Few things in life are certain, but there is one area of human behavior I fancy myself something of an expert — in fact, I rate my own judgment in this area so highly that I can confidently claim to predict the response of every conscious being with 100% accuracy, should you find yourself in a wagering mood. This is a social experiment that will require a little effort on your part, but I guarantee you will find events unfold exactly as I predict. Humans are all alike in this way.
Step the first: Visit a friend who owns a cat at a time when both cat and human are at home.
Step the second: Wait to be introduced to the cat, or for the cat’s name to be brought up in some slightly more organic fashion.
Step the third (this is crucial): At some later point in the conversation, refer to the cat by an incorrect gender.
Step the fourth: Wait. No one — no one — will let this minor, harmless error go. Every living, breathing person on this planet will immediately respond with “Actually, [s]he’s a boy/girl.” Everyone will say this. It does not matter if they are not the sort of person ordinarily given over to correcting others in conversation, or if they are particularly fond of their particular cat, or if they are the most gender-neutral, open-minded pansexual who ever went by “xie/xirr.”
They will tell you that you have misgendered their cat, even though cats do not appear to have visible genitals in the first place, and in all likelihood their cat was neutered years ago. Most likely their cat has never once engaged in the act of copulation. Their cat does not wear clothes or feel defined by societal gender roles. For all practical purposes, their cat has no gender. The gender of a cat is one of the least important things in the world. If this cat were to somehow transform, Tiresias-like, from male to female in the next instant, it is highly likely that nothing about its (or its owner’s) life would change a jot. And yet people cannot resist from adhering to a course of strict and constant accuracy when it comes to the gender of a cat. It is inexplicable.
Misgender a fish or a bird and it is likely you will hear nothing. No one can misgender a dog; female dogs have those unsettling little nipple-pellets running along the length of their midsections and science has not yet found a way to make dog penises invisible. But misgender a cat and you will never have a moment’s peace til your error is corrected.
I do not pretend to know why this is. I do not know what good it will do you to know this. But it is true, and perhaps that is enough.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.