Don't Gender Me, Bro: Writing Under a Gender-Neutral Byline

Writing under my initials for a very long time has allowed me to observe the way people relate to a writer on the basis of perceived gender, because people seem to have an urgent, desperate need to slot each other into gender categories.
Publish date:
May 16, 2013
names, gender, gender essentialism, name bias

Almost a year ago, I finally filed the legal paperwork to change my name.

But outwardly, nothing really changed. Professionally, most people know me by my initials, which I maintained through the name change, and personally, a fair number of people also use my initials. Which isn’t to say that people don’t use my first name (Simon, for the record) at all, it’s just that now I don’t cringe when I hear it, unlike in the past.

Names hold a lot of power, as Nico Lang observes at Thought Catalog, and it’s especially interesting to navigate the world as a writer with a gender-neutral name. Writers occupy a somewhat unique position in that we can choose how much of ourselves to disclose to our readers; radio personalities have voices that tend to be a giveaway, television broadcasters obviously appear on set, but writers are voices behind a pen.

Writing under my initials for a very long time has allowed me to observe the way people relate to a writer on the basis of perceived gender, because people seem to have an urgent, desperate need to slot each other into gender categories. It’s very unsettling and upsetting for readers to be confronted with a writer whom they can’t categorize that way.

Look at “The Economist,” which pointedly doesn’t use bylines, yet includes women and men on its masthead. It creates a sense of imbalance in some readers -- who wrote this, a man or a woman? Does it matter? Many people seem to think it does, ascribing all sorts of motivations and undertones to a piece on the basis of the perceived or believed gender of the author.

For the bulk of my career, long before I started discussing my gender, I was assigned female. Like Nico, that was, I suspect, because of the sorts of things I wrote about. I covered women’s and gender issues and other social justice topics. I talked about sexuality, about disability politics, about pop culture, and was relentlessly read as a woman even though I hadn’t given a whisper of my gender, nor did any pictures of me exist online.

Intriguingly, those ridiculous little tests you can use to test the alleged gender of a writer from a sample of that person's work almost always turn up male for me.

Every now and then I’d see someone referring to me as a “he” and I’d get a little frisson of delight that stirred deeper thoughts about my own relationship to my gender, but for the most part? Lady, across the board, and it got even worse once I did start talking about my own relationship with gender, and publishing pictures of myself.

I’m assumed to be a woman now because of what I write about and what I look like -- even though my own gender narrative, like Nico’s, is much more complex.

And, I think, the use of a gender-neutral names also adds to why people think of me as female. There’s a certain expectation that women hide themselves as writers, and thus that people writing under initials or under ambiguous names are probably women.

I understand where this assumption comes from. There’s a long history of women writing under assumed male names or initials because they knew they’d never be widely read, discussed, or respected if they wrote as women. George Eliot, for example, is widely considered to be one of the foremost authors of the 19th century -- I doubt Mary Ann Evans would have been subject to the same reception.

Nico notes that he occupies an interesting place, with his name giving him an opportunity to see firsthand how women are torn apart on the Internet, and how sex and gender are used to discredit people:

When someone wants to tear apart my writing -- because I had the gall to suggest that society is racist or sexist -- they often bring up my presumed gender to do so. I’m interpellated as “that girl,” “a chick on the internet,” “this whore” or just “some c*nt,” and my femaleness is never mentioned with respect. No one ever says, “O’ wise woman, thou hast shown me why fat-shaming is bad form.” They say, “Stop being so easily offended, bitch.” Femaleness is used to discredit me in a way that maleness is not. No one has ever said, “This guy is an asshole” or “Dude doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Because maleness is our societal default setting, it’s never mentioned.

There is nothing so quick and so easy to use when putting someone down than femaleness. Nothing so easy to dismiss someone’s commentary, work, and thoughts with -- just call that person a bitch and wash your hands of the matter. If she won’t shut up, crack a rape joke, because that ought to send her crawling back to whatever hole she slithered out of.

Men, though, are rarely dismissed so neatly, except through being feminized, as Nico notes, because being a woman is the worst thing ever and if you want to silence a male columnist, you can always just call him a girl.

His observations as a man on another point of the gender-neutral spectrum fascinate me, because he enjoys a certain amount of power as a male writer -- he loses nothing by explicitly outing himself as a man, while a woman who wrote under a gender-neutral name and never specified her gender would be crucified if she “came out.”

And those of us who are neither are insistently and repeatedly slotted into one box or the other, with most people choosing the “feminine” box, perhaps because that’s the one that’s easiest to silence us in. Slap down the lid and stick a shipping label on it, and consider the job done.

Writing under a name that can be interpreted in any number of ways has provided a fascinating education in how people construct gender on the basis of very few social cues, and how they’re willing to overlook cues in order to maintain their idea of a writer’s gender. It’s also illustrated how important it seems to be to many people to know what someone’s gender is, to force someone into a tight category before relating to that person’s work.

Yet, our social construction and approach to gender is so warped and limiting that this approach is inherently flawed and troubling. There are so many people who occupy liminal, complex spaces, who are in transition, who don’t have easily-defined genders, that this insistence on knowing the gender behind the name can be tremendously damaging. It makes me wonder sometimes if perhaps “The Economist” has the right idea, allowing the writing to stand on its own as part of a collective.

At the same time, the tremendous history of imbalance makes it hard to advocate for erasing the identities of writers; we need more women writing, we need more voices of women of color, we need more disabled people and queer people and religious minorities. And to do that, we do need demographic information about writers, we need to know who is represented and who is not. How do we keep this see-saw in balance?

People infer things about my gender based on who they think I am, which is rooted in what they read, which is a rather selective presentation of me. Those expectations in turn rebound on me -- there are expectations about what I should cover, how I should think about things, who I will associate with, how I will express myself. There is a sense almost of ownership and I wonder if male writers experience the same thing from their readers, or if this is unique to writers who are assumed to be female.

I think of Daisy, with a clearly gendered name, a woman who writes openly about the fact that she’s a lady, who catches flak for covering sports. I think of Tynan, a man who clearly identifies himself as such who could be dismissed through feminization. I think of Marianne, who frequently talks about femininity and performances of gender.

And I wonder, I think to myself: What would happen if their articles went up without bylines? Because your reception to them would change, and you’d be forced to look past your perception of the author and into the actual content of the article.

Is there even such a thing as a “gender-neutral” name when so much is read into names?

Gender is sticky, messy, ooky stuff sometimes. It’s oobleck, seeming solid but treacherously fluid once you start manipulating it. Names are one of the cues we, as a society, use to filter people by perceived gender, yet they don’t always yield a satisfactory, let alone correct, outcome.

How much does a name really tell us about the person behind it? And how many of the writers you’re currently assuming are women actually are?