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Dutch Rail loses gender

2020! And a new year, too, for the Dutch National Railways and their ever-exciting gender policy.

Several years back, the company already decided to address its customers as ‘passengers’ instead of ‘ladies and gentlemen’. Now, their identity documentation has also undergone a milestone transformation.

As a carrier of a railway discount card for the Netherlands, I have been subjected to various different genderings over the years. More specifically, the national railway company’s ideas about gender seem to have moved through three distinct phases within the past decade:

Phase 1 – c. 2010

This phase was characterised by the following notion, apparently held by the company: ‘As an independent traveller, especially one who is able to arrange their own fares, you must be male.’

That is, after registering with them as a client and paying my fees, but failing to mention my gender, I was Assigned Male at Boarding. This gender designation was printed prominently on my discount card.

Phase 2 – c. 2015

In this phase, a new attitude saw the light: ‘If you want to travel with us, we ask you to be either female or male for the next five years to come, and to let us know about these plans in advance.’

I decided that, if I had to choose, my five-year plan for this period could do with a little femininity after having lived my travelling life as a man for five years, and so my new discount card bore a capital ‘V’, Dutch for ‘woman’.

Phase 3 – c. 2020

The National Railways move with the times. Their new stance on gender: ‘Hm, now that you mention it: the letters “M” and “V” are perhaps not the most precise tools after all to identify the individuals we encounter on our trains. They offer even less information, in fact, than that photo which we also display on our ID cards. And perhaps this insistence on gender, if not annoying to all of our customers, is still a little, uhm, embarrassing.’

And so, the gender marks were removed from my card altogether.

Even travel historians like a little travel future.

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More shared loos: from binary to queer

One more brief post on unisex toilet facilities, before we move on to other things! (Unless this new city which I moved to, keeps surprising me.)

My new office building has many floors. On one floor:

One cubicle for two genders.

On the next floor:

One cubicle for all genders.

(Including, apparently, the ‘wheelchair gender’. Odd how wheelchairs keep being presented as some kind of stick-on gender feature. Or genderlessness feature: most wheelchair-accessible loos are shared among all genders. But that’s a slightly different topic.)

And then there was this one:

Ain’t they a beauty?If anyone knows who designed this merhuman, I wouldn’t mind being told!

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Postmodern toilet

As readers may know, toilets interest me. Each time we decide which cubicle to visit in a semi-public space, we show who we think we are: a man or a woman.*

I recently visited the International Archive for the Women’s Movement in Amsterdam. In my break, I found a single toilet cubicle, marked with the following pictogram:

By AIGA (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

This confused me – which only goes to show how seriously we take these symbols. Women’s movement? Were women expected to look for a different loo?

I moved on. Suddenly, the WC door showed a different picture:

By AIGA, converted by Lateiner (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikipedia Commons.

Another moment of confusion. Had I misread the picto the first time around?

And then: but of course, a tilt card (a lenticular print, or ‘hologram’). Both images were really there, but which one I saw depended on my standpoint.

A common description of postmodernist art is that it contains an ontological flickering (‘onto-‘ from the Greek word for ‘being’). This means that you are presented with multiple realities; a story in which the protagonist moves in two different worlds, for instance. Only, whereas in non-postmodernist art, one of these worlds usually turns out to be a dream-world from which the protagonist wakes up, in postmodernist art, both worlds are equally real. The Neverending Story would be a classic example.

I could enter the loo a woman, and come out a man. Or vice versa. Or perhaps more accurately: as long as I was inside, I would always be both woman and man. A little like Schrödinger’s cat, but a cat which remains both dead and alive even after someone has opened the door to check.

The archive in Amsterdam therefore presented me with a wonderful ontological opportunity. (And no: no one opened the door to check. This had been firmly locked from the inside.) And I had the pleasure of being postmodernist for a brief while.

Luckily, after these few minutes I did not much mind to give up being female and male, and to just be me again.

 

* Or that which is often presented to us as a third option: disabled. Which raises a whole number of additional issues.

More on ontological flicker: Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (1987). Years ago, I used his (her?) ideas in an essay on postmodernist children’s literature, which included Michael Ende’s Neverending Story (Die unendliche Geschichte).

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Women at Work and Men Too

Two weeks ago, the following notice appeared on the fence of a building site in the northern-English town where I live:

Warning: men and women at work*

Men and women: the text is a sign that the construction industry is finally starting to recognise the many female workers it employs. The text, by being so unusual, also invites passers-by to reflect on this fact: that is, that some of the people who build our homes and offices and bus stations, are women.

I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first: Sweden and Hong Kong.

I’ve just returned from a journey to Sweden, where I got my first sight of the latte pappas: Swedish fathers who care for their children full-time. They can be seen out on the streets with prams and diaper-changing bags, and they walk around completely independently, without being accompanied by a mother.

If this presented a culture shock to someone living in Britain, that does not mean Sweden is the only place in the world where independent fathering is normal. In fact, the latte pappas reminded me of something I saw in Hong Kong years ago:

This poster in the underground of Hong Kong was warning against pickpockets, but it did something else as well: normalise fathers who take care of their children unaided by any mother. And it looks like baby and daddy make a good team.

Meanwhile, back in my English town last week, the notice on the construction site had been ‘corrected’:Warning: men and men at work

Who did this? A humorous passer-by? It that case, the deletion only emphasises the newness of this language: the corrector must have found the incongruousness of working women so huge, that to draw attention to it seemed funny.

Or was the sign defaced by a worker him[?]self? Perhaps someone with an obsessive compulsion for correctness who wanted to point at that at this particular site, no women were employed? Or a male worker who thought that no women ought to work there? Or someone else still?

Perhaps a Hong Kong latte pappa can come over and teach his mates here a lesson in new gender roles?**

 

 

* It seems justified to insert a colon here: the warning is not directed at those who are at work.

** I haven’t touched on the issue of class here – the term ‘latte pappa’ at least sounds privileged –  for which we would need to combine knowledge about the person(s) who defaced the construction notice, what classed message is transmitted by the Hong Kong poster, what use Swedish working-class fathers make of the state’s care benefit system, etc.

Photo credits: women at work by JHMS; Hong Kong father by APHG.