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Gendering Humanity with the French Concept of Etat Civil

Recently, I read a news story (I can’t even remember what it was, to be honest) that got me thinking about the concept of etat civil.  Etat civil is a French legal concept that, roughly translated, means “civil status” or your legal state of being.  The French Wikipedia describes it as “a person’s position in the family and society, resulting from a written procedure of administrative identification.”  It comes up in the contexts of births, marriages, and deaths, pretty much, but it also encompasses things like your name and gender, so it’s relevant in transgender identity context.

The idea bothers me because although the practical meaning of the term is more like what we call “vital statistics” in the United States, and is dry and deals with demographic data, the actual French term implies much more.  It bothers me that one’s very being, one’s “state” or existence in the public arena is gendered.  Not only is it impossible to escape the gender binary in France due to the gendering of nouns and adjectives in the language, but your being in the eyes of the state must be either male or female (and is exceedingly difficult to change).

Sadly, this is not surprising.  I am not surprised that discrimination is so important to us as a society that it bothers us not to be able to gender someone, because I live this every day.  Nor am I surprised that we aren’t sure how to treat someone “as a human being” with no other data.  We’re obsessed with gender as a framework to tell us how to behave, and many among us are deeply bothered when we get gender “wrong,” are confused about someone’s gender, or find that someone’s gender is changing.

I would be curious to know if anyone’s done a study on human interaction in online spaces where gender is not known, though I imagine it would be difficult to find many where gender isn’t stated fairly early on in an interaction.  I do find it interesting that among queer and trans Twitter friends, I often don’t know someone’s gender, and am sometimes surprised when I learn it.  I imagine that some assumptions are made based on the online space–gaming, for example, being principally male; Pinterest being principally female–but it’d be interesting to know how many spaces there are where that isn’t the case.  I would love to learn that, even in tiny niches, human beings are simply taken as that, end of discussion.

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