Features Saturday, March 21, 2015 - 05:30
 Nury Vittachi(IANS) | The News Minute | December 12, 2014 | 12.20 pm IST A friend named Pat once decided to be gender-free, refusing to let us use "sexist" terms such as "he" or "she". As a result, referring to Pat always sounded like one was talking about an intelligent dog: "This is my friend Pat, it's going to do Pilates in the gym for an hour, and then I'm going to play chess with it." Another problem was deciding how to greet Pat: air-kiss to the cheek as for a girl? Punch to the upper arm as for a guy? Or neck-scratch and doggie-treat? I was reminded of Pat by a news item. Japanese zookeepers were humiliated recently after spending four years trying to mate a pair of male hyenas, according to a news report sent in by a helpful reader. What are the qualifications to be a zookeeper in Japan? Do you just have to like Hello Kitty? I can't imagine what those poor hyenas have gone through. "Aw geez, here come those blasted zookeepers with the candle light, romantic music and red silk sheets again." Gender confusion is everywhere. I once met a girl in Hong Kong whose name was He Man. A reader from India sent me a report about the family of a bachelor who paid a matchmaker a fat fee for a bride, who was duly delivered. After the wedding, the matchmaker explained that the bride had made a vow to never speak, lift her veil or share a bed. Oddly, the bridegroom was okay with this. A week later, villagers peering into the house through a window, as one does, saw a man putting on a sari and realized the bride was not female at all. This news ALSO failed to annoy the husband, and the two guys became buddies, reporters said. I strongly suspect there is something the husband has not told his parents. Anyway, I mentioned Pat's he/she/it challenge to a colleague and was astonished to hear that a right-to-choose-your-pronoun campaign in the West has been wildly successful. Earlier this year, Washington issued instructions to federal offices telling bosses they must never refer to a staff member by the biologically correct pronoun if he/she/it has indicated that he/she/it strongly prefers a different pronoun. Major media outlets, including the BBC and CNN, have adopted the same guideline. If a guy says he feels female inside, the "she" pronoun must be used in all references. Indeed, the idea that humans are "gender binary" (male or female) is a damaging notion maintained by religions to divide and control people, explains campaigner Riki Wilchins. US academic Anne Fausto-Sterling says there are at least five sexes. I haven't bought her book, but I would guess the five divisions would be something like this: 1) Male, 2) Michael Jackson, 3) Liberace, 4) Ellen DeGeneres, 5) Female. It's all very confusing. I had always thought that mammals came in two basic flavors, male and female, but now I find I am a religious crank. Oh well, the good thing about the success of the pronoun choice movement is that it will save unobservant Japanese zookeepers from humiliation. But I bet they still won't get a baby hyena out of it.