Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Sex, Gender, Gender Identity...Oh My!
The older I get, the more I become aware of constructs that are so insidious, so pervasive in our society, that we accept them as fact without investigation or even contemplation...
One such construct is the idea of gender. Sex and gender are frequently used interchangeably, but they're not at all the same. Sex is biological. I am female because I have the reproductive organs of a woman...vagina, uterus, ova, etc. I was born female. I'm not upset about that. In fact, I quite enjoy it.
But, the only thing that my biological sex determines is the role I may play in the procreation process. That's it. And, that is (of course) contingent upon my being born with a complete, functional set of sex organs AND finding a partner of the opposite sex with a complete, functional set of male sex organs while both of us are in appropriate condition for reproduction. I'm not more or less superior because my sex organs work optimally.
None of this is likely a surprise to anyone. Here's the part where people get confused. Gender is not biological. Gender is internal and intangible. Gender is the sense of being male or female, largely in respect to cultural expectations, but not exclusively so.
And, in case the water wasn't muddy enough...Let's introduce the third construct of gender roles. Gender roles are those aspects deemed feminine or masculine by any society. It is extremely important to remember that these outward expressions are variable according to each individual culture -- most American women would balk at the clothing restrictions placed upon many women in the Middle East. But, even more confusing is the understanding that the expectations can vary even within one culture. For instance, the expression of feminine clothing in the outlaw biker community would be quite different than that of the Amish community. These countercultures both have their own rules about feminine expression, and while they both exist within the larger American culture, they are opposed to most of the larger culture's beliefs and norms.
Overwhelmingly and regardless of society, gender roles are manipulations of socialization and social control. Failure to abide by the norms, or standards, or any society is met with disdain and resultant sanctions (exclusion, punishment, etc.) by the larger group. An example would be the fact that an adult male openly and loudly weeping in a public movie theater because he was touched emotionally by the movie would be met with stage whispered comments about his sexuality, shaking heads, and possibly with outright and directed aggression at his lack of manly behavior. Of course, the norm in American society is that men are emotionally controlled and not weak enough to allow their emotions full expression, and certainly not public display.
As were most women of my age, I was repeatedly told to act like a "young lady" during my childhood. This meant to sit with your knees together, to pull your dress down before you sit, to be quiet when others were talking, to be nurturing and loving, to play with dolls, and many more things. As a consequence, the socialized messages were that I was to be diminutive in all things. I was disciplined harshly when I failed to do what was expected. I learned to sew and cook and clean things. It was not OK for me to be angry, to be physically aggressive, or to do any other thing that was considered masculine in the blue collar world where I lived.
I'm not faulting my parents, at all. In fact, they were more liberal than most. I played sports, although the girls teams still wore shorts and were expected to slide in softball (I have the scars to prove it). I was quick to get into physical altercations and, while I think it drove my father crazy, I really think my mother was secretly tickled by it. I was not one to let others dictate things to me, but like every other person in our society, I had to conform to some extent or suffer...dress right or no job, act right or be punished at school and be rejected by peers, etc. And, my parents were only a small part of that process...peers, extended family, neighbors, teachers, religious leaders, doctors, and every other person in my sphere had input and influence.
And, today, I clearly see the limiting influence of these ill-thought-out attempts at forcing us to squeeze ourselves into a tiny, suffocating box. In fact, the entire rationale behind these dictated gender roles are baffling to me -- yes, I understand from a sociological perspective that the norms likely originated in religious values that are now considered puritanical by most, but their influence remains. They've become so ingrained that we either accept them unconditionally and reinforce them with cruel joy as we demean and belittle those who don't comply; or, we blissfully and ignorantly delude ourselves into believing that societal gender oles don't exist, or that they are charming and functional.
I assert that they are not. They are minimizing. They seek to separate us, or at least to interfere with connection while simultaneously lowering our sense of self, stunting our creativity, and ensuring a lack of genuineness. They prevent us from honest self exploration and expression, and force us into the box or into the role of outlier, rebel, troublemaker.
So, here is my vow:
I REJECT gender roles. Empirical research has clearly shown that there are not ascribed behaviors given to either sex. Instead, behaviors are achieved after social learning and observation.
I will not limit myself to behavior, characteristics, or activities that are deemed acceptable for my sex. I'll do what makes me happy and what feels real and genuine to me, according to my skill and interest. I will express these things unashamedly, regardless of response by others.
I will NEVER criticize any other person for demonstrating any genuine emotion, action, or opinion that is traditionally OK for only one gender. I will accept people for who they are, and who they strive to be, according to their own desires and self-determination. Short of causing danger/damage to another person, I will respect every person's own assertion of self.
I WILL stand in support of others who wish to be genuine in their own lives. I will openly and vocally support all persons in this pursuit, regardless of our differences.