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Writing a three gender society

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Rosemary Tea, Apr 21, 2021.

  1. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Sage

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    I've already started doing this, and I'm curious to know what people think. Especially wondering if the way I'm going about it feels respectful enough to individuals who identify as non-binary, genderqueer, transgender, or any variant thereof. If that's you, please weigh in. If that's not you, feel free to weigh in.

    It all started when an important character in one of my wip's refused to tell me their gender. Seriously. I tried writing this character as a man, and that didn't quite work. I tried writing them as a woman, and that didn't quite work either. (Or maybe it was the other way around, I forget which.) Finally, it dawned on me that this person is neither. Or both. I settled on using "they" pronouns for this character (singular they may be clunky, but I sense it's what they'd prefer). After working with them for the better part of a year, I have a strong sense of their personality and their backstory, but still no idea what biological sex they are. They aren't telling, and as far as the story is concerned, it really doesn't matter.

    But out of that emerged a world in which a third gender exists, is acknowledged, and is considered special. Several other non-binary characters also appeared. Most of them are, to me, clearly biologically male or female, but they identify as neither/both, and they get "they" pronouns.

    I realize that my depiction of this third gender probably does not cover every nuance of gender queerness. I'm under no illusion that if this society were our reality, everyone who, in our world, identifies as non-binary, trans, or genderqueer would necessarily put themselves under that umbrella (or would they?).

    In this world, nobody alters their body to fit their gender identity (no hormones or surgeries needed) but everyone can read a person's gender accurately based on the energies they manifest. There are slight variations in the ways the different genders dress, although clothes alone aren't necessarily enough to tell gender. Roles vary slightly, but there's a lot of overlap between male and female roles, and the third gender folks can mix and match as it suits them. Children have their genders divined (divination is accurate in this world!) when very young, and are officially named after that (before, they have a temporary baby name). So, basically, everyone is raised with the kind of solid gender identity that cisgender people can take for granted.

    I've described the third gender as neither male nor female and both at once. That works for me, as I envision these characters, but as a cisgender individual, I wonder if it works for people who are not cis.
     
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  2. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    Well, there's all the shades inbetween. If there's some sort of DBZ style gender aura then imagine a purple (lilac?) of both at once, no aura for someone agender, an aura that shifts from pink to blue & possibly other variations for genderfluid, or a desaturated grey-pink or grey-blue for some form of demigender. Well, that's just what I can think of off of the top of my head.
     
  3. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Sage

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    I'm not thinking colored aura. Not that I don't include that concept at all, but it isn't gender based. Rather, people are sensed to be male or female or non-binary, by themselves and everyone else. There's masculine energy and feminine energy. Most people manifest one or the other strongly. Some manifest both in about equal measures. That's how I'm approaching it.
     
  4. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    Fair enough. *ahem*

    Well, there's all the shades inbetween. If there's some sort of [Masculine & Femine energy] then imagine a [mix] of both at once, no [energy] for someone agender, [energy] that shifts from [masculine to feminine] & possibly other variations for genderfluid, or a [weakened masculine or feminine] for some form of demigender. Well, that's just what I can think of off of the top of my head.
     
  5. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Sage

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    First thing: "transgender" is not a third gender, even though some personal info forms seem to think it is. That's like if I asked you if you were hispanic, nonhispanic, or drove a car. There are (binary) transgender people who believe that nonbinary genders do not exist or are just kids wanting to be oppressed to be cool. The idea that trans people are a seperate gender has some icky historical implications; just think of it as an adjective for another gender (trans woman vs cis woman) instead of a gender itself. Because we still live in a gender binary society, all nonbinary people are technically transgender, since no one is assigned nb at birth, but that wouldn't be the case for your story.

    Also singular they is not "clunky" or incorrect; even Shakespeare used it, and tons of people use singular they all the time without thinking about it. Hisotiracally, "you" couldn't be both singular or plural, it was only one of them (I cannot remember which, but modern French has a similar concept, with a singular tu, or the plural vous (or singular for someone of higher regard, like your teacher)). If anyone gives you crap about it, then they're being grammar nazis for the sake of being grammar nazis and don't have an understanding of how language is actually used.

    Also you're a little off on how nonbinary works. Think of gender as a number line, with -1 being male and +1 being female. I'm a nonbinary guy-ish person, so I'm maybe -0.6. I'm just as nonbinary as someone who's 0 or +0.999999. There's also going to be people who can be multiple points on that line depending on the situation or how they feel that day, or not on that line at all. You can be born assigned male at birth, use he/him pronouns, and not do anything to change your body or do feminine things and still be nonbinary. I do have some nb characters who are like this and I do struggle with how to say "yes they're nb" even when they don't use they/them or neopronouns (and I haven't found a good way of doing this besides them explicitly saying it).

    It's really really hard to think of third genders when you're socialized in a Western society because colonialism has erased most of it (and the Actual Nazis burned a ton of that documentation/research, too). If you want to have a society that has 3 (or more) genders, then you need to look at what gender, as a whole, accomplishes in your society. In (most) Western society, gender is tied to biological essentialism: women get pregnant and rear children, men do not so they get to go die in wars and in mines. A woman who cannot (or chooses not) to have kids is weird or broken (look at how we treat spinsters historically or people who choose to be childfree), a man who chooses to be a stay at home parent is a creep. If you're a guy, next time you use a public bathroom, look and see if there's a baby changing table. There probably isn't, I wonder why?

    A good thought experiment I like to use is bees or ants. They have 2 biological sexes--male and female--like everyone else, but queens and workers still have very different bodies due to sex hormones. There are dude bees but they have sex once and then die so they're pretty useless. A soldier ant, worker ant, nursery ant, and storing nectar (honeypot) ant are all vastly different biologically because they do different roles in their society. Think of those roles as gender, each bug was raised to do a certain subset of work based on biological differences present at birth. What would, say, a worker bee who would rather be a pollen jock do? How would society handle that? (yes this is the inciting incident of Bee Movie)

    So your people have their gender perfectly read/assigned at birth based on magic, cool. But what does it mean to be in that gender? Are there certain names they can have? Are there certain jobs that are considered improper? You also need to think about how trans/intersex people are treated by others. Is a woman who cannot get pregnant treated the same as other women? What about a man who can get pregnant? Is there compulsory military service, do they only conscript people who can't get pregnant?

    Also...there's always going to be people who have issues with their body, no matter the society. A trans woman who lives in complete isolation from other humans and has no concept of "trans" or "woman" could still have the feeling that something is WRONG with her body, but she wouldn't really know why. Hormones are so powerful because it's the right "software" being installed onto your "hardware." My brain just Works Better and I am way less stressed/depressed because I am on T. In a pre-modern society HRT is...difficult, for a lot of reasons, but the first bottom ("sex reassignment") surgeries were done before the invention of antibiotics. Outside of the locker/bedroom, bottom surgery doesn't really help you "pass," getting it is mostly for your own benefit, and we've been risking our lives for it because that sense of "wrongness" is so all-encompassing and despair-inducing that it's worth the risk.

    You don't have to make your society perfect, by the way. It's okay for things to be kinda sexist or shitty or bad! There is no such thing as a utopia, and there's always going to be terrible people who think your value as a human is based on your ability to procreate or to do work (which hurts a lot of disabled people, along with people who are infertile for reasons outside of their control). If nb folx are considered special, the weight of that mantle can also cause problems, too. IRL there are lots of cultures who saw 3rd gender/nb people as special spiritual members of the community, but what if one of them don't want to do magic? What if they can't? What if they don't believe in the old religion, or were colonized and have lost that connection?

    Things like "non-binary" and "third gender," by existing, imply that the binary is expected/the norm and that these other things are different. But if your society always had 3 (or more!) genders, then they wouldn't really call it that. Another society that has fewer genders might use those terms to describe them in their own academic texts but you're probably not going to approach your story from that angle lol. Also don't be afraid to use neopronouns! Ze, xe, e, per etc. It definitely takes some time to get used to them as a writer, and for the reader, but it really communicates that this is a different society that works on different base assumptions.

    This turned out really long lol. I'm an afab transgender nonbinary person (X to the state, M to the feds) and I'm always open to answering questions or helping cis people with their stuff. It can be really complicated! You can shoot me DMs if you want, too.
     
  6. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    Another thing to bear in mind is that sex, gender, and sexual orientation are all different concepts that just happen to sometimes go in sync, and sometimes not so much. I know two transmen who are gay, a few nb's who's preferred pronouns are they/them, and a whole lot more people who slide up and down the scales as they grow and change. I grew up thinking I was straight, but 30 years after pairing off with someone who's afab and fairly gender-fluid, I can pretty firmly say that I'm cis and pansexual. But even at my age, things can change. Sex, gender, and sexual orientation are all three scales, and nothing is set in stone. "Life is long, and love is love is love," or so our vampires say.
     
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  7. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    I like to think of it as more of a graph than a scale from male to female since gender can have different strengths for different peeps.
     
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  8. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

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    In my work in progress there are three genders:

    Tane - Male
    Vahine - Female
    Māhu - no English equivalent but it incorporates transgender, non-binary and others

    For much of my life I lived in areas where there were large numbers of Pacific Islanders, especially Samoans. The Samoans have the concept of fa'afafine. Maori have a similar concept called whakawahine and the Tahitians have the concept of the māhu (which is the term I have used for the third gender in my WIP).
     
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  9. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Sage

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    Thanks for your perspectives, all!

    ChasejxyzChasejxyz glad you weighed in! Yes, I'm actually inventing a word for my nonbinary gender. Nonbinary is just what I'm calling it as a placeholder, because I'm experimenting with a few. Imperfect, but there you go. Yes, this is a society that always had three genders (or did it? There's a neighboring country where the overall culture is very similar--think U.S. and Canada similar--but people over there insist there are only two genders, men are men, women are women, and you damn well ought to know the difference). So, yes, third gender folks are not considered non-anything, but they are considered special and somewhat rare. Most villages have a few in each generation, but still, most people are cis.

    On a few other questions: is a woman who can't get pregnant treated the same as other women? Yes. Not all women necessarily bear children. More do than not, but it's still a viable choice not to have them, and it doesn't mean you're not a woman if you don't (or can't). And some third gender folks are womb carriers and might bear children too. Or not, as choice or circumstances might have it.

    As far as the specialness goes, it works in a few ways. Religious practice has male and female societies that do some separate things (an idea borrowed from the Hopi, although I have not set out to copy what they do--I don't even know it--just the idea of a men's society and a women's society) but third gender folx get to do both. It's a privilege, not a burden. And there are healers and magic users who have a special role, and who may be any gender, but the percentage of them who are third gender is significantly higher than the percentage of the general population that is. However, third gender people are also free to choose another path or profession. It's more like, the magic user's or healer's path finds you if it's yours, and the odds that it will be yours go up exponentially if you're third gender.

    Another way the specialness is treated, and I suppose some people might find it a burden (though in the cultural context, it's a great honor) is that third gender folx are often asked to be godparents many times over, by their cisgender friends and relatives. It's considered ideal for children to have a parent of each gender, if possible. While there can only be two biological parents, of course, the godparent fills in as a kind of third parent. The godparent solution is also used in case of same gender or non-cisgender couples raising a child together, and single parents.
     
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  10. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Sage

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    Yes, when I started reading your post, I recognized those words as Pacific Islander. I've seen them in my reading before, and heard of those concepts.
     
  11. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Sage

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    Right... and if you mean what I think you mean, there are many ways to live femininity or masculinity even among cisgender people. I don't do femininity the same way as all other women, necessarily. Men vary just as much in how they do masculinity. Add gender fluidity in all its gradations, and the picture is even more complex.
     
  12. Malise

    Malise Scribe

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    I want to input a list of name of real-world third genders + descriptors as a reference for this tread

    Male to Female Transgender (who don't identify with their culture's form of mainstream feminity)
    Muxe (Zapotec/Mexico)
    Hijras (India)
    Kathoey (South-east Asia)
    Two-Sprit People (Great Plains Native America)
    Feminelle (South Europe)

    Female to Male Transgender ("Tomboys" who take on male gender roles (almost always for work or inheritance reasons) + are expected to be asexual)
    Sworn Virgins (Balkan Europe)
    Bacha Posh (Afganistan)
    Samsui (Chinese in South-east Asia)

    Special Cases
    Eunuch (Male but definitely not treated as a mainstream male)
    Intersex (People born with male and female genitalia and chooses not to identify as either gender)
    Tumtum (Jewish specific, people with no genitalia-very, very rare)
     
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  13. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Sage

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    I would argue that your descriptions of ftm/mtf people are incorrect. A trans woman who doesn't dress/act feminine-ly isn't 3rd gender or nonbinary - she's the same as a cis woman who doesn't dress/look feminine. Doctors used to put really harsh requirements on trans people to get treatment, and if you were a trans woman and didn't wear make up/dresses and acted Very Feminine, well, then you really don't want to be a woman, do you? Why transition if you don't want to be as feminine as possible? And nowadays if a trans guy "still" wants to wear make up or do anything "soft"/feminine then they're just a "transtrender" who wants to be trans because it's cool. These aren't things I expect the average cis person to know about, but they're definitely harmful ideas to spread as it gives terfs ammunition to argue that trans folx see gender as shortcuts to get things we want (like escaping misogyny or taking advantage of free drinks for ladies night or other dumb stuff like that).

    The eunuch/emasculated men thing is really complex. Some people did it willingly, some people had it done to them as a form of punishment, or even done to them as children to prepare them for certain jobs (like castrato singers or working in the Chinese imperial palace). Most intersex people do not even know they are intersex, either because their parents had their ambitious genitals "fixed" right after birth and never told them or it's not immediately obvious that they're intersex and they've never had a karyotype done. Many find out they are when they're having fertility issues and seek reproductive medical intervention. The majority of intersex people are going to remain being "cis" (aka ID as the gender assigned at birth). I know some trans people that discovered they were intersex, so their HRT is simply giving their body the "right" hormones it should have always had. There's a decent chunk of intersex people who argue that they shouldn't be included in the LGBTQ banner because they do not see themselves as inherently queer, just that they have a medical condition. The rate of intersex folx who would choose to be nonbinary BECAUSE they are intersex is probably not any different than people who choose to be nonbinary for other reasons.

    There's also X-Gender, which is exclusively Japanese. It's not the same as non-binary (though here in the states the legal marker for nb is X), it is quite literally a third gender. Some people will use it to also conceal what their gender is/was, so they would say ftx, xtm, or even xtx.
     
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  14. MrNybble

    MrNybble Sage

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    Depends if this third gender is a mental or physical requirement for the story. If it's just a metal requirement then the sky's the limit as you can have an easy fifty shades of gender and beyond. As for the physical, you will need to explain why a third gender is needed considering two is the most in real life. Hermaphrodites are not really a third gender as they are just a combination of the two existing. There has been some fictional stories where a physically third gender is present and explained why they're required for the reproduction cycle.
     
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  15. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Sage

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    Both gender and sex are a spectrum, it is not a binary one or the other. Whether you define sex by organs, chromosomes, hormone levels or secondary sex characteristics, it is a spectrum. There is no "need" for red heads, blue eyes, or lefties in real life, either, but they very clearly exist, don't they? If you want to be totally Darwinian, then you will understand that these mutations/variances in phenotype do not harm the ability of the species to reproduce. Plenty of animals have 3 or more parents involved; it is very common in birds for the female to breed with a male that has desirable physical traits but is "socially" mated to another male that has good parenting abilities. Humans (and most human-y fantasy species) are social creatures and raise young in a community, so an adult that is not a genetic donor to the child can serve a critical role. 99% of a bee colony does not contribute to the gene pool but every one has an important role that allows the whole to thrive.

    Hermaphroditism can exist in humans naturally as part of intersex conditions, but you cannot have both pairs of functional sex organs like you'd see in snails. But with enough money and the right surgeon you can have both sets of external organs; there's enough space for it and it doesn't cause your body to implode or anything. In a fantasy setting you could have a species that can have both functioning sets, whether it's at the same time (like the snail) or different stages of life (like the clown fish) or based on external conditions (like some lizards). Grasping onto an elementary school-level understanding of biology as your basis of "reality" is like telling a rockest scientist that air resistance doesn't exist because you never took it into account in physics 101. You're also kneecapping your ability to create interesting worlds and characters for no good reason, too.
     
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  16. Malise

    Malise Scribe

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    ChasejxyzChasejxyz

    Yeah, I get with you mean. I guess I'm looking at all third genders from my Buddhist/South-East Asian perspective, which may not align with other cultural perspectives on the definition of third genders. From my point of view, transgender people whose cultural-specific identity gives them transgender gender roles (such as having religious roles that cis people cannot have) that are separate from male and female gender roles, which effectively makes them the third gender by Eastern standards but still transgender by Western standards.

    I think it has to do with the fact that Dharmic religions allowed queer people to integrate into society for a much longer time than Abrahamic religions, allowing transgender subculture to become so distinct and strong from mainstream culture, that societies see it as a somewhat acceptable identity separate from the male-female binary, with their own intricacies that are neither male nor female, despite presenting heavily as one gender. This integration is deep enough to the point that the Hindu texts that Buddhism* is derived from, acknowledge and praise third gender people in cannon. This is unlike Western cultures, which kept queer identities/culture suppressed until recently, so that means that trans people as a community didn't have a lot of time to organically develop an identity that separated them from being wholly male or female, since being Trans,is after all, a very unique human experience not necessarily tied to the binary. However, I'm sure that most western Transpeople are fine identifying wholly (I hope I'm using the right word) as either a transman or transwoman or non-binary since a third gender like muxes is indeed a foreign concept to most of them.

    I also want to note that in SE Asian languages, there are no words that directly translate to "trans", only words that designate a queer identity (which is universally considered always the third gender in those cultures). So that means anglophones are stuck with words like "ladyboys" as direct translations to nuanced gender identities such as Kathoey. For example, my mom does not know who trans people are, despite having a close friend who transitioned from male presenting to female-presenting, because she did really think that they were all third gender people.

    As for the ftm descriptor I put, I personally don't think any of these identities are queer (they're more of a Mulan situation, where women have to take male gender roles to survive, None of the societies I listed in that section would allow women to transition because of gender dysphoria prior to the modern age). However, they are listed as a third gender by Wikipedia with similar descriptors.

    *Buddhism does not comment on LGBT matters at all in its cannon. So, without any guidance, the norm in East and Southeast Asia was bisexuality. Everyone did it. Emperors, concubines, alchemists at their lunchtime. That was before the French and the Brits spread their homophobia everywhere of course.
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2021
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  17. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Sage

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    Thanks again for your input everyone!

    MrNybbleMrNybble mental, not physical. Most third gender people are biologically male or female. Perhaps some are intersex. I haven't thought this through, because I'm not in the habit of describing my characters' genitals, but I suspect that in a society like this, anyone obviously intersex would be third gender. (Or would they? Who knows?) Maybe so would people who have what our medical system calls an intersex condition, even if it's not a visible one. Not all intersex conditions are.

    As ChasejxyzChasejxyz points out, the third gender is a social identity, not a biological function. So, really, are male and female, if you think about it. Who bears or begets a child depends on what (ahem) equipment they have. Who raises a child does not. Even in our world, families that include non-biological parents or coparents certainly exist. In some areas, that's even a norm. It doesn't really have to be imagined.
     
  18. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Sage

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    This is exactly the kind of vibe I'm going for. A culture where people who are outside the male/female binary have their own gender identity, and it's taken as matter-of-factly as masculinity and femininity.
     
  19. Argent Hellion

    Argent Hellion Dreamer

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    Every time I hear someone trying to develop a species with three genders I can't help but remember the "Cogenitor" episode of StarTrek. Here's the link if you're interested in researching it:
    https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Cogenitor

    I do not delve into the subject of religion further than surface level and I definitely avoid the can of worms that is alphabet-people politics whenever possible. Those are highly subjective waters and the deeper you dive into them the more you are at risk of contaminating your mentality. If you do not manage to find common grounds, the next best thing is to agree to disagree with somebody, otherwise pretty much every discussion devolves into a screaming competition or worse.

    Objectively speaking, if you really want to push the idea of three genders with your species, you have a very tough uphill battle to fight. Eons of evolution are living proof that every species relying on mating for survival has to do it strictly with two genders to have the best chances at rolling its survival dice, the first parent provides its genetic material to the second parent in order for it to combine the two into a new whole and form new and slightly improved offsprings.

    Evolution is simple and direct to the point of insanity and anything that veers off even slightly from any of those traits has to be provided with very, VERY good reasoning to justify its very existence, otherwise it will not be taken seriously. Single-gender species rely on copying rather than mating and are therefore far more vulnerable to extinction from imperfect copying or disease. On the other side of the spectrum, any species that relies on more than two genders complicates its mating process, so the benefits of those complications have to outweigh the downsides in order to justify its survival.

    PS EDIT: To quote StarTrek again, but from a different episode: "Evolution often ends in extinction."
     
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2021
  20. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Sage

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    We've already discussed this up thread. Gender and sex are not the same thing. The third gender has nothing to do with who bears or begets children. It's a personal identity and social role, not a biological difference. And it's a thing that already exists in humans, though may nor may not be culturally recognized. Please note, I am not creating a new species!
     
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