While on holiday last year, a travel companion asked a question at dinner about kids these days and pronouns, that I wish I’d answered better. This is that answer.
Why do you wear clothes? Why do you wear those clothes? Is is out of habit? Have you ever wondered why you behave the way you do, and how much of it is habit? That it’s because that’s how it’s always been?
If you identify as male and wear clothes traditionally associated with men, how much of that decision to wear those clothes is defined by your choice, compared to the role society has placed on you by virtue of your assigned gender at birth (AGAB)? Give it some thought right now. I can wait.
The way we dress, speak, and behave in social settings is defined by our social contract. In other words, to exist in society, we have written and unwritten rules about our appearance and behaviour. Much, if not most of this, is rooted in survival. But we’ve developed a range of survival strategies that make many sections of that contract void. It turns out that most people are capable of doing most things, irrespective of their biology or gender or skin colour or religious affiliation.
It’s 2023 as I write this. A global pandemic rewrote some of that social contract for us. We seem to have forgotten how to comport ourselves in public. Manners have faded. Kids these days. Manners maketh man.
But what is man? Taking into account that language evolves, “manners maketh man” means “manners are what separates humans from animals”. It was never intended as a gendered statement. But because language does evolve, and, if we insist on using old cliches, we agree that it makes us at best seem old-fashioned or out of touch. It makes us reckon with political correctness.
So we need to examine the words we use, especially those we use out of habit. Words we learned as children, that may seem harmless on the face of it, but can be hurtful or harmful. When we use phrases and language and act in ways that are not intentional, we do ourselves a disservice. We potentially break the social contract that is also evolving.
What is a man? Biologically speaking, people born with primary male sex characteristics are assigned male at birth (AMAB). People born with primary female sex characteristics are assigned female at birth (AFAB). For most people, this is never questioned. For most people, this is their identity for the rest of their lives. For most people, this decision by the adults in the room informs their entire social upbringing, never to be considered ever again.
For about 90% of the population, the right hand is dominant. For 10% of people, it used to be considered evil to be left-handed. The word “sinister” derives from the Latin for “left-handed”.
While left-handed people were forced to use their right hands for no good reason, the number of left-handed people was considered to be zero, or close to zero. After all, if you beat people for admitting to it, and force them to be right-handed, who is going to own up to being left-handed?
And then something happened. We started seeing more left-handed people. Suddenly you could buy appliances, and scissors, and pens, for left-handed people. It seemed that there was an explosion of sinister people in the world. The funny thing is, once it was no longer considered bad, this explosion levelled off. Without the arbitrary and harmful rule of forcing left-handed people to use their right hands, it levelled off at about 10%.
Another number that has plateaued, a synonym for “unchanged”, is the number of redheads. It is very slowly declining, but the number of people born with the recessive ginger gene that turns their hair red, is around 2% worldwide. That’s about 160 million people alive today with red hair, which equates to about half the population of the United States of America.
Speaking of over 100 million, people born with primary sex characteristics that are indeterminate (in other words, it could go either way), is around 1.7% of the population worldwide. Many of these people are forced to undergo surgery as infants to “decide” for them, to force them into a decision that will affect them, like it affected you reading this, for the rest of their lives.
The problem with defining social contracts based on primary sex characteristics, is that biology is messy. We get things like bimodal distributions instead of exactness. Some people have chromosomes that don’t match their external wobbly bits. Some people undergo surgery to force a decision that has to be reversed when they reach puberty. Some people are late bloomers. Some people are left-handed. Some people are redheads. Some people are gay. Some people were born into a societal role that doesn’t fit.
What is a man? What is a woman? Gender is a social contract, defined by a number of things such as how we dress, how we speak, and how we behave in social settings. To reduce our identity to sex organs is to remove our humanity. Manners maketh man. Manners are how we behave, how we perform, as humans in polite society. Our gender is part of that performance. When I meet people and introduce myself in polite society, I don’t expose my genitals first. I’m not an animal. I think it’s safe to say that most of us who do want to perform sexual acts with other adults that may not have a biological function, do so privately and with consent. It’s nobody’s business what your undercarriage looks like.
I asked a question in the beginning, about why you dress the way you do. Speaking for myself, I express my external appearance in a way that leads people to think I am male. In other words, my gender expression is male. This is mostly out of habit. It is extremely convenient to look in the men’s section of clothing stores because they suit my body type better. But I feel stifled by the selection. I have some clothing that society has decided is female. But you can’t define clothing by sex organs. They’re just clothes. A dress is a dress. Trousers are trousers. A doctor wearing scrubs is just a doctor in scrubs.
Clothing has evolved over many centuries, and traditional menswear was decided for us by one person, about 150 years ago. He decided men should dress a certain way, and it stuck. Also about the same time ago, pink stopped being a traditionally male colour, because it was no longer expensive to manufacture pink clothing.
Clothes are just clothes. You should wear stuff that makes you feel comfortable and happy to see yourself in the mirror.
Speaking for myself again, over a number of years of internal struggle, my gender identity can best be described as “nope”. I see myself as an amorphous blob. I was born with certain biological traits that group me with approximately 50% of the population, but I don’t want to be in that group. I also don’t want to be in the other group. I want to set myself to one side.
This seems odd for a lot of people, mostly because they’re reacting a certain way out of habit. I think traditional gender roles are old-fashioned and harmful. They reinforce the incorrect assumption that we are defined by our sex organs. But that removes everything about us that makes us human. There’s a word for people who obsess about genitals, especially children’s genitals.
At the end of the day, we are all humans, with the ability to think for ourselves, to live in a society, working towards common goals for the betterment of humanity. Some of us just want to go by different pronouns. It has nothing to do with what’s under our clothes. Where is the harm in that?
2 Replies to “What’s in a pronoun?”
You are quite right about biology is messy. We, as humans, like to classify or categorize things, which often does not fit well. What is a vegetable? What is a fruit? What is a mammal? What is a human? What is a male? What is a female? These, and many more are all things that are known to not be clear cut as we would like them to be. In simple words, it is not black or white. When you realize there is more than black and white, you are able to see all the beauty in the world through all the colors around us. It allows you to see the beauty of a person for who and what they are without judgment.
Great post, my friend.
Also, as regards clothing: to give but one example, a kilt is just a socially acceptable skirt for men. Defining clothing by gender is silly.