Sweden Goes Gender-Neutral

Since 2010 Sweden has been able to call itself the most gender-equal country in the world, but some are lobbying for another step forward. According to Slate Swedish activists are now pushing for not just gender-equality, but gender-neutrality.

To achieve neutrality, gender-neutral advocates are lobbying for new policies, such as the recognition of all names as unisex, but the country has already taken some steps towards gender-neutrality. Some Swedish preschools do not allow teachers to address children by gendered categories such as “boys and girls” but rather by their names or gender-neutral terms like “buddies.” The image from the toy catalog above also presents its toys as unisex by swapping the traditional gender roles. The gender-neutral pronoun hen has recently been added to the country’s National Encyclopedia.

Not all have welcomed these changes though. Swedish columnist Elise Claeson has said that the move towards gender-neutrality would confuse children while their bodies are developing, and Swedish author Jan Guillou “referred to proponents of hen as ‘feminist activists who want to destroy our language.'” Some also find the Swedish school system’s restrictions on gender-coded behavior, such as banning traditionally boyish toy cars from schools, to be too extreme. Slate also criticizes the regulated language of schools to be simply replacing one set of rules with another equally restrictive set.

The comment section of the Slate article also shows a good deal of backlash. One commenter thought the move toward gender-neutrality when interacting with children “would create confusion which could very well lead to cross dressing, bisexuality and/or homosexuality.” Another commenter labeled Sweden a “a sick society” for proposing these changes.

It’s interesting that some of the detractors equate non-gender conforming behaviors, such as cross-dressing, with confusion. These reactions suggest that gender-normative behaviors are so entrenched in our thinking as “natural” or “normal” that acting outside of them is instantly perceived as wrong. A Finnish woman commented on this article to say that Finland already has a similar gender-neutral pronoun, hän. She now lives in the US and says, “As a Finnish woman I struggle with people’s opionion of me here in the states” due to some of the gendered stereotypes she has encountered.

The subtitle of the article, “A country tries to banish gender” seems misleading to me. The image above certainly shows an awareness of gendered objects and behaviors, and does not try to hide them, but instead presents them outside their traditional confines. The proposal of a neutral pronoun does not mean people cannot still use gendered forms of identification, but simply provides a way to identify people without assuming their gender. By offering children alternatives to the traditional gender roles, it allows them to make a more informed decision on which toys or activities best suit them, rather than determining these choices for them based simply on their sex at birth.

The effects of these new policies remains to be seen. Do you find them too restrictive or too radical? Or is Sweden providing a progressive model towards achieving widespread equality?

Sweden’s New Gender-Neutral Pronoun: Hen [Slate]

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