My first memory of gender was when my older sister got pregnant and my family threw her a gender reveal party. It was a party before the party. They had items that were blue and pink everywhere with posted gender questions. There was a gender reveal of silly string in one color that was revealed by the family around my sister so we would know the biological sex of the baby in her womb. We later had a baby shower where we partied again, but this time with strict color coding for the assigned gender of the baby before they were even born. This process was repeated for her second child, of the opposite sex. I’ve personally never understood gender rules and the purposes they serve, likely because as a woman, I don’t benefit from them. My favorite color is blue, and though I’m cis-gendered, I don’t understand the assignment of color coding people, nor do I subscribe to them. With education, I have come to understand patriarchal systems have created these rules and the enforcement of them.
I was raised in a republic state where the residents have narrow-minded views, aren’t really open-minded, and people who don’t like change are therefore resistant to the elimination of traditions. Being raised in that environment, I was proud of my ability to be open-minded about race, but when it came to threatening the heteronormative roles, I rejected new thoughts. I didn’t understand homosexuality or gender variance. I simply didn’t talk about it with anyone. I didn’t care if someone else identified as gay or transgendered, but I didn’t want to talk about it. I have learned that it was homophobic and transphobic. I moved away and got a job where I traveled all over the country. My immersion in the “culture” I saw in the ever-so-exotic places like Denver and Phoenix shaped me, jokes aside. Moving away from Montana allowed me to leave the shelter of others’ opinions. I went on a journey of self-discovery and came to realize that my homophobia was internalized as through my evolution, I realized I am lesbian.
Through that transformation, I shed most heteronormative rules and challenged every thought I had about what was “right” and “wrong,” I was Christian, challenged the conflicting ideologies, and decided I didn’t actually feel whatever it is Christians claim they feel. It didn’t fit me, so I let go of it. With it, I let go of most of the rules I had placed in my life. I decided the reason to not cheat on my partner was because I loved them, respected them as a person, and because I wouldn’t want someone to treat me that way, rather than a prescribed rule instilled in me by a higher entity. I grew more independent than I had been previously and was a single mom of four children for six years before accepting my current partner into our lives. We joke about “who’s the boy” because we both do masculine and feminine tasks. We perform gender in our daily lives in a non-binary sense. We aren’t constricted by heteronormative ideologies, and thankfully so. As two independent women, we have a successful business that allows me to return to further my education. If we allowed those binary belief systems to dictate our actions, we wouldn’t be able to function as there is no man in our lives to provide for us. There’s no man to cut the grass or to change the oil on the car. When something breaks, there’s no man to fix it. Instead of subscribing to outdated ideologies, we just fix them and move on with our lives.
Today’s societal expectations of men are reflected by the patriarchal hierarchy. In order to become a “man” males have to go through several steps. Being a man is not a biological right, it has to be earned, but it is only available (in a positive light) to biologically male individuals. If someone “other” than males attempt at becoming masculine, the described peers that guard masculinity do their best to shame them and put them in their place as one way to position themselves in relation to cultural/conventional notions of masculinity. The steps included in becoming a man include being rewarded for gender-appropriate behaviors like competitiveness and severance from one’s emotions. The more boys are rewarded, or positively reinforced, for these actions, the more likely they will be to repeat the behaviors and reward others in their attempt to mentor and position themselves above men, increasing their perceived power.
These gender-appropriate behaviors are taught as a part of becoming a man beginning with parents and siblings, then peers and schools (or other institutions like sports). A boy learns to become a man by watching other men. Society doesn't believe a boy can become a man without a “proper male figure” in their life, a belief perpetrated by men. Initiation is the common final step to becoming “a man”. Initiations vary from culture to culture but can include violence and harm to others. When you’re a man, you perpetuate “masculinity” to different degrees. Masculinity is a set of views that create a hierarchy within the masculine world. The degree of your masculinity determines your rank within the hierarchy. Focusing on hegemonic gender roles of strength, virility, and power in order to position themselves within the societal structure. A masculine female (or a transman whether masculine or feminine) is viewed as a threat, and not considered part of the club of masculinity. If they are accepted in a microeconomic setting, they would be viewed at the bottom (Gutmann, 1997).
Hegemonic masculinity encourages propensities, or pressures, that are unhealthy and unrealistic for men, such as a need to climb the patriarchal hierarchy and always be more “masculine”, I believe conditioning is imposed on men to brush those negativities aside in a quest for manhood. As part of the system that perpetuates itself, men are rewarded for behaviors that buy into the system, and punished for standing out against the crowd. As part of the patriarchal system, you have to go with the grain in order to have an “easy” life. You can’t stick out, or you will be reprimanded by the peers who “guard” masculinity by using hegemony. If you see the world in one way, and you can’t imagine the world any other way, doesn’t it make sense that you’d try to follow the “rules”' that has been sometimes literally beaten into you since birth? It doesn’t excuse it, but it explains it. The ideology of masculinity is an outdated view that perpetuates patriarchy and resembles that of a pyramid scheme with the white men getting rich at the top and everyone below them being oppressed.
For anyone struggling with the concept of gender and the differences it holds from sexuality, the Genderbread Person is a free online resource used as a teaching tool to dismantle the concept of gender roles into layman's terms so anyone can understand the big concepts. The Genderbread Person is a visual explanation of the differences between gender identity, which is how you define your gender and how you see yourself, gender expression, as the way we outwardly express our gender identity, present or perform gender, biological sex, or our external genitalia - which does not determine gender as gender is a cultural construct, not biology. Gender is who you are, sexuality is who you’re attracted to. With an easy-to-understand resource like the Genderbread Person, we are able to spread awareness and acceptance. Education is the first step to cultural change.
It is important to recognize non-binary categories for gender simply because they exist. People don’t always fit into the binary hegemonic systems gender employs, but regardless of not fitting in, deserve to be recognized as the people they are. By accepting there is a plethora of gender variances, we allow people to be who they are, and add their own color to the world. With awareness comes acceptance. Everyone wants to be accepted for who they are, and we are all told that differences don’t matter, but the reality of the world doesn’t reflect that ideal. Just to name a few, here are gender variances that may or may not be well-known.
Cisgender - identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth
Transgender - they don’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth
Non-binary/Gender Neutral/Gender Queer - no identification with the binary gender system
Gender-fluidTwo-Spirit/Pangender/Gender Expansive - identifies with aspects of both gender binaries
Intersex - biologically presents as male and female or neither male nor female, but is not an indicator of gender.
The term for a person who is neither exclusively biologically male nor female is intersexual. Biological science offers an explanation for children who are neither biologically male nor female. In utero, all babies start out presenting as female. When testosterone is introduced, gonads turn into testes rather than ovaries, and the labia grow together to house the testes. There is a phallic meter that gauges, based on size, whether or not an infant needs to undergo surgery to “normalize” their body.
This practice of surgically altering infants was endorsed by an experiment done on identical twin boys. David, the twin who had an injury to his genitalia, was victim to a doctor surgically reassigning his sex to female in the name of science. He was raised as a girl in girl’s clothes and gender rules, but when his parents told him the truth about his medical history at age 14, David immediately went back to being a boy. He later took his life. This further evidences the need to acknowledge and accept gender variances. David had more options available to him other than being surgically made into a female. It is estimated that 1 in 10 newborns are forced into sex reassignment surgery. Doctors justify parents making these decisions because parents make many decisions for their children (Gender Revolution, 2017), but when it comes to life-altering choices that cannot be reversed, I believe it is in the best interest of the child to wait and allow the child to decide for themselves so they aren’t shunned from society and potentially killed because the assigned sex didn’t match how they felt as a person.
By educating ourselves about gender variances, we are taking the first step towards creating equality, inclusion, and a better understanding of gender in today’s society. Once we understand gender, biological sex, and their differences, we can spread that knowledge to others. We can pass along our education to help more people in the community understand and hopefully come to accept gender variances.
Introduce yourself with your preferred pronouns. By taking the first step towards normalizing communicating gender pronouns that are acceptable to use when referring to you, you open the door for someone who may struggle to communicate the pronouns they prefer, especially if they differ from their gender expression.
Ask about other people’s preferred pronouns. More directly, asking someone what their pronouns are, allows them direct space to answer a question without having to insert themselves. For cis-gendered people who struggle with gender variance, this is a great exposure and real-life practice in inclusion.
Use the power you possess to create normalcy. If you are in a position of authority, make changes to the processes that eliminate the segregation of gender, making it a more equal and inclusive environment. Replace the sex question with a pronoun question on applications, make bathrooms gender-neutral, employ minorities, and provide mental health services or at least referrals.
Speak out. If you see someone oppressing others, say something. People travel the path of least resistance, which leads to oppression. We all have a voice, if privileged individuals stick up for the oppressed ones, our world will gradually become more accepting. If you’re an ally, speak out about it! Let the world know, so when someone who needs an ally gets in a bind, they know they can trust you.
Get immersed. The best way to learn and to help is obviously to volunteer. Nearly half of all transgendered people either attempt or die from suicide (Gender Revolution, 2017). There are clearly ways volunteers could be of use. If every non-binary child had an ally, even if they were cisgender, their lives would be significantly improved.
(2017) Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric. National Geographic Documentary Films. https://www.proquest.com/audio-video-works/gender-revolution-journey-with-katie-couric/docview/1910774033/se-2
Gutmann, M. C. (1997). Trafficking in men: The anthropology of masculinity. Brown University.
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