Chapter 6
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Danielle closed the door to her apartment behind me, and dropped Frankie to the ground. We had walked home in a daze.

The little cat lost no time jumping about in excitement the moment he was out of his harness, dashing in a loop to the living room and back. He meowled so enthusiastically, begging for his mom to drop his new button next to the rest of his collection.

Danielle and I stared at each other. She pulled the button out of her bag and placed it down near the others, then headed to the kitchen, where she sat at the table. I quickly went and joined her.

She stared straight ahead, at the cupboards and sink. “So many…”

“Questions,” I completed for her, assuming we were on the same wavelength.

“What?” She turned her head to me. “No, so many answers. That explains so much.”

I felt baffled. “What do you mean that explains so much!? No, that explains nothing! How the hell did he even learn the concept of gender in the first place? Do animals even have gender? I just…!” I exhaled. “I don’t understand!”

“It’s why I’ve never seen them use their own name’s button!” Danielle leaned back on her chair. “This depression, it’s dysphoria— Gosh, did they hate it every time I called them my baby boy?”

I placed my hand on my chin. “Did my spell do this? Did I give him a human-like mind?”

“They’ve always been depressed,” she replied, ”even before the spell! And they’re just… not anymore! This is it! It was gender! Frankie was a girl all along!”

I slammed my palms on the table. Images of hackneyed tv shows with robots, aliens and AIs inexplicably being gendered flashed through my head, and I just couldn’t see this as any different. It was nonsense, real life plot convenience. Gender didn’t just… appear, like that, in non-human minds. It was a human, societal creation, nothing more. “It doesn’t make sense…”

Danielle shook her head. “It makes perfect sense. Every behavior, every quirk, it explains it all.”

“I don’t care how much it ‘explains’ anything, it just… What? How? Just, no! That’s just not how things work, is it?” My breath got caught in my throat. “Why… would a cat have a gender, let alone care about it? Why would anyone care about gender? I just don’t understand…”

Danielle put her hand over mine. “Sweetheart, there’s nothing to understand, we just… do. You’re not wrong not to care, in theory, gender is silly and bizarre… and there’s plenty of people that come to an educated understanding to disregard it, but… right now, your behavior is more the ‘plug your ears in and sing loudly’ kind.”

I stared at her for a moment, then sighed and rubbed my hand on my face. “No, I— I promise, I genuinely just don’t understand. I’m going to repeat myself, but how did Frankie even learn about boys and girls in the first place? Did you teach them that?”

“No, I didn’t. She just picked up on it the same way the rest of us do. Even as a tiny kid, before you’re able to ask your parents what the difference is between boys and girls, you still come to notice it, right? Just from the way it matters to our society? Like, in preschool, you notice the kids in dresses and the ones in jumpers, the ones with twintails and the ones with short hair? It’s gender stereotypes sure, but like, we’re molded in them since the day we’re born. You don’t even know yet what boys and girls are that you already have a feel for which you belong to…” 

I grunted, settling back down. “Not really…”

Danielle bobbed her head a little, a small, sad smirk on her face. “Well, most people do, at least. Like me. ‘Cisgender’ and stuff.”

“Is… Is that really all gender is? Whether you want to wear dresses? How could that matter to a literal cat?” I asked.

“No, no, obviously that’s not all! That’s not even that, as I said, that’s gender stereotypes, which are not gender itself! Hrmm, how to explain it…” Danielle looked a bit lost herself. She clearly wasn’t expecting to ever have to get into it this in-depth. “Gender —o-or your lack thereof, if that happens— is a part of your identity. Whether you want it to or not, it’ll just… express itself through you. People notice it, at least subconsciously. It’s not about whether you wear dresses, there are plenty of guys who openly do, especially in our era. But they still know they’re guys, they still identify as guys, and you’ll still feel that they’re guys if you talk to them. And it goes like that with every little gendered idiosyncrasy of our world. In more practical terms, hmm… Gender is more about your relationship to gender stereotypes. There are women that make it part of their identity as a woman to reject backwards, sexist, gender stereotypes, and that consider their ability to choose to reject them part of what makes them women. There are people that are not women, but were maybe brought up as if they were, whose rejection of those same stereotypes is part of their identity as something that doesn’t make them women. Deep down, gender is a you matter. You and nothing else.”

I rubbed my thumb in circles on the back of my hand. “And… And you can just be… neither?” I asked.

“Or both.” Danielle replied. “Or sometimes one or the other. Or something else altogether. Or multiple of those previous options at once. Et caetera.”

I turned my head towards the living room. “…And Frankie?”

“Well. She said it herself, hasn’t she? She’s a girl,” Danielle said. “My baby girl.”

Mentally exhausted, I sat back down on my chair, slouching, and stared at the lamp on the ceiling. Something in me felt defeated, bizarre, even. If gender was more than the clothes on our back, why did it all feel so restricting? Why did it feel like every option wasn’t enough, like no matter what I picked, it came with a set of expectations, with rules, and that even their subversion was still tied to gender? It felt like… Like no matter what I’d pick, I’d never get to be fully, truly myself. I’d be a man, or a woman, or something else, and that everything I would do would either fit or not fit in any of those boxes, and be interpreted to be with intent and purpose. 

And yet… And yet, it was inescapable. My own feelings on my name proved as much. Regardless of how much I hated all of this, I could feel I fit somewhere within it. I had feelings, preferences, opinions, about what I wanted my gender to be, about what it was. And it wasn’t… At the very least, it wasn’t what I was born with.