Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Holy Gender Wednesday!

Usually my life feels a little disparate. I am interested in a lot of different things, and I bring these things into my life through various roles, professional and personal. They all connect in my mind, but they rarely line up neatly to any external viewer. Today was different. Today all of these things happened:
  1. I went to a discussion on the campus I work about gender identity because I had assigned my students to go as part of a cultural enrichment component. The conversation was interesting, though a lot of it was stuff I had heard before. 
  2. My husband and I participated in a graduate student's research on equitable marriages by taking part in a one-hour interview on the subject. 
  3. I saw a website called Born This Way! that, by it's own definition, is "A photo/essay project for gay adults (of all genders) to submit childhood pictures and stories (roughly ages 2 to 12), reflecting memories & early beginnings of their innate LGBTQ selves. Nurture allows what nature endows. It's their nature, their truth!" 
  4. I read this article (yeah, I'm behind the times) about a Swedish baby who was raised genderless. 
  5. In my city, a teacher was dismissed from her job (for the second time, it turns out) when a student discovered her in an old porn film. 
This kind of submersion in a topic generally leaves me questioning and curious, and this is certainly the case tonight. 

At the gender identity discussion, we were asked (as small groups) to make a list of qualities under the word "woman" and a list of qualities under the word "man." As you can imagine, qualities like "muscular" and "provider" were listed under "man," and qualities like "nurturing" and "pretty" were listed under "woman." In addition, the terms "XX" and "vagina" were listed under "woman," while "XY" and "penis" were listed under "man." The facilitator then asked us if any of the terms we'd written were necessarily restricted to that heading. Someone in the room said that the biological terms were the only ones that had that restriction (XX/vagina, XY/penis). Someone in the front of the room spoke up to say that wasn't true. This person stated "I am a man with a vagina." Born with female genitalia and XX chromosomes, this individual self-identified as male, and preferred male pronouns in reference to himself. 

Later in the conversation, we talked about Pop, the Swedish child who is being raised with a "secret gender." According to the NYT's article, "Pop’s parents, who are both 24, say they made this decision in the hope of freeing their child from the artificial construct of gender." The same participant spoke up to say that members of the trans community had discussed this child's upbringing with skepticism, noting that society was ill-prepared for gender neutrality.

This is where I started to get confused. I don't think I was particularly equipped to voice my confusion then, and I'm not sure if I'm any better equipped now, but I'm going to give it a shot.

This whole discussion is part of a series on campus that aims to examine systems of oppression--the "isms" if you will. I spend a lot of my time thinking, writing, and reading about racism, so I used the things I understand about that system of oppression in order to better understand genderism. Most (not all) of the anti-racist work I've read considers post-racialism to be the ultimate goal of anti-racist work. Post-racialism makes sense to me because I understand race to be entirely culturally constructed. If we've artificially created these labels, we have the power to remove them. I don't necessarily think that identity based on race is a "bad" thing, but I do think that as long as race exists, racism--in some form--will, too.

So I tried to carry that same line of thought out when it came to gender. I understand and accept the idea that someone born with female genitalia could identify as a male. I understand gender as a continuum, not a binary. However, I had trouble seeing "gender neutrality" as the goal of anti-genderism work, mainly because I couldn't envision a world without gender.

It's quite possible that I'm just not progressed enough in my thoughts and I am being short-sighted or close-minded. I am very open to hearing other's thoughts on this.

But right now, this is how I see it. The man who spoke up says that he identifies as a male, but that's a label within the gender identities. He didn't say that he was born with female genitalia but doesn't identify as any gender; he says he identifies as a man. Obviously, then, the gender constructs we currently have are functionally necessary to the construction of that reality. Is gender neutrality really the goal, then? Or is the goal to have the continuum from masculine to feminine, but to discredit external attempts to place someone on that spectrum and validate only individual self-identification?

I can imagine a post-racial world (though I don't think I'll see it in my lifetime), but I can't picture a post-gender world. Even if we did away with the terms "woman" and "man," procreation would serve to illustrate differences between those with penises and those with vaginas. I can't completely explain why, but gender feels less artificially constructed than race does to me. I fully believe that the roles we associate with each gender (caregivers v. providers/ dominant v. passive/ etc.) are artificially constructed, but the identifying labels themselves feel much more fixed. What do you think?


  1. Here are some of my thoughts on the gender topic you mentioned.

    I don't think that all gender roles are artificially constructed. Nature seems to point that out in a variety of species around the globe. The difference is that we go beyond instinctual gender roles. There are even species in which the female will kill her mate. How many guys today would step up to the plate if that were the case with humans?

    In addition to that, thousands of years of history show males & females in various roles many no different than they are today. Even the idea of marriage comes with ideas that the individuals being united have roles to fulfill.

    I am sort of binary when it comes to gender. If you have a penis/XY combo then you are male. If you have a vagina/XX combo then you are female. Anything outside of the box is trans-gender. But just because you are a male does not automatically make you a "man". Similarly, just because you are a female does not make you a "woman". I don't a think male can be a "woman" or a female a "man." I think that, trans-genders while neither male or female, have a choice on being a "man" or "woman".

    I am not sure if I am even on topic anymore. That is just a few thoughts collected in stream-of-consciousness sort of manner.


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