Outside the JUFA Youth Hostel in Salzburg are two circles of young teens. One group is standing around and talking and occasionally leaning in to hug one another. The other’s chosen line of communication is a sand-filled ball which they kick in the air and pass to each other, until at a given signal, all disperse like seeds blown from a dandelion while one grabs the ball and tries to hit another with it. Guess the genders of each group.
I recently had a long argument with someone in favor of gender neutrality when raising children. Claiming that gender is socially constructed and that acknowledging and accenting differences limited our identity, he was suggesting eliminating the pronouns of he and she and all activities that separated boys and girls. Nothing new to me, this fantasy social engineering that seeks a brave new world that will never and can never be.
My friend acknowledged that there may have been a biological reason for the different bodies and proclivities of males and females in the past, but modern life has rendered it obsolete. There is a partial truth there. Very few men go out hunting to put food on the table and between birth control, day care, modern appliances and more, women’s choices have expanded far beyond homemaker. But there is another larger truth missing here. We can’t outrun our biology, no matter how “modern” we think we are. Our bodies and brains are the same as our ancestors from at least 40,000 years ago and though the “software” can open us to new choices unimaginable to our ancestors, the hard-wiring is significant.
At my school where we’ve run the gamut of opening choices— girls playing sports aggressively and encouraged to enjoy math, boys sewing and cooking and encouraged to enjoy poetry, hardly a single activity that both genders don’t participate in equally— girls still wear lots of pink and female teachers complement them on their looks, boys turn xylophone mallets into guns and wrestle with their friends more than talk with them. In just about every class where kids choose where they sit, there is a consistent division in boys and girls.
Are kids and adults more interesting if they explore opposite gender roles and characteristics, boys getting in touch with their feminine side and able to talk, feel and express feelings, girls excited by abstract ideas and feeling power in sports, martial arts and the like? I think so. Should people be allowed to place themselves on a gender spectrum without shame and ridicule? I believe they should. Should there be moments in our lives when we are neither male nor female, but simply human? Sure, why not?
But none of this is going to happen without beginning with the reality of our biological default setting. Left alone, the girls outside the Youth Hostel gather to hug and talk, the boys kick the ball together and then hit each other with it. No shame, no blame, nothing in that scene that needs to be fixed. In another moment, the girls may kick the ball and the boys may hang out and talk and that’s fine too. But let’s acknowledge that it is a world of he’s and she’s. We are not made to be “its.” Difference is real, necessary and worthy of celebration. Just ask the French.