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My story takes place in a relatively near future setting where gender stereotypes have become a thing of the past. Unlike a recent question on another site, physiological sex-specific traits are still very much present in society, but they no longer have any significant meaning outside of mate selection and some health care contexts. Choices about casual or even committed sexual activity outside of reproduction are subject only to basic rules about protecting children and persons unable to consent. Rules about appropriate clothing, activities, professions, hairstyles, mannerisms, etc. simply no longer exist except as a historical curiosity or the unachievable dream of rare ultra-conservative activists (who either don't actually appear in my story or are a triviality).

How do I portray this in my world without making it a critical part of the plot or theme? That is, I don't want this to be a "men in dresses" story, but rather a story that might happen to have men in dresses at some point because it's the stereotype-free future and whatnot.

My main ideas are:

  • Just describe gender-free life, and hope the reader is not too startled.
  • Provide some sort of narrative introduction to the reader explaining the setting and how gender stereotypes no longer exist. This, however, seems like something I want to avoid, because the story is not about gender.
  • Provide some sort of in-universe contrived dialogue in which this is revealed. For example, a school teacher might give a history lesson in which they explain to their students how there used to be these things called gender stereotypes, etc.

There are a few other questions on this site about how to write in an LGBT character without making an LGBT Story, such as An LGBT main character, but the book isn't about LGBT issues and How to write a homosexual character, whose homosexuality isn't the point of the story? , but they don't quite match because I'm talking about an entire society, one in which the concept of being LGBT no longer exists because everyone, and conversely, no one, qualifies as a gender or sexual minority.

Notes:

  • The exact timeframe is not very important, so we can assume at least the minimum amount of time for such a change to take place has actually elapsed. Considering that Western society's transition to allowing women to wear trousers took approximately 30 years (from organized defiance to minority to normalcy), and that acceptance of homosexuality is proceeding in a similar fashion, we can assume that my future likely takes place sometime in the late 21st century.
  • While there is an obvious parallel to Star Trek lurking somewhere in the question, it is important that I am not writing a Star Trek story, and there are no phasers, Klingons, or replicators around (nor anything similar to them), and, even if I was, the question is medium-based, so the way in which Star Trek has presented some "gender-non-conforming" characters in the background does not really apply to the written medium, where everything must be described in words.
  • A big part of the focus is not falling into either traditional or "LGBT" stereotypes. So, while the story may have "men in dresses", it won't have "Men in Dresses" in the sense that that is their thing. Dresses, in this case, would just be one of many possible clothing options. Some women would be inclined to wearing them, some men would, and some people would just not care for them.

I am asking this question here rather than Worldbuilding.SE because I am asking specifically about the writing process and how to explain this to my readers, not the process of designing a gender-free society.

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    How close is, say, Star Trek to what you're trying to achieve? Are there any other touchpoints that pretty much are or very much are not what you're aiming for? – Standback Jun 26 at 19:33
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    @Standback I actually thought of Star Trek, and its idealized future (never fully shown) is actually fairly close to what I want, but I am thinking of the storytelling medium here. Star Trek could just show background characters on-screen that were not following 20th century stereotypes without really saying anything. I can't easily do that in writing because I need to explicitly describe what is happening and what characters see. I am also not writing a Star Trek story, and there are no phasers, Klingons, or replicators around. – Robert Columbia Jun 26 at 19:37
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    I don't believe there's an answer, but there is an example. Go read Ancillary Justice, and if you like it the subsequent novels. That award winning book used a strong POV that couldn't see gender for reasons. It was always there, but it also wasn't the point. Sex comes up & happens but isn't always the point. Studying what it does may give you some vantage in how to succeed. – Kirk Jun 26 at 20:19
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    I think I’d never notice a simple lack of gender stereotypes. What would sound very forced and jarring are elaborate descriptions of men wearing skirts and doing housework while women have short hair and do construction work. – Michael Jun 27 at 6:56
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    How important is the reader recognizing this point about your world to you? Because naturally a reader will fill in all blank spots in your book with his own fantasy/intuition. If you write "city" he will think of a normal city, unless you explicitly mention something different about it. So if it is normal for your characters and not central to your story, many readers will probably gloss over it and just imagine the characters acting according to expected norms/sterotypes off-screen or between the lines. – Falco Jun 27 at 12:58

14 Answers 14

26

Men do wear skirts: kilts, sarongs, hakamas, fustanellas... If your world is culturally diverse, any and all of those might have become common enough. In sci-fi stories in particular, new fashions is something we take in our stride.

But skirts are not really the focus of your question, they're just an aspect, an example. For the broader question, to write a gender-free world, I would just write a gender-free world. There's nothing weird or startling about it: it just means that one treats every person as a person, regardless of gender, and that gender doesn't enter into one's decision-making process (a.k.a you don't hear "boys shouldn't do X" and one doesn't think "I should do Y because I'm a girl").

In fact, I would suggest you look around the world - some of us already live in far less gendered societies than others. You can start with those, and then take your world the rest of the way. (By 'societies' I do not necessarily mean countries as a whole. That's part of it, but living in a big city vs. small town, economic status etc. also have an effect.) As an example, the first time my gender entered into my decision-making process was when I decided against an academic career, because I'd have had to do a post-doc in either Europe or America, and I was afraid to be a Jew in Europe and a woman in America. Until then - school, military service, academy, hobbies - I thought of myself as a person, not a 'woman'. As far as gender was concerned, there were 'sexy single guys potentially interested in me' and 'everybody else'. Two distinct genders. :)

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    I feel the need to point out that hakama are not actually skirts, just really baggy trousers. – MegaCrow Jun 27 at 9:36
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    This. And I wouldn't make a point about it. e.g. just mention the firefighters rescued the cat and then let one of them be revealed as female in a conversation, e.g. simply referring to her via "her". Or have three boys in skirts run by in a description of a scene, just like you would mention that there is a shop on that corner the protagonist meets with his friend with a red "barber" sign. No wondering, no reflection by the protagonist. – Frank Hopkins Jun 27 at 19:49
  • In Heinlein's unified-future stories the genders are very distinct socially but kilts are a standard male wardrobe item. In Yemen traditionally men wear robes and women wear pants. Clothing won't be as much help as you think. – arp Jun 28 at 13:57
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Treat it as if it were normal

Where I live slavery is not considered normal. The notion that my neighbour had a slave in their house would probably end up on national news and cause public stir. On the other hand, the same people that would be appalled by such event have no issues with watching TV shows where slavery is clearly a pillar of the fictional world. They accept it, and it does not look like it is jarring. Actually, in some recent episode, there happened a slave rebellion, and that caused a stir.

When you write you have full control over your world. Moreover, you have full control on how you describe it, and how your characters move in it. If a certain element of our world does not exist in your fictional world, then write accordingly. There is no need to mention that it is a difference: as long as your characters behave coherently with your assumptions, the reader will understand.

For instance, medieval fantasy fiction does not need to begin with "It is the Middle Age, there are no cars, there is no electricity, and people have low hygienic standards". Quite the contrary, it begins by telling the story, and continues, coherently with its setting. A good story does not need any additional explanation.

Removing gender stereotypes

How to convey the concept?

First, you need to clarify to yourself what you consider it to be a gender stereotype. Then you need to identify what makes up the discrimination, and attribute these items to all the genders, so that no gender can be identified by having it. For instance:

  • Are names an expression of gender stereotypes? If so, consider calling your characters with numbers, or with sequences of letters that can hardly be associated with a specific gender, e.g. OneFive, or Monon, or simply H.

  • Is clothing an expression of gender stereotypes? Consider using the exact same descriptions for every one: "the fabric covered the hips with a gentle shade of purple" and later "the purple fabric was wrapped around the arms", and so forth. make sure that the clothing shapes are consistent, but they can't be easily compared to our way of clothing

  • Is there a division of labor?

  • Is childbearing and childcaring a gender stereotype? Randomize or make it a shared effort. "They had been expecting their first child with increasing joy. It had soon become big enough that they could no longer sleep on their backs, nor go up the six flights of stairs without halting halfway to catch a breath. Yet, the thought of what was to come made them ecstatic."

  • Is appearance a stereotype? Give a variety of looks to all genders, so that no look belongs predominantly to one gender alone. You don't need to mention this fact, the variety will make the reader unable to associate a look with a particular gender. Let thick moustaches grow rampant, bald heads everywhere, and make tresses the fashion item of the season.

12

My suggestion is to casually alude to it. I'm taking up the 'men is dress' example you mentioned. If you have characters going shopping for clothes, you can have both men and women casually commenting on a particularly nice skirt.

"That red skirt would look great on you, Jason," Anne said excitedly. "It would be perfect for Kate's birthday party."

"Uh... I think it's a bit too short. I don't really like showing off my knees. They're so bony."

"That's nonsense! You've got great knees."

"Excuse me," the shop assistant came up. "Could I help you with anything?"

"Have you got a longer model of this red skirt?"

"Actually, we do!" She smiled. "It is a very popular item, so we've just received a new batch to replenish our stock. What's you size, sir?"

Or, perhaps you could just have a bunch of friends preparing a hunting outing.

"Hey, Jack, are you taking the camo face paint?"

"Uh... you may want to bring something yourself. I'm not sure I've got enough for both of us. But my wife got me this camo nail varnish that is great! I can let you borrow that one."

As for traditional male-female roles...

Jack rocked his six-month-old to sleep and sighed. Finally! Then he leaned over the crib and just gazed at his precious little boy. Oh, well, better get started on the laundry! Sometimes he just didn't understand how men in the past wouldn't want to stay at home and raise their children, at least in the first years, before they went to school. It felt so unnatural! Sure, it was tough having to put the career on hold, but... damn, wasn't it worth it? He picked up the phone and sent his wife a photo of the sleeping child. She missed him terribly, obviously, but someone had to keep on getting the bread on the table and her job having a higher salary, it had been a no-brainer. After loading the washing machine, he called his friend Pete. His girl was now eight months old and Jack figured it was high-time they organised a play-date for the two kids. Maybe next Thursday morning. Pete already had two kids, so he had more experience and it would be nice to have someone to talk to. Maybe they could have his sister pop in with her twins and have lunch outside. The weather was good enough for it.


In these short, a bit on the nose examples, it seems a bit heavy handed with the guys being the ones who apparently are doing 'feminine' stuff, but it's a matter of balancing it better in a longer text. The lunch-play-date can join stay-at-home mums and dads that talk naturally about their old careers, or when they're thinking of going back...

The key is to make it sound natural.

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    I'm not sure that "It is very popular with both our male and female clients, so we've just received a new batch to replenish our stock." sounds very natural. Just "very popular with our clients" or just "very popular", would be better (imo) since you're already "showing" the "subversion". – wizzwizz4 Jun 27 at 10:53
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    I do not get the feeling these are natural, but that the individuals being portrayed are shown to be plain effeminate by the author; bringing up "popular with both male and female" also implies in the idea taste differences which lead to gender segregation in articles still exist and those items are still popular despite that. Also reversing roles doesn't give out the idea that the gender doesn't matter anymore; but that the genders are just that: reversed, for whatever reason. – lucasgcb Jun 27 at 11:59
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    Yeah, well, I did say the examples were very much in the nose. It would take a longer text to make it sound natural. – Sara Costa Jun 27 at 12:34
  • I don't want to rain the parade, but I really don't see how you can "pull off" something as "big" as this, without it also being the center of attention. The examples you provided enforced that hunch of mine. – Alexander Jun 28 at 3:32
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    @wizzwizz4 I could easily see Jason or Ann glancing cheekily at each other and one of them mockingly saying to the sales assistant You have "male and female clients"? What about the rest of us? – Mark Booth Jun 28 at 15:29
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I think you have got into a "Don't mention the war!" mindset over this (ref: the John Cleese / Fawlty Towers comedies).

If "rules about appropriate clothing, activities, professions, hairstyles, mannerisms, etc. simply no longer exist" in your fictional world, then they don't exist. and I guess you don't want to have a David Attenborough-like "outsider" character, or your narrator, pointing out the non-existence of them.

Whatever creates enough tension between the characters in your world to make your story interesting and therefore readable, it is neither gender stereotyping nor the absence of gender stereotyping.

Think this through a bit more. If appropriateness isn't an issue, then you characters are not going to be spending their time thinking or saying "X is wearing something really appropriate (or inappropriate) but in this wonderfully egalitarian world we live in, I don't care and neither does anyone else." They are simply not going to be thinking about the issue at all. So there is nothing there for you to write about!

The absence of stereotypes will made some aspects of your world tangibly different though. Consider how the entire clothing and cosmetics industries would function, when nobody wants to copy "the look" of celebrities, etc because nobody cares what anyone else looks like. Now that might be a way into a story that illustrates your world without preaching about it...

  • I don't think that OP is contemplating a world where "nobody cares what anyone else looks like." Rather, the world they describe is one in which people do care about appearances, but in a gender-neutral way. For example, there is no "rule" that only women can wear dresses, but people of both genders do choose to wear dresses (or other items) on the basis of their appearance. They just don't factor gender into it. – Kevin Jun 28 at 22:05
6

Show something else that is more interesting

If you don't want to have reader's attention fixated on one aspect of your story, make sure that other aspects of it are more intriguing. You need to make sure that your worldbuilding and storybuilding are done right. Any confusion that the reader might have about the "unimportant" aspect of the story should be getting a quick and satisfying explanation, so the fact that some men are wearing dresses would not become a disturbing thought. Generally, the reader should accept this aspect as an ordinary feature of your world that does not require any bit of extra attention. This should become a backdrop for the real story to take place.

A somewhat similar problem (in visual media) is "How to show a well-endowed girl without her stealing all the attention?" In single picture, it is indeed very hard to solve. But if there is a whole story to tell, Anime and Manga are dealing with this problem just fine - at some point, audience just stops registering how unnatural the characters may look and pays proper attention to the story.

5

I don't want to answer the question you've asked because I think at the core you're asking "What do I write?" If the point is not to be didactic or write an allegory, I think what you're actually asking is:

How do I present a world with radical social norm differences than my own and still tell a good story?

And the answer is that you just present it as your characters would interact with it. If it's not the point, then do not make it the point. It's possible its a darling and one you do not wish actually write about (and you'll know this because it will get in the way of whatever narrative you actually want to tell); but if its not in the way than its the typical window-dressing that setting and theme write.

Let's ask the reverse, of your question which is still a derivative of the one I pose above.

How do I present an older version of the world that accepted radical social norms that are not at all acceptable today?

The reality of this isn't that much different. You pick a point of view character. They have to interact in a world where the social norms (say slavery) are what they are. And that changes who has power and who doesn't. That changes who has expectations and who doesn't. It warps the conflict a bit and changes what the character is allowed to do as society sees them.

But, there's another layer. You can write faithfully for the time period and end up with a truly abhorrent character. Sometimes in these situations you have a character who is the window through which your reader identifies. The person who doesn't quite get it or has opinions, but is outside of the normal social structure. Maybe you get to see their inner monologue where they hate slavery, but outwardly they can't say that for reasons. And through that our modern sensibilities are satisfied.

But, there's not really a how other than being faithful to the rules an not violating them. And not making any rules that break the fourth wall or lose your reader.

The point is that it doesn't matter when you're writing about something like this. Past, future, parallel dimension, now but in a local space where this is accepted (say an island your protag crash lands onto that doesn't have gender). But, what's likely to happen is that gender will be the "Agent X" of your book. Even if you don't feel it is, your readers likely will. That will be the thing they focus on if you give it tons of detail.

You need to decide how important this detail of your world is. If it isn't important, then the way you treat it in your book is you casually mention it in a sentence or less and move on. The more you write about it the more important it will become. If you have a presentation in a class or take a scene to explain it then that's what your book will be about as your reader interprets it. The time (word count) we spend describing things is directly proportional to the importance of the thing we are describing.

I don't want this to be a "men in dresses" story, but rather a story that might happen to have men in dresses at some point because it's the stereotype-free future and whatnot.

Then you basically just need to occasionally have men show up in dresses and not pay much attention to it. This is probably going to be schismatic for a normal* audience. Its going to be difficult to write a story that's not about gender if you put this in there. I recommend you just get comfortable with your book being about no-gender-stereotypes if that's the world you want to write about because there's likely not a way to write about it without it being a big deal for your audience.

(*Normal is just average, not a value judgement).

  • "The more you write about it the more important it will become." - this. – Iiridayn Jun 28 at 19:32
4

Perhaps open with a character with a gender-ambiguous name, and never refer to this character as he or her. Or maybe two such characters.

I think if done well, the gender-neutral interactions between a Syd and a Pat could be mind-trippy and set up your story frame nicely.

EDIT: A short example of what I have in mind:

"Hey, you ready?" Pat finished wrapping the sandwiches and snapped the lid on the cooler.

"One more minute," Syd called from the bathroom.

"Vanity, thy name is--"

"Oh you're one to talk."

Pat chuckled. Syd was right, either one of them both bought enough product to keep the local drug store in business.

Syd stepped out. "Does this outfit work?"

Pat laughed."Avery will be yours. Mark my words, friend, after the picnic, you will not be going home alone."

To my mind, this sort of approach communicates that you are playing with gender rules and that the reader should enter the story accordingly.

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    This is an interesting idea, but it seems to be portraying such characters as unusual in some way. What I'm trying to do is portray a baseline normalcy, so perhaps we see Bill the insurance agent put on his favorite pink skirt and heels to meet with a potential client while phoning his boyfriend to get ready for the weekend deer hunt. – Robert Columbia Jun 26 at 20:35
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    But I think it can be done in a normal way. I think you don't need much, to make the reader get on board with your world building element. Your story telling. – DPT Jun 26 at 20:45
  • Nice idea, though perhaps a bit difficult to implement in just any story. It could work! I love your dialogue. – storbror Jun 27 at 7:35
3

While the answers thus far are good, and match my advice (just do it), they seem light on the mechanics. For the writing process it is important that you show and highlight unusual features of your society early in the story, specifically in the first 15% of the story.

At the beginning of a story, readers will accept basically anything: Magic, immortality, gods, other worlds, Faster than Light space travel, super hero powers, whatever you want. But you need to introduce those as a fact of your world very early: Reader tolerance for "wild new stuff" fades to zero by the end of Act I (25% of the way through).

So follow the advice of others, but invent whatever you need to, to introduce and highlight the most dramatic differences (just 2 or 3 would suffice) that are consequences of this lack of stereotypes. Other consequences can appear later, and won't be startling (or look like a deus ex machina) to the reader once they have seen the worst (or best) examples of the fundamental difference. Like "magic", once you prove it is real in your world, then many variations of it can be written about and introduced basically anywhere. But you have to establish unequivocally and early that it is real.

Same for your "free of gender stereotypes" thing, establish unequivocally and early that the world is free of these.

2

Short answer: You cannot.

Human fundamentals never change. If you desire to narrate a story where against all odds certain Things about humanity have changed - dramatically - you ought to recognize that your story is actually about Those Things, and keep them in focus.

Even if you try to play it down and make it seem like it's not a big deal, at some point the difference between our-humanity-as-it-is and your-humanity-as-you-write-it will become too great to ignore, and some fundamental assumption that either you or the reader have made will snap the dissonance to the forefront. Think of it like a Big Lipped Alligator Moment but for imaginatively altered human behavior. But, you can avoid this situation in two ways:

  1. If you never sweep the dissonance under the rug, no one will ever be surprised by it

  2. An explicitly transhumanist setting is a powerful reason to modify humanity in all sorts of interesting ways

I understand you might want to avoid shoving things in the reader's face, but remember that you're imagining a world where the basic building blocks of millions of years of sexuated life have been dismantled. That is not something you can really avoid placing front and center, and to do so would actually benefit your core message.

  • I would add that if the author's described reality is not critical to the plot, they would likely be better off dropping it from the story rather than try to shoehorn in something that major. They can write about this vision of the world in another story where it does matter. +1 – jpmc26 Jun 29 at 22:28
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Assign gender randomly

Write without referring to characters gender, then go back and flip a coin for each character. You should also do the same with names, since in a world where names indicate gender, there is going to be stereotyping.

A production note for the film Alien said that all characters were meant to be gender-neutral and could be cast as either male or female actors.

  • Since gender is a spectrum, how many sides should the gender coin have? *8') – Mark Booth Jun 28 at 15:33
  • @MarkBooth, people who don't identify as "male" or "female" are fairly rare. You can get a reasonable approximation by inserting a non-binary character every time the coin lands on edge. – Mark Jun 28 at 20:37
  • My comment was meant as a joke, hence the emoticon, but since you've taken it seriously, I now need to point out the inaccuracy in your response. *8') There's roughly 1/6000 chance of a coin landing on it's edge in ideal circumstances, however there's a roughly 1 in 50 chance that a present day individual either has an intersex characteristic or does not identify as cisgender. As awareness of the non-binary nature of sex & gender is rising, this proportion is getting smaller every year. – Mark Booth Jul 1 at 9:56
0

Present a world like that of the Culture series, where radical transhumanism is the norm, and everyone can swap their gender or sexuality to be whatever they want it to be trivially easily. As a result, discrimination based on gender or sexuality no longer exists, since whenever there were inequalities between the genders, people just tended to switch to whichever gender was socially advantaged until things swung back the other way.

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    I find it a bit unfair that this receives down-votes, it could elaborate better on why and it could have been a comment but I was going to write the exact same example in a comment as it is an excellent example of this done well. – lijat Jun 27 at 9:36
  • I figured it deserved to be an Answer because, you know, it's answering the Question. – nick012000 Jun 27 at 9:37
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    I did not downvote this, but I also don't think it's a good answer. You just say "change your setting from what you had in mind to that of the Culture series". That's neither helpful nor on-topic - you're telling the asker what to write, not how to write it. A good answer would look at how Culture portrays this different society and which of these tricks would work for the asker without him having to change his setting. – PoorYorick Jun 27 at 14:43
0

People have many different reasons for choosing to wear certain clothes over other clothes.

There are practical reasons for choosing certain clothing such as the clothing keeping us warm or the clothes not being warm when it's summer. I might wear clothes with many pockets from Scottevest because I want to be able to carry a lot in my pockets.

There are also reasons of social signaling. There are plenty of social reasons to wear certain clothes that have nothing to do with gender. If I want to appear formal, I might wear a suit. If I rather want to be informal, I might wear a hoody.

Just because signaling gender identity isn't a reason to wear certain clothing doesn't mean that there aren't social reasons for certain clothing in your world. Maybe the CEO of Walmart decided that all service people in his company should wear dresses regardless of gender. Then other companies moved along and also made it a rule for all there service people to wear dresses.

In that social context people who don't want to look like a service person might avoid wearing a dress. You might have a character that thinks about what to wear who enjoys wearing dresses and decide not to wear a dress because they don't want to look like a service person.

Instead of explaining that a person doesn't choose to wear X because of their gender, explain why they choose to wear X.

0

This is the near future, that means that there will be some old people still stuck in the old ways.

Have some old grumpy character talking about how in their youth, kids knew who should wear what clothes. For balance, you might want to have some other old character correcting them.

0

Use ungendered titles

In English-speaking countries we have Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss, and even the old-fashioned Master.

It took me 30 or 40 pages to realize that in the SF book "Dragonsdawn" that both male and female ship officers were referred to as "Mr."

In your new society, you will of course want titles to differentiate people, probably by strata of society. Simply make up ungendered titles to convey levels of honor, analogues to Mr., Sir, Queen, Doctor, Lord, Professor, Friar, Rabbi, General, Senator, Elder, etc., and ungendered words for family relations (cousin and sibling are fine, but you'll need parent, child, uncle, etc., depending on your social structure.)

Your readers will realize quickly that they cannot tell the genders of characters, and then will figure out that none of the characters particularly care, either.

And a note: It bugs me no end that many people have replaced the gendered "Chairman" and "Chairwoman" with the more subtly gendered "Chairman" and "Chairperson" -- I'd rather just refer to someone as the Chair of a meeting or committee. In a society without gendered language, words like "Chairperson" would not evolve naturally.

protected by Cyn Jun 28 at 16:07

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