscriptions, Bodies and Selves in Nineteenth Century Hermaphrodite Case Histories (2012).