Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sex, Gender, Language, and Wiring

I’ll admit that I’m still having problems transitioning to the new uses of the terms “sex” and “gender”, and here’s why:

I remember when “gender” was the term that “polite people” used to avoid using the word “sex”, as if “sex” was only something you had, and not also something you were.

I remember using the term “sex” with my 6th-graders, and having them all go beet red, and begging me to use the word “gender” instead, because “sex” was too embarrassing and giggle-inducing for them to handle. I also recall making that same group of 6th-graders say the word “sex” loudly three times to get it out of their system. There was not going to be any faux politeness on my watch.

I also remember explaining to that same class how to me “gender” was a term that referred to language and wiring. German, French, and Spanish were languages with gender, and English is not. In German all dogs are male, all cats are female, and all horses are neuter. In English they’re all indeterminate unless you know the particular animal in question.

As far as wiring goes, most of what I know about electricity, I learned from doing model trains as a kid, and then later sound systems as a young adult. This is where I first learned about the two genders of connectors: male and female. It was years before I figured out why they were called that, and then my jaw dropped when I did. And then there were those situations when you had to go from a male to a male or a female to a female, and had to run to Radio Shack for a “gender bender.” (That’s what it was really called, folks!)

Gender wasn’t an internal descriptor until very recently. Until then it had been a physical/biological one that was pretty much synonymous with sex; and actually, as I recall hearing at a recent presentation about supporting library patrons and staff who are transgender, you can solve a lot of problems by remembering the word “usually”...as in “sex and gender are usually the same...but not always.”

So now, as I start using those two words in different ways than they've been used for years, I wonder how I talk about language and wiring. Do German, French, and Spanish now have sex? (And how often do they have it?) And what about my electrical and audio cables; do they now also have sex, because it’s a physical description of the connector, rather than a description of what flows through them? And when I need to go from male to male or female to female, do I now need a “sex switcher” rather than the old “gender bender”?

And if I try to resist such changes, on the grounds that in those cases sex and gender are always the same, will I be told that such resistance is futile?

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