*What I’m saying is, gender might be something insubstantial that we made up, but it still manages to throw shit around and break things.
I received a detailed and thought-provoking comment on my post Bending Gender – Until it Snaps, which made me realise I may not have been expressing myself clearly in that post.
So, some clarification:
When I use the term ‘sex’ in this piece, I’m not talking about sexual intercourse, I’m talking about anatomical gender, as in does someone have a penis or a vagina?
Also, I’m not at all trivialising gender or claiming it is ‘fluid’. Quite the opposite – gender is a huge (and, IMHO, VERY problematic) part of our constructed performative cultural system. It is EXTREMELY rigid, but that doesn’t make it REAL or innate. Gender identity (as opposed to the sexed body) is a socially constructed idea, and we are all to some extent bound by its expectations. Even if we choose to subvert it, we feel its ramifications, as Lacey Roop did when she was asked if she were a ‘dude or a dyke’. A man cannot simply chose to wear a dress casually in our culture without attracting stares. A woman can’t step out without makeup without being accused of lacking in pride in her appearance, as though a woman’s worth is only in her aesthetic.
(Check out Lacey’s quite frankly AWESOME spoken word performance Gender Is a Universe)
What I’m saying is that gender as a set of behaviours and cultural expectations is actually made up – it has no real basis, no relationship to ‘nature’. In simplistic terms, there is absolutely NOTHING about my body, with its breasts and womb, that insists it must be clothed in soft lines and flowing fabric and framed by long hair and enhanced by make-up. But this is certainly what the dominant culture expects of me. And I, personally, actually conform to that. It doesn’t bother me in my own life, but there was a time when as a ten year old child I cut my hair off like a boy and wore overalls because I was a rough-and-tumble kinda kid and dresses and long hair just weren’t practical, and at the age of TEN I was teased as a lesbian. Apart from being confused about why being a lesbian should be something to tease someone about (we were a very liberal family, and whilst I am straight, I copped the ‘lesbo’ teasing throughout my schooling because I am a little bit different) it shocked me even then, as a child, to realise that people would draw such huge conclusions from the way I cut my hair and dress. Our culture is profoundly gendered, and it is a problem because gender – the behaviours and dress styles and demanours we culturally associate with anatomical sex – is actually arbitrary, i.e. made up.
To further complicate the matter, when we look into the science of it and realise that anatomical sex is not even a fixed thing in nature, that this division between the male body and female body is, like gender identity, an arbitrary binary that we have imposed on nature and not innate to biology, then gender and all the cultural implications of it is revealed as a farce.
Sexuality is one such cultural implication. Seeing that gender is a farce illuminates sexuality as a similarly flawed concept, because it is dependent on gender. How many children suffer brutal teasing at school on the grounds of sexual orientation (in my case an orientation I didn’t even identify with!)? And when we understand that sexuality is just nomenclature, a collection of categories that respond to the presumption of the REALITY and INNATENESS of gender and anatomical sex, we see that homophobia (or, indeed, heterophobia, which I have seen in full flight! Or bisexual individuals copping it from the gay community for ‘not picking a side’ or from the hetero community for being supposedly promiscuous) is not only ridiculous on humanitarian grounds, but competely divorced from reality.
I would go so far as to say that gender is a construct designed over the milennia to control people, much like class systems.
I agree that in the short term, helping people ‘reassign gender’ (in this case gender meaning anatomical sex) seems like the best solution, but the culture needs to shift in the long run, and I’m not convinced that gender reassignment doesnt actually hinder this shift by giving the culture a get-out-of-gaol-free card.
In summation, what angers me so much about this phenomenon is realising how much pain people suffer, believing that they are somehow wrong, when the standard by which they are measuring their ‘correctness’ is in fact a milennia old cultural LIE.