During the Fall 2012 semester I took two very eye-opening courses: “Introduction to Women’s & Gender Studies” and “Introduction to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer (LGBTQ) Studies.” Between these two courses, I became much more aware of assumptions that are generally taken for granted in American (and other) culture(s):
- There are two biological sexes, male (penis) and female (vagina). All humans fit into one of these two categories.
- Social roles and behaviors, attributes and capabilities, interests, etc. are determined or at least heavily influenced by biological sex. In other words, males naturally adhere to a set of norms considered “masculine” and females to a set of norms considered “feminine.”
- Masculinity is inherently better than femininity. It is acceptable and even necessary for a woman or girl to exhibit some masculinity, as long as she ultimately remains “in her place” as a proper female (sex object and caregiver). Men and boys are severely limited in the amount of femininity they may exhibit; an effeminate male is the greatest offense against mankind.
- Males must be sexually attracted to females and vice-verse. It is very important for a man to be successful sexually (as well as in other areas) and for a woman to be in a long-term monogamous relationship with a man. Pursuit of these goals is a key factor in social interactions, especially between the sexes.
These assumptions are central to how people raise their children; they influence parents’ plans and expectations before the mother even becomes pregnant! They shape our interactions in school, the workplace, at home, and in everyday life. They’re in every form of media – from movies and TV, to music, to video games, to social networking that require one to select “male” or “female” on a form in order to register, and beyond.
Advertising. Clothes and hygiene products. Housing in institutionalized settings (e.g. colleges, prisons). Public restrooms. Employment. Healthcare. Laws and social institutions. All aspects of our lives are at least partially governed by assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality.
On the surface, the gender binary seems to work for most people. They are heterosexual and/or identify as the sex and gender they were assigned at birth. They believe that the assumptions listed above are true, at least to some degree. Most probably don’t even realize they’re being influenced by those assumptions.
But it doesn’t work for everyone.
I’ve always felt like there was something not quite right about the gender binary. I’ve never understood why there is one set of expectations for boys and a different one for girls. I’ve never taken kindly to the idea that I should like certain things because of the gender I was raised, nor that I should not be interested in something because it is intended for the other gender. My interests and activities are representative of both genders. I believe people of all ages can be fully equal friends regardless of gender. I am attracted to both men and women.
For years I have felt my sense of my own gender change throughout a given day, depending on my current situation. Sometimes, such as while writing, I don’t really have a sense of myself as either gender. I tend to feel very feminine when engaged in or talking about more creative pursuits, especially coordinating visual elements. I feel more masculine when engaged in analytical tasks and problem solving, especially if I am directing other people. I think these “feelings” about my gender are a reflection of cultural understandings of masculinity and femininity that I have internalized.
Similarly, when I am alone I usually do not identify with a gender. In social situations I might adopt the gender role and expression most appropriate to fit in, though I find that difficult and uncomfortable when taken to either extreme. Alternatively, I might take on the gender role needed to balance what everyone else is doing: if the people around me are being very feminine I’ll feel and possibly act more masculine, but if they’re being masculine I might feel and act more feminine.
I am uncomfortable being referred to as the gender I was assigned at birth and that people still assign to me based on physical appearance, especially when that influences my behavior and/or how they treat me. It can have a negative effect on our ability to experience a genuine human connection as equals. I am also annoyed with having to disclose my “sex” in order to do register for services online or send emails to representatives in government. Why should I have to disclose information about my anatomy in order to express my opinions or use services on a website? (or do pretty much anything else?)
For the longest time I thought my experience was unique, until I learned the terms “gender queer” and “gender fluid.” The very existence of those terms means that I am not alone!
Writing for Change
I’m still processing what I learned about gender, society, and myself through the courses that I took this past semester. I hope that by focusing on gender during the month of January, I can solidify my understanding of the issues surrounding gender and my own gender identity. This includes how my gendered upbringing affects my ability to cope with difficult situations, express my emotions, and solve interpersonal problems. It also includes working through my emotional responses to cultural messages about the gender binary, now that I am more aware of them and even less willing to accept them.
Reader, I also hope you will contribute your knowledge, ideas, and experience to an informative discussion about gender and associated issues by commenting. All genders, etc. welcome. The more different perspectives can be included, the better understanding can be gained by all.
Come back later for my next post, Challenging Cultural Assumptions About Sex and Gender, in which I’ll share information that refutes some of the assumptions listed near the beginning of this post. I’ll have a few days each week of January that are dedicated to the gender bender theme: Feminine Fridays will start on January 4th, followed by Masculine Mondays on January 7th and Transgender Tuesdays on January 8th. I might post about my experiences living with depression (or whatever else meets my fancy) on other days of the week.
Happy New Year! and happy bending …