Yesterday, I got schooled about gender by an androgynous-looking 17-year-old.
I was sitting at my usual table at the local cafe. I like the very back corner of the big communal table because it balances my competing needs for sociability and privacy when I’m writing. However my attempts to get any actual work done on that particular day were in vain. I had my baby in tow and he doesn’t appreciate being ignored in favour of a laptop.
My son is going through a very social stage. A waving stage. And a clapping stage. A high-fiving stage. And a throwing-anything-he-can-get-his-little-hands-on-on-the-ground-stage. So after desperately trying to get the attention of the teenager sitting across from us for almost half an hour, he chucked a lime green wooden car viciously at her head.
“What a lovely looking child, what’s their name?” she asked.
“Oh, he’s a boy,” I said instinctively.
“I didn’t ask about gender, I asked their name,” she replied with a smile.
“Sorry, you said ‘they’ so I assumed you weren’t sure if he was a boy or a girl. It’s hard to tell when they’re this little, isn’t it?” I responded. My son was dressed in a blue t-shirt and dark grey pants with pink stars printed on them; pants that had been a source of confusion for pleasant strangers on previous occasions.
“Yes, I s’pose it is hard to tell,” replied the stranger I was currently conversing with. “But, like, it also doesn’t matter much to me. I was raised male but that’s not how I identify anymore. Anyways, I like your baby, they’re very cute”.
My new friend in the cafe used the ‘they’ pronoun as a default, not as a special application.
Her presumption was not to use a gender label at all – not because she didn’t know my son’s sex – but because it was irrelevant. To her, gender is something to be chosen (or, not to be chosen), rather than something you’re born with. And gender certainly wasn’t something she felt that she needed to know in order to have a meaningful connection with my baby.
Now, I like to think of myself as a progressive, inclusive and educated person. I’ve just had my thirtieth birthday, so I’m smack bang in the middle of generation Y. Until yesterday, I’d always considered people my age as leading the current charge for social enlightenment. Amongst my generation for example, there is broad consensus that gay marriage should be law, recognition that the queer community faces challenges others don’t and that occasionally an individual might choose to identify as a gender that doesn’t match their sex.