The subject of gender-neutrality has recently made headlines in both the United States and on an international level. NPR’s recent article “The End of Gender” capitalizes on this issue. In this article, author Linton Weeks chronicles a number of individual experiences, as well as administrative changes, that point toward the creation of a more gender neutral society.
As many sociologists will attest, gender is a social construct separate from a person’s physical sex; as a society we perceive a binary gender system, but it is possible that not all people fit into these two categories. The term “gender-neutral,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is defined as “free of explicit or implicit reference to gender or sex.”
Some believe that enforced gender roles are detrimental to childhood development and have adopted gender-neutral ways of raising their children. Likewise, others, such as blogger Arwyn Daemyir, believe that more aspects of society, such as public restrooms, should become gender-neutral so as to “give people the ability to make choices that are most comfortable or convenient for them.”
Some argue that a gender neutral society is simply impractical. They contend that the majority of people do feel comfortable in the gender assigned to them at birth and that, especially in elementary school children, there are fundamental physical and psychological differences between girls and boys that should not be ignored. Additionally, ignoring gender could lead to reinforcement of gendered stereotypes.
Despite objections, it is clear that at least some of society wishes to at least question traditional gender roles and stereotypes. Earlier this spring, a J. Crew catalogue received great attention due to a picture of a young boy using pink nail polish. Over the past few years, a number of celebrities have chosen to dress their young children in more gender neutral clothes or give them haircuts that do not “match” their assigned gender. Recently, a “gender-neutral” pre-school was opened in Sweden, drawing a great deal of international attention. Over 50 colleges and universities across the country have chosen to implement “gender-neutral” housing programs (including Stanford, Cornell, Dartmouth, University of Michigan, Wesleyan, Haverford, Colby, Grinnell, University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard). Students and administrations claim that roommate compatibility is important and same-sex roommates are not always the best option. Additionally, this housing option acts to fight discrimination against LGBT students on campus, giving them housing situations in which they feel safer and more comfortable. After the recent passage of New York’s marriage equality law, the state plans to reword marriage licenses so that both partners can choose either “groom,” “bride,” or simply “spouse.” This not only accommodates gay and lesbian marriages, but also accommodates those couples or individuals who may wish to remain gender-neutral.
The conception of gender is always evolving. Some people believe that recent events point to the eventual eradication of gender. Some view this as a positive step, others as a serious affront to society as we know it. What is clear, however, is that the conception of gender is continually evolving. One-hundred years ago, if someone had suggested that it would one day be common for women to run large corporations, work as doctors, professors, lawyers, or run for political office, most people would have thought that person to be out of his or her mind. Sixty years ago, if someone had suggested that both parents should share duties such as caring for the children, cleaning, or cooking , most people would have thought this highly unusual. Today people of both genders participate in many activities that, even 30 years ago, were not considered “normal” things for someone of that gender to do. It is difficult to predict what society will become, but it is clear that, as a society, we cannot have a static view of gender.