by Doctor Science
Ingrid Robeyns at Crooked Timber says my brain needs to know your sex:
I find it difficult (at quite an unconscious level, it seems) to correspond with someone I’ve never met without attributing a sex to that person, whereas I don’t think this holds for ‘race’, age, disability or something else.There's a pretty good discussion in comments, covering the gamut of explanations: evo-psycho, linguistic gender, privilege, etc.
Do you recognize this phenomenon? And if my self-analysis is correct, then I wonder: why is it the case that my brain needs to know the sex of unknown correspondents, but doesn’t seem to have the same needs with other personal and bodily characteristics?
Here's my answer: it's difficult because you haven't practiced.
My first real internet fandom was for Star Trek in the olden dayes of USENET (you whippersnappers). We didn't have avatars or icons or visual aids, it was The Age of Slow Dialup, strictly text-based. I would guess a majority of people in the group "presented" as female, a minority as male -- but it turned out that not all the women were XX nor all the men XY. It was my first experience really getting to know transgender people, in a period where the T had barely gotten into LGBT.
And since it was a Star Trek group, not all the people in the group presented as *human*: there were a fair number of Vulcans and an occasional Klingon, not to mention the cats. And one of my very best e-friends presented as a genderless energy being, who preferred to be called "zie" to hir e-face.
So I got used, there, to not only using zie/hir as the indefinite singular pronoun, but to using it as the default, the one you use any time there's any doubt or ambiguity at all.
In Real Life, especially traditionally, a person's gender is emphasized and re-emphasized, underlined, italicized, and quotated. There are very few occasions to talk about a specific person of unknown gender, and so even though we could say e.g. "someone rang my doorbell at 3AM and when I catch hir there'll be trouble" we usually don't. We customarily force gender into situations -- even where it constitutes leaping to a conclusion -- so it seems inevitable.
For me, being in a community where gender-neutrality was expected and gender-ambiguity respected only took a little getting used to. That may partly be because in science it was (when I was in grad school, at least) customary to use only the last (family) name plus initials when citing someone: Einstein, A, or Hawking, SW. I tended to assume that most scientists were male, but it all had a kind of vague, impersonal quality, as though the specificity of gender had been removed along with the first name.
On the Internet, of course, there are lots of opportunities to get used to talking to and about specific people whose gender is presented playfully or not at all, so I've kept on being not-bothered by not being able to have a gender-specific picture in my head of the person I'm talking to. In my neck of the Internet, too, avatars or icons aren't usually personal photographs of the user, so the picture I mentally tag a person with is rarely "of them", but is just ... a picture. Look at the comments to this classic bit of Livejournal cinematic analysis to see the kind of range I'm used to:
... even though I'd be willing to bet that most of the people behind these icons are "really" female, the icons aren't tied closely enough to their physical bodies for my image of them to be very corporeal.
I don't know how much English grammar made it easy for me to get used to non-specific gender. My early Internet communities used "ze/hir" habitually, so it's become part of my natural way of speaking, as well as thinking. Have French, German, Spanish, or other gendered Indo-European languages developed any kind of pronoun for use in referring to a specific or known person of unknown or unspecified gender? The Wikipedia article seems to say not, but I may be mis-reading.
The situation in Japanese is distinctive and complex, because pronouns are unimportant but speakers of different ages and sexes are expected to have different speech. liberal japonicus may be able to tell us whether any customs are developing to permit Japanese people to write (online, especially) in an un-gender-marked way, to "perform" lack of gender.
To make it clear what I'm asking: I'm not talking about sentences where you're talking about "anyone" or "someone", whose gender is unspecified because it doesn't exist:
"When the driver comes up to the stop sign, ____ should stop."
I'm talking about sentences where you're talking about a specific individual, yet you don't know their gender. For instance, for a long time the political blogger digby had a public gender of "prefer not to say". So, how would you -- in English or another language -- fill in the following blank:
"Did you see digby's post today? As usual, ___ is [so completely right][so full of it]."Unfortunately, I can't think of any *current* high-profile prefer-not-to-says. Any suggestions or examples?
The white figure in the Böcklin picture always seemed to me like an angel, actually. When I look through pictures of angels I don't get the same "actually genderless" feeling, and now I wonder if that's because the pronoun used for angels is "he", when by logical rights it should be "ze". Is there any language that has a gender or noun class for supernatural beings?