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Is this the 'End of Gender?'

By Rob Eagle, PhD Research Student, Digital Cultures Research Centre at the University of the West of England

Read what Rob had to say in 2018 about End of Gender?, an exploration into genderqueer wardrobes, using Virtual Reality (VR) technology to produce an immersive and interactive experience. With 'male' and 'female' roles rapidly evolving in society, could this be the end of gender?

Since July, the UK government has been holding a public online consultation on whether or how to reform the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. Proposed amendments to the Act would allow a few things: 1. Trans people to change their gender legally without the need of a medical ‘diagnosis’ 2. Ability for 16-year-olds to self-determine their gender identity 3. Recognition of non-binary identities (that is, people whose identity does not wholly match either male or female)

Should the reforms go through, this would be a watershed moment for non-binary rights in the UK. However, even after a bit of googling, not many people might understand what non-binary identities look like as a lived experience. Discussions of preferred pronouns and the complexities of labels often obfuscate understanding of the everydayness of non-binary identities. I have seen how a growing number of young people have access to language around gender identities that older generations did not. Teenagers nowadays are fortunate enough to have more open discussions concerning sexuality and gender, with many refusing to adopt binary, restrictive labels of female/male or homosexual/straight. I personally wish I had had access to such nuanced ideas of gender and sexuality as an awkwardly closeted queer teenager 20 years ago.

My PhD research examines ways of using interactive and immersive media to present non-fiction narratives of genderqueer voices. By bringing together scholarship on design and technology studies with (trans)gender studies, my research puts theory into practice with an immersive media installation. My practice-based methodology then relies on visitor feedback to help shape the user experience of such an installation.

The genderqueer wardrobe I am prototyping as part of the Being Human festival aims to open up discussions around non-binary gender identity and expression in a non-didactic format. This is not a lecture but a playful, participatory installation, allowing visitors to explore the stories and clothing items donated by people who are genderqueer. The visitor will put on a HoloLens headset, select a physical item, and then the headset will give the story of that item’s owner. The HoloLens headset projects images that act like holograms with which you can interact. The technology that pop culture has been imagining for decades is becoming more accessible – and this is the first opportunity most people will have to try it out.

The headset has presented a number of technical and narrative challenges. This week, we have been programming for spatial mapping so that the headset will map out a bespoke journey and experience for each visitor. I want to make the narrative non-linear so that visitors have choices along the way to hear more or less of that person’s story.

The explosion of augmented reality filters and apps, as seen in Snapchat, has allowed for people to play digitally with their gender presentation – sometimes frivolously and sometimes, more seriously, to imagine what they might look like as a more femininised or masculinised version of themselves. This installation allows instead for visitors to play with gender expression in a more physical, embodied way through trying on clothes and then being led on a physical journey around the wardrobe to understand more about that person’s story.

My research is not a ‘debate’ on the status or legitimacy of trans or non-binary categories; my research allows for anyone to self-identify their gender, particularly those outside of gender binaries. I understand that this may make some visitors uncomfortable and could attract criticism from those who refuse to acknowledge the rights of trans and non-binary people. Media outlets have been especially culpable in providing platforms for anti-trans voices, such as Channel Four’s Genderquake ‘debate’, Piers Morgan repeatedly on ITV’s Good Morning Britain and the steady stream of anti-trans journalism and public letters in The Times and Telegraph. Organisations who support gender self-recognition, such as Stonewall and Pride in London, have faced backlash, as seen by the protest that stalled this year’s Pride march in London. The protest denied the recognition of trans women as women.

Regardless of the outcomes of the reforms of the Gender Recognition Act, young people are leading the way in the wider adoption of terminology that provides alternatives to British society’s traditionally binary conceptions of gender. This installation is more a reflection of this societal shift than a radical intervention. 'End of Gender?' presents an opportunity for people to experience non-binary stories on an ordinary, intimate, human level, removed from the hysteria of mainstream media coverage.