Our gender is something that has a huge effect on our lives. So much of what we do is determined by our gender. Even the opportunities we have socially and professionally are effected by our gender. For most of us, our gender was assigned at birth and has not been questioned since then. So why is gender so important to our society? Why does it mean so much to fit into one label or another? Why was gender created in the first place?
I wish I had answers to these questions, but I don’t. It is easy to see how important gender is, but why it is that important is not so clear to me. It is obvious that the media and especially advertising has a huge interest in the binary gender system. This system and the norms created by it has made easy targets for advertisers. They are more than willing to show us how certain products can make us more manly or more feminine. How would advertising change if socially constructed gender disappeared?
I think it goes much deeper than just advertising, though. There is a very real real threat of violence towards MtF transgender people in particular in Western society. I know others face the same threats, and my intention is not to minimize that. I just know more about what I see from my point of view.
Whether you agree, disagree, or even find someones gender choice offensive, why it does it strike a deep enough chord in some people to lead to violence? Why bully someone because you don’t agree with them? Gender and our gender expression seems to strike deeply. Is it a matter of protecting our gender? Men should be manly and women should be feminine and if you aren’t on board with this we have to protect our club by striking out at you? Are men afraid that if a person assigned as male at birth defects to the other side that could provide proof that men aren’t superior and don’t deserve the advantages they have in our society?
I expressed some of my views about my gender to a recent girlfriend. I can call her girlfriend because she self identified as a female. She claimed to be open minded and ok with my gender expression. My ideas were still developing at the time, as they are still now, but every indication I had from her was that she in fact was ok with who I am. When we broke up though, one of her comments to me was that no other woman would understand my gender confusion. That hurt. One of my fears is not making connections with people because I stand outside the norms of society. I think she said this to hurt me and more importantly to attempt to control me. She tried to use gender to convince me that she was the only woman I could be with. Now, if gender really wasn’t an issue for her, why was this the automatic go to when she wanted to hurt and control me? Is gender an instrument of control in society as a whole?
It is up to each individual to determine why gender is important to them. If you have never questioned gender, why would you take for granted that what was assigned to you at birth is correct when gender has such a huge effect on the rest of your life? I think its great if you are comfortable with your gender, but how comfortable are people who have to strike out at individuals who do not conform to the binary?
There are two quick exercises I would like you to try. For one week or one day even, pay close attention to how gender effects your everyday life. For example, when you get up in the morning, is the soap you use in the shower a men’s soap or a women’s soap? Does gender really determine the formulation of soap? How about your deodorant? Shampoo? The clothes you put on? What areas of the news and entertainment whether on TV, internet or old school newspaper are targeted at specific genders? Notice how stores are laid out with specific labels for men and women’s sections. Do you normally go through your day with no awareness of how gender effects almost every area of our lives?
The second thing I would like you to try is to simply imagine an assigned female in male clothing. Maybe a nice business suit. Dark slacks, white shirt, tie, dark jacket and nice leather shoes. Now imagine an assigned male in women’s clothes. A nice flowery dress, pretty jewelry, and matching shoes and handbag. What is your reaction to these images? Is your reaction stronger to one or the other? Whatever your reaction was, question why you had that reaction. What interest do you have in how another person dresses? Why do their choices evoke this reaction in you? There are no right or wrong answers, I just think it is time we start questioning and increase our awareness around these issues.
Something I think a lot of people may be able to relate to is something that really bugged me when I was a kid. When mom would tell me to do something and I would question why I had to, she would resort to the “Because I said so” answer quite often. I hated that answer because ti really didn’t answer any questions I had. How many people are playing their gender roles because society says so without getting the real answers? How many people react to others choices of gender expression without questioning their reactions? Who cares what gender we are, who really has the highest stakes in mainlining the gender binary?