Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Let's put gender on a continuum (Hum Magazine, December 2012)

I don’t understand the fervor of gender identification and the subsequent lifelong segregation we impose upon children. Gender is a mantle placed on fetuses in utero by way of the pink coloring of a genetically female infant’s room to the blue balloons hanging from a mailbox in anticipation of a genetically male infant. So what if it’s a boy? So what if it’s a girl? Why are these facts so important?

As a scrawny boy in elementary school I envied girls mainly because their games usually didn’t require physical prowess. Mostly, their games appeared to revolve around fantasy, e.g., MASH MASH is an acronym for Mansion Apartment Shack House. This paper-and-pencil game is based somewhat on a combination of chance and arbitrary questions (the specifics of which I now forget). Regardless, by the end of the game one’s future abode was determined. Perhaps my jealousy was misplaced as I later learned that such games had a dark subtext of catty abuse. At the time, however, I would loved to have taken part, avoided being terrible at kickball, and had the chance to actually speak to people. Boys, in my opinion, didn’t do enough talking. They were all action, sweat and violence with the occasional merciless taunting.

I think my frustration with hard-and-fast “boy” and “girl” activities stems from growing up in a home in which strict gender identification was not pushed. I don’t mean to suggest that I was not raised as a male but rather that my parents allowed me to play as I liked. I gravitated towards “boy” games, no doubt secondary to the influence of television and school, but I don’t recall my father or mother saying, “that’s a girl’s game” and steering me away. Just as importantly, sexual preference was never pushed. I have always dated girls but I wonder what would have happened if I brought a boy home. We never ran into that situation but I think my parents would be accepting of my choices as they always have.

So what am I like now? I think that I embody a lot of what people consider feminine attributes. I speak with a feminine lilt unless I’m around a bunch of men who don’t know me well and then I feel compelled to give off a more “masculine” air. I’m averse to violence. I don’t like watching or playing sports. I like things that are delicate and small. I am a good listener and I love stories. My perception of romance, from what I learned in school and on TV, was restricted to the tall-dark-and-handsome-take-charge attitude expected of boys and the damsel-in-distress-waiting-to-be-swept-away attitude expected of girls. The type of romance that actually appeals to me is the intertwining of two people who share elements of both of these types; some days I want to be the one who sweeps away and sometimes I want to be the one who is swept.

I chose to address this topic because I think that if we all took a moment to examine the proportions of masculinity and femininity within us then perhaps certain groups, particularly people who are transgendered, might seem more like points on the same continuum of strictly “boys” and strictly “girls” rather than aberrations that don’t have a place in society. Transgender is a term under intense dispute and as I don’t purport to be an expert on sexuality I hope people more knowledgeable than I will make some comments on the subject. My basic understanding of the term transgender is that it is an umbrella word for those who fundamentally disagree with the gender dictated to them by virtue of being born genotypically male or female (XY or XX) or phenotypically male or female (possessing a penis or a vagina).

I feel we are making a mistake to so fervently place our children into one category or another. Perhaps we do this to side-step the life stressors currently experienced by those who consider themselves transgendered. While I think we can teach our kids to be more tolerant than that, I can’t condemn anyone who wants to protect their children from the pain related to crises of identity.

Perhaps the best way we can instill comfort with regards to gender identification for our children is to start them early with the idea that perhaps gender is an issue of proportion rather than two slots. Maybe in every man there is a proportion of femininity and vice versa. We could describe it like eye color. Some people have blue eyes, some have blue-green eyes, some have green eyes, etc. Of note, I purposely do not address sexuality (homosexuality, heterosexuality, pansexuality, etc.) because as I understand it, sexual preference operates independently of the gender with which someone identifies.

In college I took a class on gender and sexuality in which we read about the Incans placing transsexual people in positions of reverence. Anthropologists hypothesize that the reason behind this placement was that if one person could cross boundaries of sexual identity with ease then perhaps he/she had an uncommon insight into the human condition from which others could learn. I am fascinated by this situation for two reasons, 1) gender identification is hardly a new issue and 2) perhaps American society has it all wrong; maybe we are marginalizing the very people who carry unusual insight into personhood.

I realize I am hardly the first person to propose a proportional view of gender or gender as being on a continuum. My point is that if we elect to accept these hypotheses, we have a lot to gain with respect to the treatment of people who are transgendered. They may seem less different than those who fit into the strictly “boy” and “girl” categories thereby receiving the treatment and respect they deserve. As a result, I think American society would collectively take a large step forward in terms of tolerance and understanding.

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