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In Europe, creating a post-gender world one small rule at a time

Several pedestrian crossings in Vienna are showing symbols depicting gay couples, part of an installation running in the city until June. The Austrian capital is promoting itself an LGBT friendly city ahead of the Eurovision song contest at the end of May. (Video: AFP)

Caitlyn Jenner may have given Americans a crash course in transgender acceptance. But progressive pockets of Europe are moving toward an even higher plane — embracing what advocates describe as a post-gender world that critics say is leaving no room for women to be women and men to be men.

In Berlin, for instance, fresh rules for billboard ads in a district of the liberal German capital read like a new constitution for a land without gender identity. Girls in pink “with dolls” are basically out, as are boys in blue playing “with technical toys.” In ads showing both adult women and men, females cannot be depicted as “hysterical,” “stupid” or “naive” alongside men presented as “technically skilled,” “strong” or “business savvy.”

Adult women — featured alone or otherwise — must not be shown “occupied in the household with pleasure.” And in one stipulation pounced upon by critics, the equal-opportunity board of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg — home to Checkpoint Charlie and remnants of the Berlin Wall — no longer wants to see images of women “smiling for no reason.”

“Women are always portrayed in a nice, easygoing way, and that is what we do not want,” complained Petra Koch-Knöbel, head of the committee that drafted the new rules that went into effect in April for 28 billboards leased out by the district. The board is now pushing to expand the policy to privately owned sites.

Detractors call it further evidence of an assault in Europe on gender roles that, some claim, is especially targeting heterosexual men. Facetiously celebrating the benefit of the new ad rules for men, Die Zeit newspaper columnist Harald Martenstein wrote, “We are allowed to smile where and whenever we want, even while doing the dishes.”

Millennials in both the United States and Europe are breaking free of gender roles and rejecting stereotypes. This week, pop idol Miley Cyrus told Paper Magazine that she felt neither male nor female. Jenner’s butterfly-like transformation, meanwhile, has touched off a broader conversation over transgender Americans.

In Europe, the crusade against sexual inequality, gender roles and stereotypes has been raging for years, with nations like Sweden pioneering progressive policies toward women and Denmark legally recognizing same-sex couples as far back as 1989.

But advocates in Europe are taking increasingly aggressive action regarding “gender mainstreaming,” or the erasing of lines between the sexes. They are pressing for policies and laws ensuring that everything from bathrooms to boardrooms to street signs are gender neutral.

In part, the push is about fuller equality for women and sexual minorities, in both the job market and the public sphere. But, proponents say, it is also about enforcing respect and breaking the male domination of European life.

In March, Germany — home of Chancellor Angela Merkel, arguably the most powerful woman in the world — became the largest nation in Europe to legislate that women must occupy at least 30 percent of the seats on corporate boards. That means that some of the globe’s largest multinational firms, including Siemens and Daimler, must by law also now be among the most inclusive.

Politics of language

In Germany — a country that, unlike some of its neighbors, doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage and where surveys still show significant levels of sexual harassment of women — the march toward gender mainstreaming is sparking heated debate. Some critics are decrying what they see as the rise of a militant feminism and gender-based political correctness that, in some cases, is altering age-old traditions.

Niko Schilling, a 27-year-old sports organizer at the University of Passau in Bavaria, for instance, said he was shocked when he received a call several weeks ago from his school’s equal­opportunity coordinator. She forbade him to hold a series of contests on campus, including a competition involving a Bavarian tradition, called fensterln, in which men in lederhosen race up ladders to be the first to kiss a woman on a balcony.

“I thought it was an April Fools’ Day joke when she called me five days before the event and told me it was offending university guidelines,” he said. “Gender mainstreaming is going too far in some respects.”

Sweden this year added the gender-neutral pronoun "hen" to official dictionaries. The word caught on several years ago when Egalia, a preschool in Stockholm, began using it as a substitute for "boys" or "girls" to avoid referencing gender roles in children.

In Germany and Austria, a push is also underway to alter the gender-based German language, in which nouns such as “police officers” or “teachers” take a masculine form even when referring to a mixed group of men and women.

Some German and Austrian university professors are demanding that students embrace new gender-neutral vocabulary in essays and thesis papers. In Austria, a special language committee recommended last year that gender-neutral language be made standard in official life — a proposal that so divided politicians and society that ultimately the board was dissolved.

“Language reflects power structures,” said Anne Wizorek, a self-described feminist author based in Berlin. “If we want an inclusive society, we need to reflect that in our language.”

Traffic lights in Germany have long flashed images of green- or red-lit men — some wearing cute hats — to tell pedestrians when to walk or stop at intersections. But gradually that is changing, with cities like Bremen and Cologne among those that have replaced many of the male figures with those of women.

Last month in Vienna, city officials went further, replacing traffic-sign figures of solitary men with heterosexual and same-sex couples. That came three years after Austria officially changed its national anthem, which once spoke only of its “great sons.” The new language heralds women first, celebrating “great daughters” and “sons.”

Taking a lead from gender­neutral Swedish retailing, the 2015 catalogue for the German toy store BR-Spielwaren features a girl playing with a toy gun and boy in an apron playing in a toy kitchen.

Awkward transitions

Some changes take more getting used to than others. Over the past two years, at least six unisex toilets — most with multiple stalls and some fitted with urinals — have opened in Berlin city administration buildings and theaters. The city is now conducting reviews of public buildings with the aim of establishing dozens more such bathrooms in coming years.

The hope is to create even more spaces where men, women and anyone else can heed the call of nature side by side, doing away with prudish notions of sexual differences.

Berlin — like Germany more generally — is already a city that is no stranger to intimate exposure between sexes. It is not unusual to see naked members of both sexes luxuriating in the summer sun in city parks or public pools. The sharing of bathrooms is merely the next step and, officials say, also offers a safe place for those with gender identity issues.

“Initially we were laughed at for this, but now that people are discovering that unisex toilets are just normal bathrooms, we are experiencing rather broad acceptance,” Simon Kowalewski, a member of the Berlin state parliament whose Pirate Party proffered the idea in the first place.

It can, however, still be awkward. The Studio Я theater in Berlin, for instance, converted its male and female bathrooms to unisex toilets about 18 months ago. On the doors are the universal gender signs for men and women but also signs for transgender and intersex.

Blooms sit in the urinals, along with a sign saying “Flowers for a Gender Free World.” Felix Witzlau, a 26-year-old student, exclaimed in wonder as he entered the toilet, where both men and women were coming out of stalls. Looking at the urinals, he said, “Should I water the flowers now?”

But he shyly chose a stall instead. “It did feel a bit awkward hearing female voices outside,” he said after emerging. “But I could get used to it.”

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