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This is a work of fiction. I'm borrowing a trope from many excellent science-fiction and fantasy writers who create and explore fictional societies through the perspective of a character interacting with and observing that culture—often a social scientist. This is my version of a gender utopia, as viewed by a fictional self capable of traveling forward in time to a possible future. I could simply recite the features of my ideal society with regard to gender, but I prefer to delve a little deeper and investigate how gender is performed and reproduced, and what impact that has on the society as a whole.

One thing I hardly touch on is how this utopian fantasy could come to be. That's partly because I simply don't know, and partly because the work of imagining a utopia is in the creation of something perfect. If I were thinking about the best foreseeable society, or the ways I want our society's understanding of gender to change, I would approach the question very differently. This piece is me dreaming, exploring the dream, and hopefully showing how its various pieces interweave to make a consistent, realistic whole.

I'm not saying my utopian ideal is impossible. I hope it isn't, although I don't necessarily want it to come about exactly as it does in this story. I also don't believe it's universal: my own ideas about gender as I would like it to be will seem alien and uncomfortable to many people. This is my dream, my piece of fiction, my own way of exploring wishful thinking to show its underpinnings. I hope you enjoy it!

Gender Among the Noroneva: A Preliminary Report
(draft excerpted from Social Constructions in Noronevan Society)

A note on language:

I quickly found that although the Noronevan language is alien to my ear, it shares many words, roots, and constructions with English. Phonetically it is closer to Spanish than English. Fortunately, many Noronevans, particularly those in the medical profession, study English and other modern languages so that they can read primary texts. Although English does not seem to be spoken, at least in this part of the world, I was able to use it as a basis for communication until I acquired a working knowledge of Noronevan—much as an ancient Roman stranded in the United States might be able to communicate haltingly and imperfectly in Latin.

Specifically with regard to gender, there are a few complications with translating Noronevan to English. The first and most problematic is that Noronevan not only has a neutral-gendered third-person singular pronoun, it also has no gender-specific pronouns, for reasons that will become clear. In my translations, I have chosen to use the invented pronoun “zie” (zir, zirs). I feel this captures the meaning better than resorting to a singular “they” or the common “he or she;” I would use the Noronevan pronoun, but their language uses several in different situations and for different grammatical purposes. In my own writing about the Noronevan people, I will resort to the singular “they” when necessary. It is unfortunate that English does not allow me an easier way to discuss the Noronevan understanding and performance of gender without the use of such clumsy constructions.

Introduction: Challenging Preconceptions

I struggled, when I first met the Noroneva, with my own cultural understanding of gender. In the United States in the early part of the 21st century, an individual's perceived gender is literally the first characteristic noted by anyone seeing them. Despite my studies into the concept of gender as a societal construction, I struggled with my tendency to sort the people I met into categories. At first, of course, I looked for “men” and “women,” but I became aware very quickly that interaction dynamics were very different than I had expected. Noronevan physical body types seemed to have little or nothing to do with their mannerisms, habits of movement, patterns of speech, or anything else. I started to notice differences in clothing style and affect, and mentally sorted the population into several categories of performed gender unconnected to body type. While closer to the Noronevan reality, this was likewise a faulty perception; after a few days I noticed that the same people performed different apparent roles—what I had been thinking of as genders—on different days.

Over time I found that the Noroneva do have a concept of gender, and that it is not radically different from my own in essence. Gender to a Noronevan is a constructed set of practices that informs interpersonal interaction. However, I have always considered gender performance to be an important facet of identity. Among the Noroneva, genders are seemingly unrelated to underlying identity—they're like outfits or moods, changeable, chosen at whim or for specific reasons, but perceived as inessential. Many of my Noronevan friends considered me quite strange at first for dwelling for so long on gender practices; among the Noroneva, the only people who talk about gender as much as I did at first are young adolescents.

My own experience of gender practices in my home society has been that they change over time and slowly. Among the Noroneva, new genders arrive quickly, invented in popular fiction or simply by someone with a new idea. Some of them become popular and others fade. From my examination of literature, and from discussions with many people on the subject of gender “fads,” it appears that some types of genders usually last longer than others. There are persistent gender concepts that remind me strongly of hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine practices in my home culture, for example—but although they're persistent in the sense that they continue to be performed, they are not popular, nor do the same people usually perform them. I interviewed several people on the subject of hyper-masculinity; one middle-aged adult said the following:
I don't often like to be that way... there's nothing wrong with it, really, but after just a day or so I start to see everything like it's a competition, and if I have something to get done, communal work or a public discussion, I think it gets in the way. So I don't do it often, only when I have something to get done and I need to stay focused, or when I forget why I don't like it.

This example clearly illustrates how casually people “put on” and “take off” genders, but also makes clear that gender performance is not simply a matter of fashion or style—each gender carries with it a set of practices that influence not only interpersonal behavior but also a person's understanding of that behavior. The key seems to be that Noronevans often use different genders specifically to gain such insights, and that if they dislike the way the gender performance feels, or the effects on their interactions with others, they have no hesitation about discarding it.

Visible Differences: What About Sex?

Bodily differences are not ignored completely, they're simply not related in any way I could discover to performed gender. Physical sex differences are mainly considered to be biological facts, devoid of much meaning other than in relation to health or reproduction. The medical establishment has made extensive studies of health differences by physical sex. An analogue in our society, though a problematic one, would be the health implications of different skin tones—very fair people are more likely to sunburn, get sun poisoning, and develop skin cancer, for example. The Noroneva treat sex in much the same way, looking only at its implications for health.

Much of my early introduction to the language was through reading medical texts, so I was introduced early to a pair of Noronevan terms that best translate into modern English as “male-bodied” and “female-bodied.” At first I was grateful to find something familiar, the sexual fact at the heart of the system of gender constructions. A further reading convinced me I should look deeper. A selection from one text on a medical study offered insight:
The participants were divided into groups based on sexual body type, with extremely male-bodied people in one group, extremely female-bodied in another, and others loosely grouped by their position on the spectrum according to standard measures. The risk of senva [an illness thought to be environmental in origin, characterized by seizures and gradual neurological degeneration -ed.] was highest among the most female-bodied people but the difference was not apparent elsewhere on the spectrum. Extremely female-bodied people have generally higher concentrations of [various hormones]; it is possible that one or more of these might increase susceptibility to senva.
Clearly not only is gender fluid, physical sex is seen as a existing on a gradient scale. Once I acquired enough skill in the language, I studied the criteria for locating someone on that scale, and found them to be exhaustive. The Noronevan doctors take into account not only genitalia, chromosomes, breasts, and body hair—the most common markers of sex in our society—but also the angle of the brow, width of jawline, shape of the pelvis, waist/hip ratio, ratio of arm and leg length to torso length, variance in lengths of fingers and toes, concentration of various hormones in the bloodstream, overall height, breadth of shoulders, and dozens of other details. In studies they sometimes control for very minute details related to sex.

Romance Among the Genderless: Sexless Sexuality

Of course I was curious how my ideas about human sexuality would hold up against Noronevan reality. In my home society, sexual orientation is variably considered to be innate, a product of socialization, or some combination of both; universally, it is considered important, and many people struggle with it. I was curious about attraction among the Noroneva, and as soon as I felt I could ask I did. I found most Noronevans quite willing to talk about sexual desire and sexual relationships. Some Noronevans apparently show a marked preference for certain physical characteristics, sometimes including sexual ones. “Zie likes a pair of broad shoulders, always,” someone told me about their friend, “Zie almost always seems to fall for extremely male-bodied people.” I was intrigued by the tone of voice; in my home society, an analogous statement would have been, “He only seems to date blondes.”

Most literature and music that deals with romance does not specify sex-linked physical characteristics. I enjoyed the work of several well-known Noronevan poets, and among the Noroneva, as in our society, romance and eroticism are extremely popular poetic themes. While the pieces lose much of their charm presented in translation, I believe they offer valuable insight into the ways that sex, gender, and attraction intersect. The following piece was written by a well-known poet, who first read it at a memorial service:

Dig the clay.
Carry it home in reed baskets,
deep and heavy.

Zie met me when I was in the foothills
digging clay.
Zie touched my hand.

Sift the clay.
Take out every stone and twig and roughness until
it feels like sparrow feathers.

Zie came to talk with me, some nights. We walked
in evening-light together.
We spoke of dreams and birdsong and shadows.

Wet the clay
with pure river water from over the rocks.
Let it sit for a night.

By the river-side with pitch-lined baskets,
zie stole a kiss.
Zir eyes shone like the flick of a sparrow's wings.
Zir skin was the color of clay.

Mold the clay.
Draw it out of itself; awaken
the life in it.
Shape (gently, gently) eyes and feathers,
wings forever frozen at the edge of flight,
a tiny breath.

Zie followed a dream's call.
Zie left me with a promise of love
and the swiftness of a sparrow.

Fire the clay.
Tender creation, buried beneath the flames
to be reborn.

I am alone.

A tiny brown bird in a nest of brick,
far from my fire,
my love shattered in the flames.

I am alone with my clay.
This deeply romantic, idealized version of the lover, combined with the pastoral image of collecting clay from the riverbed, was extremely popular among the Noroneva I knew. I find the characteristics of the beloved interesting. Only a few bits of physical description are offered—shining eyes, skin the color and texture of soft clay—but the overall impression of the beloved is powerful. The beloved speaks of dreams and birdsong and shadows, is constantly on the edge of motion, is romantic and passionate, and follows a dream away. In Noronevan society, this poem is very nearly a perfect description of a set of romantic gender practices, and within a day many people were performing it.

The second poem I include is a sadly clumsy translation—in my attempt to preserve the intricate poetic form I was unable to do justice to the music of the language:

My love is not for sharpened lines
or edges that the shadows trace.
No angle, limiting, defines
the contours warm in my embrace.

For edges that the shadows trace
can make for bold and bright designs--
but contours warm in my embrace
are worshiped in far softer shrines

in which the bold and bright designs
are lost to gentle, curving grace.
I worship in those softer shrines
where tenderness is commonplace,

lost in gentle, curving grace.
Our separate shadows intertwine
where tenderness is commonplace--
my love is not for sharpened lines.

This piece is considered scandalous, not because of its eroticism, but because of the inherent ambiguity, which has hopefully survived translation. The poet's emphasis on curves and softness expresses a clear erotic and romantic desire for something specific—but what? The poem can be interpreted as describing the desire for a female-bodied lover, which is considered a harmless if slightly strange foible, as mentioned above. Alternately, it can be interpreted as a desire for lovers whose gender practices are soft, gentle, warm, and tender. Because gender practices are not considered central to identity, and very few people (none that I observed) perform a specific gender at all times, the suggestion that the poet is only attracted to certain genders is a bit scandalous, though still within the bounds of society. However, the ambiguity has made some people condemn the poem outright; they claim that it equates softness, tenderness, and gentility with female-bodied people—a connection that has negative historical context for the Noroneva.

Noronevan society, which is passionately romantic, does not share the modern Western concept of marriage as an all-encompassing contract between two people. Their sexual relationships seem to be generally monogamous, with an expectation of fidelity, but are not always related to their living arrangements. Noronevan adults live in legally recognized households usually made up of three to five people who share common space for meals and daily living but usually have separate rooms for sleeping. A household shares resources and most of the household's property is legally jointly owned. Household divorces are not uncommon, though most of the time they're fairly amicable: one member will leave, sometimes for another household, sometimes for life as a single person, and the rest of the household will stay. I have heard a few stories of whole households disintegrating, but it seems relatively uncommon. Fortunately for me, Noronevan people, especially if they're performing a highly social gender, seem to enjoy salacious gossip and scandal. A favorite (and common) story is one in which a new romantic interest distracts a household member from domestic duties and this causes chaos within the home.

No Mothers, No Fathers: Noronevan Parenting Practices

Children in Noronevan households are raised by all the adults of the household; in some cases, children don't learn which of their parents are biologically related to them until they're ten or twelve years old. Parenting and other domestic tasks are not strongly connected to specific genders; all household members are usually expected to share domestic tasks equally, and each household negotiates what that means. Arguments about who does the dishes are as common among the Noroneva as in my home society; in fact, I found the day-to-day household life of the Noroneva to be the most familiar aspect of their lives. Certain genders, including the hyper-feminine one mentioned earlier and others that have a strong emphasis on nurturing, tend to be associated with an increased share of domesticity, but because most individuals don't perform a single gender consistently, this does not serve as a consistent basis for the division of labor.

I lived in a household with four adults and three children for the better part of a year. I shared domestic responsibilities to the best of my ability (much of the work of the household is agrarian, as most people grow a significant portion of their food, and I knew nothing about Noronevan farming practices when I arrived) and enjoyed my time with the children. Noronevan children develop their ideas about gender at around the time they begin to speak, but they don't start performing gender the way adults do until early adolescence. A child of seven or eight might put on the bright colors and fashionable clothing of a certain popular gender, but will not incorporate the many other aspects of that gender's performance into their behavior. Most of the time, most children below the age of about ten are essentially genderless—they don't think about gender the way adults do, and their interactions are based on their own developing personalities. This is not to say that all children live in harmony with one another; in fact, they enforce social truths just as children in our own society do; those social truths are simply not based on gender. Children deal with social pressure to play certain games, prefer certain activities over others, use specific slang terms, and shun those who don't conform, for example.

Around age ten or so, most children begin experimenting with gender. Usually their first attempts are to perform the favorite or common genders of their parents. Rather than simply emulating their parents, the children are making intentional forays into the adult landscape to see what they can learn about themselves and their places in society—just as adults perform different genders in order to gain insight. By age twelve or thirteen, all children have begun performing gender daily, although many of them continue to be most comfortable with the (very popular) gender strongly associated with childhood—a sort of default gender performance that intentionally relates to others as a child might. At this age, at the edge of adolescence, gender fads spread quickly and die out just as quickly. Teenagers sometimes perform two or three different genders in a single day. When adults do the same, the transitions are fluid, in response to changing situations; among teenagers, transitions are usually abrupt, visual, and intentional.

Ideas about gender are clearly reproduced in large part through observation and mimicry, and once gender is being performed regularly it also becomes a very popular topic of conversation. Teenagers trade gender stories, discuss popular fiction with depictions of different genders, agree to perform the same gender at the same time, emulate the people they respect the most, and in other ways play with the concept. Sexuality and romance also become central topics of discussion, and teenagers seem to fall in love at least once or twice a week. By this age, of course, their societal perspective on gender is firmly established; they are simply seeking to understand their relationship to it and to each other.

I was curious about gender development in early childhood; it seemed likely to me that there must be a body of literature or oral history aimed at communicating ideas about gender to children. Not only do the Noroneva perform gender intentionally, but they've also preserved many of the stories of earlier cultures with profoundly different ideas about sex and gender, including my own home culture. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to hear several stories being told to small children, as the two younger children of the household I inhabited were two and four years old. Some of the stories were very familiar, reminiscent of fairy tales; one was unmistakably Cinderella, barely changed in form despite the number of cultural references that simply make no sense in Noronevan terms. Once in a while, a storytelling parent would begin with an explanation of the history of gender as they see it, a sort of half-mythical history meant for children. I believe this serves two purposes: it helps the children to interpret and understand the stories of earlier cultures, and it begins to reinforce the Noronevan idea of gender as intentional by incorporating historical context at a very young age. I was able to record one example of this sort of miniature history:
Once, long ago... that's how all the stories start, right? Do you want to hear other things about long ago, true things? Good, little one, yes, I'll tell you a story. All tucked in? Good. Once, long ago, all the stories were different and the people were different too. They thought what was important was being female-bodied or male-bodied, and made each other act in certain ways and wear certain clothes. They pretended there was only one right way to act if you were male-bodied and one if you were female-bodied, and they pretended that everyone was one or the other and there was nothing in between. In almost all their stories, for a long time, male-bodied people were the heroes and they rescued female-bodied people. That made people think that male-bodied people were always heroes, and female-bodied people always needed rescuing. Isn't that strange? It went on for a long time like that, a little bit different in different places, but everyone worrying about female-bodies and male-bodies all the time. Then there came a time when a lot of old ideas started to fall apart, like when you pile too many blocks and the pile falls apart again. All the old ideas couldn't hold each other up anymore. This was still a long, long time ago, before there was a Noroneva. There were a lot of people then, and some of them loved new ideas, and some of them held onto old ideas as long as they could. After a long time, though, a time when they all fought and struggled over who could make up the stories, things settled down. There were fewer people and they were better at getting along. They figured out that all the worries about whether or not people acted right for their body types were hurting them. They started retelling the stories, and some of them decided the best way to undo all those long long years of worrying about it was to just try on all the different ways of being male-bodied and female-bodied and see what they could learn. It was easier to get along after that. Some people didn't want to keep the old stories around, but we Noroneva did, because we think it's important to know how we changed things and how things used to be. So when you hear the old stories, you have to remember that now, if you want to be the hero or the rescuer, you can.
The historical texts I was able to read give a similar, though less simplified, version of events. Sadly, the dating system has shifted at least twice since the modern era, and I don't know what precipitated the attitudinal shift alluded to by the histories. The Noroneva have a wealth of literature preserved from the modern and pre-modern ages, but no good historical accounts of what occurred post-modernity; my speculation is that there was something of an intellectual Dark Age following whatever cataclysmic event or events dramatically reduced the world's population.

Living Noronevan

In my time among the Noroneva, I found it progressively easier to fit into their conceptions of gender. Because the definitions are fluid, and practices and expressions shift easily, I had to adjust to not knowing what was expected of me. I was often disoriented in conversation with people at first, which led me to realize how much of my interpersonal communication throughout my life has been predicated upon knowing and playing to the gender of whoever I'm communicating with. I found it easiest to adapt to the children, whose early expression of childhood gender is essentially genderless. Relating to adolescents and adults was much more difficult at first, but I acclimated faster than I would have thought possible. Within two months, I had completely stopped thinking of the female-bodied people as women and the male-bodied as men. Soon after that I realized that my own gender performance was shifting in relation to whoever I was with, to fit the situation. It was at that point that I realized that a narrative as a participant observer was in order, and I began to make notes. That narrative will follow this draft and will hopefully offer a more personal, autobiographical perception of the Noroneva and their understanding and experience of gender.

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