Tuesday, October 6, 2009

gender roles, passing, and social acceptance

Judith Lorber hit the nail on the head when she wrote "talking about gender, for most people, is the equivalent of a fish talking about water." Absolutely everything we choose to do with our lives, from hobbies and interests, to careers, to life goals, has a gendered component that is so ingrained in us we do not even realize it. From the moment a baby is born the first question people ask is whether it is a boy or a girl, and based on the answer people make thousands of assumptions about the baby, what clothes it will wear, what its personality will be like, what it will want out of life, how it will interact with people, who it will want to spend its life with, the list goes on and on. This is why contemporary society has such trouble dealing with intersex, they have to undo a lifetime of conditioned assumptions and get to know the person as a unique individual, not a category with specific expectations for behavior (wouldn't it be wonderful if we approached everyone with such an open mind?). This is also why society is so dedicated to preserving the lie that everyone is born male or female, they would have no idea what to make of a genderless person, or how to interact with such a person, thus they force us to pass as one of their categories. Awareness of intersex issues has slowly increased as the feminist movement challenges some of the more blatant gender roles society holds. This is means more and more intersexuals are able to live at least partly open lives. Granted, society still makes us check one box on formal documents, but nobody raises an eyebrow if we do not adhere to strict gender roles and social expectations; and if people are informed about intersex issues, most are sympathetic and understanding. I recently 'came out' to some close friends and they were very understanding, in fact they always knew I was different in a very gendered way (my disgust with dresses, skirts, and makeup were kind of a giveaway). I pass perfectly in society, no one has ever questioned me, however those who know intersexuals know we are different in our approach towards life, especially the very gendered parts of life. Intersexuals, at least those comfortable enough to write about themselves, generally feel somewhat different then their peers, and don't pass as well to those who know them well. In short, society needs to learn that gender is not two diametrically opposite categories (there is actually more variation in behavior within each sex then there is between them). In reality, there are three spectrum's, physical sex (intersex aside, "real" men and women still have much physical variation, some guys would kill to be able to grow a beard as nice as the bearded lady in the circus), gender roles/identity, and sexual orientation (according to Kinsey, almost no one is exclusively gay or straight, they just present as one or the other because, like intersexuals, it is easier to pick a category). In short, no one lives up to the gender ideal, no one is John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe. All this variation keeps life interesting and should be celebrated. Ideally no one should have to pass, they should be able to live comfortably with who they are without social pressure to conform.

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