Across Britain, guardians of gender norms are fighting to keep the conventions of male and female intact. Switch on the telly and you'll see them doing battle.
On Good Morning Britain, for instance, Piers Morgan routinely mocks the idea of gender neutrality. "I'm now identifying as black and nonbinary," he joked back in May. Over on This Morning, trans activist and VICE writer Paris Lees recently endured a TV debate where a "cut-price Katie Hopkins" (Paris' words) tried to explain why upholding the tradition of boys wearing trousers to school and girls wearing skirts was much more important than accommodating the needs of trans or nonbinary kids. The woman, Angela Epstein, admitted she'd never experienced any confusion or discrimination around her own gender, which made it difficult to see why she cared quite so passionately about the issue – but she really, really did.
How did we get here? The short version of the argument goes like this: increasing numbers of people who are in favour of gender neutrality believe that, by seeing gender as a binary – two neat categories – we are currently promoting a system that punishes people for transgressing gender roles. They don't necessarily want to do away with the idea of "male" and "female" altogether, but they'd like people to understand that there is a whole spectrum of expression in between.
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Rebecca Stinson, head of trans inclusion at LGBTQ charity Stonewall, explains that, on the other side of the fence, people who oppose neutrality tend to fall into three categories. There are the deniers, like Piers Morgan, who fail to believe there can be anything but "man" or "woman". Those who think, 'Why should we change everything just to accommodate a small few who don't fit in?' or, 'Isn't it safer to have gendered spaces, like women's changing rooms?' And then the people – including many trans people – who find gender categories to be affirming.
What's becoming clear is that the second lot of people are losing ground. Over 80 British schools and counting have dropped gendered uniform rules; major institutions, like The Tate and The Barbican, have introduced gender neutral toilets, as will all new Glasgow primary schools; and TFL's London Underground recently announced plans to address passengers as "everyone" instead of "ladies and gentleman", with the support of Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Stonewall support this shift, too, specifically in schools. "We often see a blue coat peg for boys, pink for girls, or getting students to line up boy, girl, boy, girl. It enforces stereotypes, and if we enforce stereotypes in primary schools what's going to happen is that children aren't going to explore their gender expression freely," says Rebecca. "It also leads to bullying – we know that 45 percent of LGBT kids are bullied at school, and that a lot of it relates to their expression, how they appear and the way they act. Gender neutrality is a small step that might make their lives better."
Growing up in Hampshire, I went to two Catholic convent schools which implemented strict "skirt below the knee" and "no trousers for girls" policies. The first had segregated sports activities – netball for girls, football for boys. The second was an all-girls school and offered absolutely zero education on transgenderism, same-sex relationships or inequalities between the sexes.
Back then, I could not have conceived of the changes happening in UK schools today, or what they would have meant for me. My only memory of discussing lesbianism at school was when we used the word "dyke" to abuse our PE teacher or an unfortunate girl in our year who happened to have short, boyish haircuts. I wonder if, were we taught that being gay or gender non-conforming was OK, we might have realised that our behaviour wasn't, or that short hair doesn't necessarily correlate with your sexuality. I also wonder if I would have come out as gay a bit sooner than I did.
"We need a focused energy, and we can each start by treating people as individuals rather than telling them which space they should be in."
While Britain makes slow progress on gender neutrality, Sweden is light years ahead. They have the gender neutral pronoun "hen", which kids are taught to use to refer to people who'd rather not go with "he" or "she". When I recently visited the country to film a documentary for VICE about gender neutral kindergartens, I learnt that a law was implemented in 1998 to ban teachers from talking about gender stereotypes; no "boys do this" or "girls do that", like I was taught at school.
In many of the kindergartens I visited there was actually no mention of "boy" or "girl", just "children" or "friends". In these schools, they read the kids stories about two male giraffes trying to have a baby together, and two princesses falling in love. Years of avoidable gay shame flashed before my eyes. The kids themselves were on board, too; when I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up there were no gendered professions; when I asked them about games there were no conceptions that boys were better at anything than girls. Swedish five-year-olds, it turns out, are much more progressive than a lot of British adults.
Studies have suggested that the Swedish system is working. One, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, compared a small group of kids from gender neutral Swedish preschools with kids from schools that don't take this approach. They found that the first group was less likely to rely on gender stereotypes in tasks given, and found this more likely to suggest a successful future for the kids. It's also been found that Swedish gender neutral textbooks lead to more applications on typically gendered job roles. And then, of course, there's the fact that Sweden has never been ranked lower than fourth in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report, which measures gender equality.
However, despite the evidence in its favour, the system of gender neutral schooling has its critics. Lotta Rajalin, the woman who started Egalia, Sweden's first entirely gender neutral kindergarten, told me she's had her car bombed and been sent death threats.
Looking for a more reasonable voice of the opposition, I interviewed a Swedish child psychiatrist called Dr David Eberhard, who has written numerous columns for Swedish newspapers on how gender neutral schooling denies the biological differences between the sexes. In one article, he compares denying children their right to enacting masculine or feminine roles to denying people the right to be homosexual. Both, he says, are biological facts.
"From what I've seen in these schools, no one is trying to change anyone's assigned sex, just allow them freedom when it comes to their gender expression," I explained to him at one point during our meeting. "Let boys be boys and girls be girls," he responded. While I could see both sides of the argument, I failed to see why there really needed to be an argument at all. As Lotta put it in her brilliant TED Talk on gender neutral schooling, the idea isn't to to take anything away from kids, but just to add to their options.
Too often it feels like panic about change makes people shut themselves off to the argument around gender neutrality. We live in a culture built around gendered language, gendered spaces and gendered legislation – perhaps it just seems like too big a job to overhaul it. As Rebecca points out: "Gender is in everything – it affects the way we order clothes online or book a hotel." But nonbinary people aren't expecting the world to suddenly change overnight, she says. "When people say there's too much to change it's a horrible rebuttal, because it acknowledges that people are worthy of recognition but we just can't find the capacity or the resources to go through with it."
And so, while Piers Morgan jokes that a gender neutral Britain would be chaos, Britain is falling behind other countries in the race to better gender neutrality. Sweden isn't the only country that has more progressive attitudes; Canada, for example, has just allowed the first baby to go unmarked as male or female on their birth certificate, and have voted to neutralise the national anthem.
"I think Britain has been proud of itself for being a world leader on LGBT equality, but now we know there are lots of other countries in the world – from Malta to Canada to Australia to Germany – who are outreaching us in steps towards equality on this front, both legislatively and socially," Rebecca concludes. "We should be aspiring to keep up with them and be better; we should make sure we're as inclusive of diversity as we used to be."
What do we need to do to get there? "Legal recognition is important," says Rebecca, in a nod to the groups campaigning to have a gender option that is not male or female on British passports, and the potential Gender Recognition Act reforms currently being pushed by MP Justine Greening. "We need a focused energy, and we can each start by treating people as individuals rather than telling them which space they should be in. We can tackle transphobia and other discrimination that way."
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