Monday, January 11, 2010

Build-a-Gender Day! (from Erica)

A couple of nights ago I was at the youth poetry workshop I'm co-facilitating in Philadelphia, and our week's topic was gender. What defines it, what describes it, what indicates it, what we love and hate about it. Our sessions usually involve ample time for discussions, but this week we had another activity we wanted to get to and so the discussion time was cut short. But the questions we'd raised were ones I wanted to bring here, to see what folks had to say.

Before asking them, though, I want to give a quick rundown of what I mean when I say "gender," because a lot of people have terms confused. To break it down in a simplistic way (and not everyone would agree with this breakdown), "gender" refers to the outward characteristics you use to indicate the pronouns you prefer to use, your personal style, etc. "Gender" is also something that other people read on you, in part because of these characteristics you have. "Sex" refers to your physical characteristics- your chromosomes, your genitalia, your hormones- and is often read to be synonymous with gender. "Sexual orientation" or "sexuality" refers to who you're sexually attracted to and what you do/don't like to do with the people you have intimate relationships with. Again, it's often assumed to follow straight from your sex and gender identities- but again, it's a whole separate thing. Even for people who DO appear to have all these ducks in a row- female body, woman identity, attracted to males- how these ducks appear (curvy? busty? skinny? tomboy? high-fashion femme? yoga master? promiscuous? housewife? serial monogamist?) varies from person to person.

For example, I was born female-bodied and I identify myself as a woman who is sexually and romantically attracted to people of a variety of sexes and genders. I like wearing my hair long, earrings and necklaces, and occasionally makeup, but I also like wearing clothes and shoes that let me be ready for anything- especially physical outdoor activities. As a White woman, part of my gender identity has been formed in reaction to the old stereotype that White women are supposed to be sheltered, protected, dependent, and weak.

So the questions for today focus on your gender identity. They are:
-What are some of the characteristics of your personal gender?
-What are some of the ways that your gender identity has affected your intimate relationships?
-What are some of the ways your gender identity has affected your life choices?
-How have you been treated, positively or negatively, as a result of your gender presentation?
-How do some of your other identities- your race, your socioeconomic status, your level of ability, for example- affect your gender identity and the way others perceive it?


  1. I really appreciated your mentioning the different ways that a cis-gendered, heterosexual person can do gender (tomboy, housewife, etc). In high school and my freshman year in college, I was overweight--not horribly so, but apparently enough to be unattractive to the vast majority of men I knew. I lost a fair (again, not *huge* because that would have been unhealthy) amount of weight, and since then my opportunities for romantic relationships have increased exponentially. The female gender category into which men and other women place me changed, even though my personality/abilities/values barely did. I went from being the "cool girl that doesn't get asked out" to the girl with dates every weekend, that could "date any guy she wanted." But I still feel like the girl that doesn't get asked out. And I still hate exercise and love dessert. Moral of the story: the importance of appearances in where people place you in their list of gendered stereotypes, in spite of intellect or personality. Even if you don't really *do* gender the way you're "supposed to," some people (natural blondes, naturally muscular/broad-shouldered men) *look* like they are paying their gender-dues, but they actually reject them. And because of the appearance of doing what they're supposed to, they can get away with more. (Think Gloria Steinem--persecuted less as a feminist leader because she was what her culture dictated was 'beautiful.')

  2. When I was little, I thought I had a boy's voice. I was horrified by the thought. When I went to school and learned how to write, I thought boys were less intelligent than girls because so many boys had poor handwriting. To me, being a woman meant I was intelligent.

    I identify as a cisgendered woman. That is, someone who was labelled as a woman at birth and accepts that label. Of course, I'm not a typical woman. I'm always shocking the guys I date with a directness they don't expect in women (and which they often don't particularly welcome).

    Of course, there are so many factors caught up in my gender that it's difficult to break down what has led me to identify as the particular kind of woman I am today. Growing up as an LDS woman, I faced social pressure to fit a particular mold, a mold that as far as I can tell is grounded in nothing more than the culture of one region. To some people, I'm unfeminine simply by virtue of admitting that I experience physical attraction that is not entirely grounded in a desire for emotional closeness.

    But I also grew up surrounded by feminism, and I'd say feminism is deeply tied to my gender. I think about gender all the time, and surely thinking about it also impacts how I define myself gender-wise.

    I'm surprised to discover how difficult it is to articulate my answer. Once I spoke to an LDS person who was thinking of changing his sex and gender from male to female. I asked, "how do you know you're a girl?" and this person's response was, "how do *you* know you're female? Outside of physical things, how do you know that?"

    I didn't have a concrete answer, either then or now. I know I'm a woman - but I can't really explain how.

  3. Here's something else - I do not call myself a "girl," and I bristle when someone calls me "miss." In the english language, we correlate pronoun pairs:

    guy/ girl
    man/ woman

    So maybe when we call a young man a "guy," it separates him from boys, but what about "girl"?

    And then there's Miss - now that I'm old enough to be a Mrs, it irks me that men are always Mr. while everyone wants to call me Miss. What's wrong with a simple Ms. ? seriously - I don't think everyone needs to know my marital status the instant they meet me, or that they should call me by a different title because of my relationship status. Especially when I'm at a place like BYU, where being in your mid-twenties and unmarried carries a bit of a stigma, especially for women. It's not that I want to be like men by going by the title "Ms." I just want to be seen as an adult, irrespective of my marital status.

  4. This doesn't really answer the questions posed, but it seemed in line with Emily's comment on boys' messy handwriting.
    When my boyfriend was in high school, he and his guy friends excelled at writing and literature, whereas the girls he hung out with excelled at math and science. So, growing up, he always thought that boys were good at verbal stuff and girls were good at math/science. He was most surprised to learn, as an adult, that the stereotype held by most in his culture is quite the opposite.

    But bringing this back to abilities and gender identity, I've always felt I was better at math/science than at writing. (You probably already figured that out from my "amazing" prose.) When I first learned that women were "better" at verbal stuff, I was angry. I felt very much that I was a woman, but apparently I wasn't a very good one, since I had poor writing/communication skills. As a chemistry TA, I received some student evaluations that basically said I wasn't very good at communicating; I have often wondered to what degree their expectations and their judgment of my communications skills were affected by the fact that I'm a woman.