Five Times Delia Learned About Gender and One Time She Didn’t
Content Notes: anti-trans prejudice, accidental misgendering, gender essentialism, shunning, and past oppressive governments. As always, please tell me if I missed anything and I’ll add it right away.
See story notes at the bottom.
This is dedicated to Ana Mardoll
Delia lingered as the rest of the class left.
“Do you have a problem, Miss Tyelu?” Professor Xodiung asked.
“I have a question, sir.” She opened her textbook and set it on her desk. “It says that gender is determined by one’s role in the family. What does that mean?”
For a moment he looked like he’d bitten a lemon, making the lines around his eyes as dark as his eyes. “Don’t worry about that. It’s not important.”
She opened her mouth to protest and stopped. She was trying to be the daughter her parents wanted and obedient children didn’t question teachers. “Yes, sir. Sorry to keep you late.”
His face softened. “It’s alright.” He patted her hand. “See you tomorrow.”
* * *
They were in Zanchi, visiting her father’s family. His mother’s brother had taken them out to eat. They were all talking in Ie too fast for her to follow, so she was looking past them to the street outside. It was funny how easily it could be Anitian – an Zanchian neighborhood only, but still. Nearly everyone wore Western style clothes, even ones like she saw back home. There was a kid her age across the street with a boombox playing the latest rock hit.
Then someone walked by. She — Delia was pretty sure it was a woman — was dressed in old style clothes, but men’s clothes. Delia’s father had insisted that she bring only skirts, so she’d look proper. Her mother had explained that when they were young and when their parents were young, a person in the wrong clothes or who acted or spoke like the other gender would be disappeared, but that it wasn’t like that anymore, and Delia could take jeans if she wanted. Delia packed mostly skirts to make her father happy. She preferred them any way.
This woman – if it was a woman? – looked like she was out of a history book. She was beautiful, with her long tied-back hair and proud posture. Delia blushed. Everyone on the street pointedly pretended the woman didn’t exist.
There was a pause in the conversation. She tugged at her dad’s sleeve. “Who is that?”
He glanced and then as quickly looked away. “No one.”
Her dad and all the men were outside chatting and smoking. In the kitchen, she caught her great-aunt who had tried her best to spoil Delia with treats since they’d arrived. “Auntie, can I ask a question?”
“Of course,” she said before turning away from her work at the counter and seeing how Delia was fidgeting. “What is it? Don’t be afraid.”
“Um, today at the restaurant. Did you see that woman? The one dressed like a man? That no one would look at?”
“Ah. Come have some tea.” Delia didn’t really like the tea — it was too bitter — but she sat down anyway and poured them both a cup. “That wasn’t a woman. I don’t know if there’s a word in English but in Ie we’d say bawdet. He- oh, this is hard in English! He’s a husband, a father, even if she’s a daughter.”
Delia licked the tea off her lips. “‘Gender is based on role.'”
“Yes, exactly, but the Kyuwapiij tried to wipe that out. A daughter was a wife was a mother.” She took of a drink of her tea, then leaned forward. “Your grandmother was a bawgiu and her sister a detbaw, back in the village.” She leaned back, looking proud. “They remember all the genders in the countryside.”
Delia repeated them to herself. Bawdet. Bawgiu. Detbaw. “Oh.”
* * *
She’d done all her homework, but Professor Utgiem had passed her a book when she’d asked about Byu Tiungcyu, the lesbian poet of the Viuda era. It’d been dense and dry, but she’d learned that by Zanchian standards Tiungcyu wasn’t a lesbian. Delia turned the page to the translation of ‘The Family,’ an ancient poem that was practically law, before the Kyuwapiij tried to modernize Zanchi by destroying anything that seemed old-fashioned or strange to Western visitors.
brings food for the children
builds a roof for the family
tends the children
feeds the family
works beside Father
brings water for Mother
obeys Brother, Mother, and Father
prepares food with Mother
sews clothes for Brother
Tiungcyu had argued successfully in court that they couldn’t take away her lover as she was Tiungcyu’s husband and that their children would go hungry. The court agreed but said that if Ciamxie was a husband and father that she must dress like one and that Tiungcyu and Camxie must have a proper wedding.
From the poem Tiungcyu wrote after that it seemed she was quite happy about that.
* * *
“Mom, I need to tell you something.”
Her mom put down her book. “What is it? You sound so serious.”
She felt like she had when she’d asked her great-aunt about the bawdet. Her chest was full of snakes. “I’m not a girl.” Her mother froze. “I’m a bawgui.”
Her mother’s eyes widened, then she beamed. “Oh, you scared me! I was so scared! What if we’d been treating you wrong all these years?” She stood and pulled Delia into a tight hug. “Bawgui! My second child is a bawgui, like her aunt. How lucky!”
“Lucky?” she said into her mother’s shoulder.
Her mom released her. “Yes. My mother told me, in Ie they say the luckiest family is det, bawgiu, giu, detgiu, baw. That way there is never a lack in xuo or xieu.” She nodded firmly. “And your grandparents had children just like that.”
“But you’re not having any more kids.”
Her mom pursed her lips, then smiled again. “No, but it’s still lucky.”
“I wish you’d told me about my aunts and uncles.”
Her mom’s face fell and she plucked at her blouse. “I’m sorry, chin-chin. In Anitia there’s just the two, man or woman. I didn’t want to confuse you.”
“Oh, mom.” She hugged her. “I’m sorry.”
* * *
Nathan squeezed her hand as she leaned forward to hear better. She’d thought it’d be a goofy show, but he’d insisted that Leonard said it was good.
On the screen, Lynn repeated herself firmly. “I said I’m a demi-girl.” She had dark hair with pink tips that brushed at her collar. She wore a blouse with a men’s tie and vest and a short skirt. Delia couldn’t look away.
Lynn’s teacher sneered. “And what’s that?”
“I’m not just a girl. I’m a boy too, and agender, and androgynous, but the part that gives me strength is that I’m a woman.” Her professor said something dismissive, but Delia didn’t pay attention. Her skin was flushed and Nathan’s hand was cool around hers. Demi-girl. Yes yes yes. She was real, even in English. She was a bawgui. She was a demi-girl.
The show Nathan and Delia are watching is Pink Blue Green Yellow, a college sitcom that marks the start of the Gender Revolution that brought about widespread acceptance of nonbinary genders. Note that Lynn’s definition of demi-girl doesn’t apply to all demi-girls.
Xuo and xieu are male and female energies in Ie / Zanchian culture.
Editted to fix Delia’s last name and a couple of Ie words. Conlanging is hard, y’all.