G is for Gender–Way Beyond Pink and Blue

GThis is going to be a long and rambling blog. My apologies up front. Gender is a complicated minefield of a topic, and I have a lot to say about it. I am no expert, just someone trying to make sense of it all without offending anyone. 

No matter what class I seem to land in seems to bring up gender as a recurring theme. I have to say, I know a whole lot more about gender now than I did two years ago when I started this program. Gender used to be binary—or at least we only ever talked about it in terms of the male/female binary. Now we discuss gender as occurring in a sphere. Two years ago, I had never heard of a pansexual or a demi-girl, or even the idea that gender occurs on a spectrum and not as the binary male/female boy/girl man/woman paradigm.

Take a look at this chart. It’s not a joke (although, I have to admit, when I first saw it I thought it was). Mind blowing, yes? These symbols represent the current (and rapidly changing) gender landscape.

gender symbols

 

If you’re like me, somewhere between the ages of 40 and 60, you grew up in a time when gender norms just started breaking down. I remember being a child and overhearing my parents and grandparents complain about the hippies, going on and on about how they could no longer tell the boys from the girls now that the boys had long hair. You grew up when girls no longer had to wear dresses to school and were no longer confined to three careers: nurse, teacher, secretary. If you were an athletic girl, you may have even tried out for the little league team. Title IX had an impact in that girls’ sports got funded, finally.

Women became doctors, lawyers, dentists, fire fighters, and police officers. Men became flight attendants and nurses, started taking care of children, changing diapers. Stay at home dads became a thing. Gender roles became more flexible, but generally males remained males and females remained females. Gay men may have been more effeminate and lesbians more masculine, but boys wore blue, and girls wore pink and nobody played coy about the biological sex of their newborn child.

I grew up as a gender nonconforming child, never fully comfortable in the trappings of girlhood. I preferred my Red Ryder BB gun to dolls and spent my free time outside, building tree forts, fishing, and playing baseball with my brother. I wanted to be a boy but not because I felt uncomfortable in my body. I wanted to be a boy because boys had more freedoms, fewer constraints.

When I was about six, somehow I had heard about sex change operations (what is now called sexual reassignment surgery). Since we didn’t have a television and were fairly isolated in our small community, I have no idea how I might have learned about such a thing. Nor do I know what possessed me to ask my Mema about it, maybe a sense that if I expressed my desire to not be a girl, she would stop buying me girl stuff. But there we were in her Gran Torino—I leaned over the console from the back seat. “Mema, there’s an operation you can have if you don’t want to be a girl anymore. I could be a boy,” I ventured.

She turned to look at me, taking a long drag off of her cigarette. After a moment she blew the smoke out the side of her mouth away from me. “Those people are sick,” she announced and turned around to back the car out of the driveway. End of discussion, but message received loud and clear.Genderbread-Person-3.3

These days I sit in classes with people who introduce themselves and then announce their preferred pronouns, as in, “My name is Jennifer and I prefer the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’.” I have to admit, the first time I heard such an introduction I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Many of my classmates identify as queer or pansexual, and there are a lot of trans* people at Antioch. I generally introduce myself as a lesbian, but I recently learned that many younger people believe that to be a lesbian is to be transphobic.

I am not transphobic, though I have a lot to learn and am still wrapping my head around what it means to be trans*. I’m pretty sure it’s more than feeling like a boy who is trapped in a girl’s body or vice versa. Recently, I’ve listened to speakers who identify as trans* but not as transwomen or transmen, just trans, as in somewhere in between or not even.

One speaker said that he (and he did identify as a transman) probably wouldn’t have transitioned from female to male had he stayed in his native country. In his homeland, being a butch lesbian pushed the cultural boundaries enough. But when he moved to the U.S., he decided to transition because being a butch lesbian wasn’t far enough out there, culturally speaking. He wanted to push the boundaries further.

I don’t think I want to be something other than a cisgendered lesbian. But I do understand what it’s like to be misgendered and misunderstood.

I’ve written about this before here, but it’s a story worth repeating. A number of years ago, I took my then four-year-old nephew to the community pool near his home in a very upwardly mobile suburban enclave in the Pacific Northwest. I wore my one-piece speedo swimsuit and a pair of cargo shorts, and sat on the edge of the hot tub where he enjoyed a soak and roughhoused with a couple of friends. He looked up at me as I dangled my legs in the bubbling water.

“Auntie Pammie,” he said, “are you a boy or a girl?”

I looked back at his wide open and innocent face, and I could tell immediately that he was genuinely puzzled, that his four-year-old awareness of what made a boy a boy and a girl a girl was in direct conflict with what he saw represented in me. In his world, girls did not have short hair and wear cargo shorts. In his world there was one way to be a girl and another to be a boy, and he could not figure out where to put me.

“It must be confusing,” I said to him. “You don’t usually see girls with such short hair or wearing clothes like I wear. But, I’m here to tell you, I am a girl, buddy. I’m definitely a girl.”

I smiled at him and thought about all of the ways I could identify myself as a female. I have big boobs for one thing, but I wasn’t going to go there with a four-year-old. I wore diamond earrings, but that didn’t make me a girl anymore, not like it did 25 years ago. I shaved my legs. I was, in fact Auntie Pammie. I tried to think of how else I could convince him that I was a girl, beyond the obvious.

“Okay,” he smiled and went back to playing with his friends in the water.

I breathed a sigh of relief, and his question has become a bit of family folklore. My brother and sister-in-law were slightly mortified when I relayed the question to them later, but once I started explaining his confusion, they began to understand. He wasn’t being impolite or impertinent. He simply had no social construct for me.

While I can easily forgive my nephew his four-year-old’s confusion and innocent question, I’m more hesitant to grant a pass to the woman who mistook me for a man in the women’s restroom awhile back. I had just finished washing my hands in the public bathroom at an Oregon beach when a woman entered, saw me, and, obviously startled, went back out to look again at the sign on the restroom door. I just shook my head and walked by her, leaving her to puzzle things out on her own.

Incidents like the one at the beach happen to me fairly often, more so recently. I would like to say that I am unfazed by people’s confusion, but their obliviousness continues to bother me.

We need to push the boundaries in order to stretch the social construct. That’s what this shift in gender identity is all about. And while many of us are beginning to understand and accept that some people are born “in the wrong bodies” and want their minds and bodies to match (though, there is a school of thought that purports if we could culturally accept gender as nonbinary, and accept everyone just as they are, there would be no need to make our bodies and and our minds match vis a vis sexual reassignment surgery, but it’s a controversial stance. For more info, check out Alice Dreger and her TED Talk), it’s still pretty radical (and, frankly challenging to grasp) to consider gender as nonbinary, as not an either/or but as a whatever.

Changing (or negating) our genders to push the boundaries? I guess that’s where change happens. On the boundaries. If no one ever pushed, nothing would ever change.

 

 

Gender, George Kelly, and the Coming Revolution

A number of years ago, when my nephew was four we were at the community pool near his home in a very upwardly mobile suburban enclave in the Pacific Northwest. I was wearing my one-piece speedo swimsuit and a pair of cargo shorts, sitting on the edge of the hot tub where he was enjoying a soak and roughhousing with a couple of friends. He looked up at me as I dangled my legs in the bubbling water.

“Auntie Pammie,” he said, “are you a boy or a girl?”

I looked back at his wide open and innocent face, and I could tell immediately that he was genuinely puzzled, that his four-year-old awareness of what made a boy a boy and a girl a girl was in direct conflict with what he saw represented in me. In his world, girls did not have short hair and wear cargo shorts. In his world there was one way to be a girl and another to be a boy and he could not figure out where to put me.

“It must be confusing,” I said to him. “You don’t usually see girls with such short hair or wearing clothes like I wear. But, I’m here to tell you, I am a girl, buddy. I’m definitely a girl.” I smiled at him and thought about all of the ways I could identify myself as a female. I had big boobs for one thing but I wasn’t going to go there with a four year old. I wore diamond earrings, but that didn’t make me a girl anymore, not like it did 25 years ago. I shaved my legs. I was, in fact Auntie Pammie, not Uncle.  I tried to think of how else I could convince him that I was a girl, beyond the obvious. My genitals were not up for discussion. Not poolside, not without his parents’ permission. Probably not ever.

“Okay,” he smiled and went back to playing with his friends in the water.

I breathed a sigh of relief, and his question has become a bit of family folklore. Also, it has jangled in the back of my mind since that day. I was not like his mother and the other mothers in the neighborhood. I didn’t wear make up, heels, ruffles, dresses or skirts. I didn’t even wear girl jeans or shorts. I wore t-shirts and shorts—I dressed more like his dad, my brother. I drank beer with his dad when I visited. I did not sip wine with his mother. I worked with computers for a living. I drove a Jeep.  My brother and sister-in-law were slightly mortified when I relayed the question to them later, but once I started explaining his confusion, they began to understand. He wasn’t being impolite. He had no social construct for me. (if  you haven’t seen Ash Beckham or iO Tillet Wright’s TED talks on gender, check them out here).

I have to write a paper by tomorrow on one George Kelly, one of a dozen or so theorists of the last 100 years or so who have impacted the field of psychology. In one of the classes I’m taking, our weekly papers go along the same lines each week—choose one of the theorists concepts (our favorite concept) and write up a paragraph on it, summarizing it. Then we write another paragraph in which we analyze another source on the same concept.

I started the quarter loving this assignment—first of all it was pretty easy initially to pick and choose concepts that intrigued me from among the early theorists. For Freud, I chose to analyze his theory that anatomy is destiny. I took him to task on that. I had no trouble finding other sources out there on the world wide web to support me in my analysis of his so-called theory. I ran across a TED Talk by Alice Dreger entitled Is Anatomy Destiny which nicely expanded Freud’s discussion on the matter.

In her talk, Dreger, an anatomy historian and advocate for patients whose body types challenge social norms (i.e. conjoined twins, dwarves, intersex folks) refutes Freud’s “anatomy is destiny” assertion. Dreger posits that there is “no such thing as stable anatomical categories that map  . . . simply to stable identity categories.” She goes on to describe how science is now revealing that gender and sex categories are overly simplistic.” For example, Dreger describes a patient who presents as male: looks like a man, acts like a man, has apparent anatomy that is typically male but who has a uterus and ovaries due to androgyne insensitivity syndrome. Dreger has patients whom surgeons want to “normalize” in her words, “not because [the surgery] leave them better off in terms of physical health” but because “they (the anatomically atypical patients) threaten our social categories.” In other words, our cultural, like Freud (and maybe partly because of him) doesn’t know what to do with people whom we don’t understand.

Which brings us nicely back to George Kelly, who in spite of not having written very much, basically established the entire concept of social cognition. Social cognition is, according to our text (Feist’s Theories of Personality) the examination of “the cognitive and attitudinal bases of person perception, including schemas, biases, stereotypes, and prejudiced behavior.”  In other words, people make judgments and base their opinions on what they believe to be true—they form their opinions based on their experiences, how they were raised, their backgrounds, their way of being in the world. They form a social construct.

When Kelly’s theories were used to measure how people viewed gender, it turned out that most people use gender as a means of categorizing other people. Among those who do have biases about gender were more likely to apply gender stereotypes to strangers in social situations. And finally, the study concluded that those who stereotype strangers are more likely to ascribe stereotypical gender behavior to family members, friends, and acquaintances.

What’s the issue, you may wonder? The problem is that gender isn’t binary. According to Dreger and other researchers, gender occurs along a continuum. We might like to neatly categorize people as male or female and attribute behaviors thusly, but I would posit that gender behavior is a social construct foisted upon us by a culture interested in easy answers and quick categorizations. When we judge people according to our own narrow beliefs, we limit them and ourselves. When we believe our dreams are not valid because they fall outside of the gender norms, we cannot reach our full potential.

We are really touchy about gender. Nothing makes us more uncomfortable than not being able to place someone as either male or female. Even me, a lesbian, who despite being of a certain age, has a wide-open mind and tries not to stereotype anyone, still squirms a bit when I am faced with gender ambiguity. Even me, who spent a large portion of my 20s and 30s being called sir (I attribute the confusion to my then narrow hips).

But, the next revolution might be in the offing as transgender rights begin to take center stage. A new discussion and awareness is beginning and I am looking forward to a new unpacking of gender stereotypes and some talk about what it means to be male and female. Imagine doing away with our social constructs around gender—imagine a world in which a four year old doesn’t care if his Auntie Pammie is a boy or a girl, or have to worry about if he likes “girl things” or “boy things.” Imagine a world in which we truly are not judged by the sort of women or men we are, but on our humanity and on the ways in which we treat one another regardless of differences. Freud might be rolling in his grave, but I think George Kelly will be proud.