Okay, so this is a quick note for those folks who aren’t completely turned off by pedantry and appreciate thinking more deeply about gender. If you ain’t both, this probably isn’t for you.
When “gender neutral” was first used in the context of trans* advocacy, access to bathrooms was probably a driving motivator of the language. In this sense, “gender neutral” is reasonable: the bathrooms themselves might easily have little to nothing to do with gender, including (importantly) things that humans tend to project gender on to even when they are not in any way associated with any particular human. So “Gender neutral” began largely communicating the idea of having no gendered connotations whatsoever – the sense we’ll use for the rest of this brief note. Bathrooms in the home are generally gender neutral in this sense, though we could certainly make a bathroom communicate femininity or masculinity by decorating it in particular ways. Still, when one tenant moved out, presumably those gender signifiers would also go: so, at least intellectually, we can separate the gender neutral bathroom from the gendered decor.
When trans* advocates push for gender neutral bathrooms we push for gender neutrality in this sense: the bathroom doesn’t give a fuck about the genders of the humans using it, and the humans don’t notice or give a thought to any gendered qualities of the bathroom. This is a good thing, and we can and should push for gender neutrality in many public accommodations so that no human being feels more or less welcome in those particular spaces. (Some spaces that still reasonably utilize or reasonably require gendering will persist for a time, of course, perhaps even hundreds of years depending on how good we become at stamping out violence and sexism.)
However, as the term became more widely used, it was applied to things like names (“Alex,” “Cody,” “Riley,” and the like) which aren’t quite gender neutral. Instead, they are names that might be gendered masculine in one setting and feminine in another even if in some (or many) settings they might be gender neutral. If something is sometimes masculine and sometimes feminine, then this violates the gender-doesn’t-even-apply concept of gender neutrality. Instead, what we have is gender flexibility.
In gender flexibility we have gendering that not only varies from context to context, but also from observer to observer – largely because those observers carry their own assumptions with them. If I’m nine years old and have known two Codys that were girls and no Codys that were boys, I might very well gender the name Cody one way, while another child in my same school or neighborhood might gender the name in another. But this isn’t entirely an individual process either: certain communities might be more willing to gender a name one way than another.
And names are one thing, but over the past 10 years or so there’s been a significant increase in the use of language like this by non-trans* people and the way that non-trans* people have adopted the language has also modified the language. And human beings’ interactions being what they are, trans* use of gender neutral has also changed. In particular I want to note how we now use gender neutral for many images of humans or fictional human characters that aren’t actually gender neutral: they do have and employ gender. But by displaying signs of both femininity and masculinity an observer finds it hard to make a final judgement about the “true” gender of the portrait or character. And, of course, inanimate objects and imaginary people have no genitals or chromosomes or other physical realities to reference in order to end discussions about gender with facts about sex.
Thus how observers gender these depictions is subject to change, both from observer to observer and from context to context. Since context can change over time, perceptions of gender, too, have the ability to change over time for these depictions. This gender flexibility is not at all the same as our concept of gender neutrality, yet most of us don’t take the time to articulate separate phrases to describe these distinct phenomena. Yet there are good reasons, including reasons of politics and justice but not limited to them, to make the distinction.
While I promise to discuss those in the near future post, for now it’s enough to say that the idea of an absence of gender has been firmly embedded in the definition of gender neutrality since its beginning, but the idea of flexibility in gender has not. Indeed this is why some feminists (especially but not only trans-exclusive feminists) see some language (e.g. “Our services are available without judgement to anyone who is pregnant or who might become pregnant”) as an attack on women when its authors are motivated instead by the desire to speak in such a way that people can find themselves included no matter their gender, an inherently liberatory motivation.
When speaking of people rather than inanimate objects, gender flexible is almost always a better phrase than gender neutral. Even in some cases of speaking about inanimate things gender flexible may be better. And as for things, non-physical things such as ideas or categories seem more likely to be gender flexible than gender neutral in any case where gender is sufficiently relevant it would occur to a writer or speaker to mention gender. Ironically, the vast majority of cases of gender neutrality in its most widespread (and, I argue, correct sense) are cases where a writer or speaker wouldn’t bother mentioning gender at all.