I was born Catholic. I was baptised. I still remember going through some rites in the Catholic church when I was 7 and 12 years old. In my early teenage years I started to seriously doubt whether there was any truth in Catholicism. By the time I was 14 I rejected the Catholic church, and settled down on being agnostic. It took a few more years before I concluded that I was actually an atheist, and I have not moved from that position since.
Despite the fact that, by the time I was 18, I was not a Catholic any more in my head, officially I still was. When I moved out of my parent’s home and to a different town, I had to register as a citizen of that town. On my registration form “religion” was already filled in, and it said “Catholic.” I changed it at that time to “None.” Later, someone told me that to denounce being a Catholic, you actually have to send a letter to the Pope. I don’t know if that is true, and I never did it. Since I am no longer registered as Catholic, whether or not the Pope thinks I am Catholic is irrelevant.
You may wonder how I actually know that I am not Catholic. You can only know whether you are something if you know how that something is defined, and you can measure features of yourself that classify you as that something or not. I assume that you are not a Catholic if you do not hold the central beliefs of the Catholic church, such as there being a god who created the universe and watches over the people on Earth. Since I do not hold those beliefs, I assume that I am not a Catholic.
I know people who do not agree with me on when one is a Catholic. These people, like me, do not ascribe to the rather childish notion of a paternalistic god, but still say that they are Catholic, because they feel “at home” in the Catholic church. For them, being Catholic is a choice which you can make regardless of your beliefs. It is like being a member of a gym: you pay your dues and as long as the gym is not actively throwing you out, you are a member of the gym, regardless whether you visit the gym or even exercise at all.
I like the definition of “being Catholic” as “being registered as Catholic.” I do not hold the beliefs of the Catholic church, which is why I removed my registration as Catholic. But my reasons do not matter. I could have unregistered because I am disgusted by the atrocities which the church engaged in over the centuries, or because I start believing in the tenets of a different religion, or because I do not like the colors of the local priest’s vestments. In the end, it is simply my personal choice whether or not I am a Catholic, as it is anyone else’s personal choice whether they are.
There are plenty of religions, however, which do not allow you to “choose” not to be a part of them. I don’t think that holds for Catholicism, but I haven’t checked. It does not matter much for me anyway, as I live in a country where religious beliefs are of only minor importance.
So while I am not struggling with my religious leanings, I am told that I should currently be struggling with my sex. See, all my life I have believed that I am male, but I am now told that the reasons that I believe this are pretty much the same as the reasons I believed in my youth that I was Catholic. Believing one is male is like being a member of the male church.
My parents told me that I am male, and it was noted on my birth certificate. Later on I was told that I could see that I am male because I have male genitalia. Considering my history, I am convinced that I have the physical ability to produce gametes. I dress in clothing that is made for males, and exhibit some particular behaviors which are more characteristics for males than for females. When I visit the restroom, I pick the stall with the male figure on it. So I have plenty of male features.
Yet it seems that such features tell very little about my gender. What my parents told me is not necessarily true, and what is on my birth certificate can be changed. Naturally, how you dress is just a choice that you can make regardless of your gender, and behavioral characteristics are at best indicative of gender, but hardly definitive. Occasionally I went into the female restroom stalls, and saw no obvious difference with the male ones. I have been told there exist people whose genotype is neither male nor female, or whose fenotype differs from what is common for their genotype. So it looks like I have no objective criteria to decide that I am male.
The dictionary is of no help. Merriam-Webster defines “male” as “the opposite of female” and “female” as “the opposite of male.” Thanks a bundle, Merriam-Webster.
In sports, where the decision whether someone is male or female is often of crucial importance, the most objective criterion for this decision is used, namely the amount of testosterone one produces. Unfortunately, this is of no help to me, for three reasons. One, I do not know my testosterone levels. Two, testosterone levels are not constant. And three, even in sports it is agreed that the testosterone criterion is not a definitive answer to the gender question, it is just the best they have.
There is no checking of some observable facts to classify me definitively as one gender or another. All possible observable facts have been rated as “inconclusive.” If one cannot objectively draw conclusions about gender, then believing that one is a particular gender is like holding on to a religious belief.
I have been told in recent years that it simply is my own choice whether I am male, female, or something else, just like it is my own choice whether I am Catholic or not. I am what I feel I am. But the thing is, I don’t feel anything about my gender. Most of my characteristics are common to what is generally thought of as being male, but that does not mean that I feel that I am male.
In my passport it says that I am male. When I get a new passport, I now have the option to change it, including changing it to “other” or “not stated.” I intend to take the easy way out and not ask for a change in that respect, so I will probably stay in the male church. However, what if I am actively asked to make a choice? What if someone wipes the “M” and then tells me “please fill in your gender here”? At that point, I have to decide what I feel. And I feel nothing, because I have no idea how I am supposed to feel anything about my gender. So I may fill in an “X,” after giving it a lot of thought. Even if I do think that I am male, if I have to make an official declaration about what my gender is, I simply do not know.
I am sure that there are people who firmly believe that they are male, female, neither, or something else (even though rationally, there are no objective reasons that they can base that belief on). I expect that there are also many people who are in the same position as I am, working from the premise that their gender is what they have been told it is or what they derived from examining their genitalia, but realising that they do not have an internal feeling about their gender.
If gender is no longer an objective feature, it is only logical that the number of people who cannot specify their gender will grow over time. If it is purely subjective, then it has meaning only for one self. And as it is meaningless for everyone else, it is senseless to make it part of one’s official identity on passports and the like. For official matters, I expect that in time it will be replaced by different properties. A passport might list “external sexual organs,” a dating app will refer to “internal and external sexual organs and sexual preference,” a sports club will differentiate “high-testosterone” and “low-testosterone” matches, and companies with hiring quota will have to stop referring to gender altogether.
As someone who is a big proponent of individualism, I cannot protest such changes too much, even though I consider them rather awkward. Gender should not matter for how one is treated, so the idea that you can create a few boxes and assign all people to a box, treating them better or worse in accordance to the box they ended up in, is abhorrent to me. Abolishing gender entails abolishing at least some of the boxes that are occasionally used to the detriment of some people.
In practice, however, gender cannot and will not be rooted out of social interaction. The general categories of “male” and “female” for referring to a broad range of behaviors and attractions are too useful for human interaction to remove them. If these particular terms do get discontinued — which I don’t think will happen –, you can be sure that they will be replaced by something quite similar.