The 2016 modern summer Olympics is over and the concept is truly wonderful: nations gathering to compete in peace and amicability. There is one problem with the Olympics that was recently illustrated to me by a citizen of the country of Sangendria.
Sangendria is a very old and small country nestled in the far north eastern part of the Himalayas. Their country was not arable enough to sustain them so they became great traders, craftsmen and diplomats. They imported raw materials and exported finished goods. Disputes were brought to them and they adjudicated. Treaties were brought to them: and they edited and negotiated. Many trade routes went through their country because of ease of passage as well as splendid way-stops. They were known as far back as Roman times.
They have maintained their traditional culture through to modern times and it includes two peculiar aspects: their religion, a pantheism based on tree veneration, and a completely lacking distinction of genders or sexes.
It is this last aspect of their culture that has kept them out of every modern Olympiad, they can neither compete in the men's events nor the women's.
I recently spoke with Choris by Skype because I had been doing some research about countries that have not or do not participate in the Olympics. I found Sangendria in Wikipedia and then on facebook. Choris is the moderator of the Sangendria facebook page and was delighted to grant me an interview and quotes for this blog.
Choris is a young adult whose long hair is pulled back in a braid and has no facial hair. I couldn't say if Choris was clean shaven or just had no dark hair on the face. There really were no characteristics I could see to indicate any gender role nor physical sex. Choris never indicated a physical sex nor gender role to me.
Me: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I'm sure there are many people who would be interested in learning about your culture.
Choris: I'm very happy to do it. I'm sure the thing that is most interesting to you is what is most interesting to me about your cultures, the idea of gender roles and sexual categorization. I think we Sangendrians may be unique in this.
Me: I don't know of any other culture that does that. First I have to ask, and please don't think I'm rude, but are their no physical genders in your culture group? How do you reproduce? Are you physically different from other Homo sapiens?
Choris: [laughed] That is really three questions, but I know the confusion that underlies all of them. We are no different physically from any other Homo sapiens. We do reproduce sexually just like everyone else, but we don't categorize people by their physical sexes. When two people have sex they might produce a baby and they might not. Some couplings of people are more likely to produce offspring than others. Sexual intercourse has many functions and reproduction is only one of them.
Me: There is no mandate in your religion to be fruitful and multiply?
Me: Do you have marriage?
Choris: We do have an institution that is very similar to your marriage. Two people pledge allegiance to each other completely, exclusively and in perpetuity. This includes sexual rights and responsibilities.
Me: Do you have things like homosexuality?
Choris: That is rather meaningless to us. Each individual has a preference for what they like sexually, this includes physical attributes as well as intellectual and emotional attributes. We see everyone as having many aspects and each of these in many varying degrees. I have studied other cultures and your categories interest me greatly. I do see some advantage in, "packaging" people with many predominantly similar features. Women have breasts, and female reproductive organs; and are generally smaller. This is true of a large majority, perhaps over 90% so it makes a lot of sense to make a category so people can use it as a sort of shorthand. For instance a person can say, "I like girls sexually" and find others who also have this preference to discuss things with and find appropriate mates with. It is much more flexible for us, but also more difficult.
Me: Because no one can make assumptions.
Choris: Yes. This is a great disadvantage most of the time, but does allow for things that your cultures have trouble with, like "alternative lifestyles" and intersexed people. You really have no easy way to address or deal with people that don't fall into the categories you set.
Me: You see sexual categories as too limiting, but you also see a lack of them as limiting as well.
Choris: Yes. It is my culture so I have a bias toward it, but humans do tend to categorize things, we do it for everything. If I tell you I'm looking at a bird, what characteristics do you think the thing has?
Me: It probably has feathers and wings and flies.
Choris: Right, but and that's true of most birds, the vast majority in fact. But, of course there are flightless birds that don't fit the category. It works the other way too. If I see a new animal I would look at its characteristics and try to categorize it. This works very well usually, and makes things a lot easier in many cases. There are exceptions and people can go too far, like Diogenes' chicken.
Me: Or the Olympics.
Choris: Yes. We cannot participate in the Olympics because we can't really draw the line grouping people into men and women.
Me: You can't just take the characteristics and apply them, assigning your athletes at least temporarily?
Choris: We can, we aren't stupid, but we are very uncomfortable with it. It just doesn't sit well with us. We neither want to categorize people that way nor do we want to be categorized.
Me: What makes it so uncomfortable? If it is someone else's category you don't have to feel that you are that category.
Choris: It is so ingrained in your cultures that it is really what you see those people as. It is who they are. I am me, not a man or a woman or something else. If someone tried to take away your individuality you would be very upset.
Me: Yes I would. I hope you don't take offense.
Choris: I don't. I know this is a very difficult concept to understand.
Me: And we haven't even discussed gender roles!
Choris: Of course gender roles stem from the physical sexes so it makes sense to talk about them first. They are very closely related.
Me: The whole topic can be confusing and I wonder if it is more confusing with the categories or without. I have run out of space for my blog post thought so I'm going to split the interview at this point. Can talk about gender roles when we come back?
Choris: I'd like that very much.
Me: Thank you for your time.
Choris: Thank you.
This was of course a fictional interview. I wanted to conduct a thought experiment with the idea of a culture that has no sexes nor genders. I thought the idea of an interview would be a good way to do it. I have no formal training in gender studies. My background is a BA in Anthropology and autodidactic reading. I meant no offense to anyone.
I hope you found the concept interesting and I apologize if I have offended anyone. If you would like me to post the second part of the interview let me know and I would be delighted to.