UNDERSTANDING GENDER



On May 19th, 1998, the day I was born, a doctor handed me to my mom and said, “It’s a girl!” At that moment, when the doctor announced my sex, everyone assumed my gender as well. In the years to come, I would be showered with pink outfits, Barbies, and princesses. I was a girl, after all. Growing up, I always had a smile on my face. I loved playing with my older sisters, going on adventures in the woods behind my house, and biking around my neighborhood with my brother. I was a little, happy girl. And I still am, but, when I was around 16 years old, I cut off all of my hair, stopped wearing dresses, and found myself questioning my female identity.
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To be able to fully understand gender, one must first be able to make the distinction between sex and gender. The two terms are frequently blocked together, but the true definitions are distinct. Sex is biological, while gender is social. Hormones, the reproductive system, and other biological characteristics distinguish the sex of a person. Gender is how one chooses to express their identity. In the Encyclopedia of Global Studies, author Fiona Gill explains the relationship between biology  and social identities. She states that, “To a certain extent, all identities are social constructions. The ways in which we identify ourselves are based on how we locate ourselves within our societies. Our social status, interactions, and relationships with others inform and influence our sense of ourselves”. The distinction between sex and gender can be difficult for some people to understand because gender identity is closely related with a person’s sex. If one can accept the fact that gender is only a social construct, then the differences becomes clearer.
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Why am I a girl? Most people think it’s because of biology and what’s going on with a person’s “private parts”. That assumption is incorrect, because the definition of gender is actually the opposite. Gender is all in our brains. It is how we identify ourselves in society. So, why should I have to call myself a girl just because the doctors saw I was of the female sex?  I still identify as a girl, and use feminine pronouns, but do not feel a very strong connection with any gender identity. Out of the two binary gender identities, female and male, I currently feel more connected with more feminine gender norms, but questioning your gender identity is not something many people even have the confidence to do. The majority of our society is, unfortunately, severely misinformed about gender, which leads them to be judgmental and ignorant towards people who do question their gender identity.
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“You  have a penis, you’re not a real girl,” someone shouted.
“Stop lying to yourself, you’re a boy,” a girl yelled overtop the roar of laughs. I scowled at the girl sitting at my lunch table and said, “Are you joking me? Let her be. Why do you care so much?”
My peer was caught off-guard and stuttered out a confused, “Well, because! It’s just not normal.” She saw something that was confusing and, in our society, out of the ordinary, and immediately began tearing it down.
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Sitting in the school’s cafeteria, a person can hear many vulgar and offensive things. At my high school, there is not a large transgender population, and the kids who are brave enough to come out in high school are often ridiculed. While it’s an unfortunate fact, society is jammed packed with ignorant cisgender people who find power in belittling people different from them.
Someone who is cisgender is a person who identifies as the same gender they were assigned at birth. For many cisgender people, it can be difficult to understand the struggles of the transgender community. In an article written by activist Sam Killermann, it states that, “Understanding is not a prerequisite for empathy. Empathy is a prerequisite for understanding.” Killermann puts emphasis on the idea that in order to progress as a society,  people must be willing to accept a person’s identity with an open heart. It is unlikely that a cisgender person could ever completely understand the struggles that transgender people face, but being empathetic towards the transgender community is key in beginning to understand. In a study done at UCLA, it was found that 44% of transgender people from the ages 18-24 have attempted suicide, and the percentage rises when they are  a person of color (Haas & Herman, 2014). When people shout vicious transphobic things, they do not always consider how they are affecting the other person. Shouting out transphobic slurs in the cafeteria might not seem like it has a big impact, but it snowballs into transgender people being verbally and physically abused to the point that their life is threatened. Society’s current expectation that everyone should be shoved into the binary gender spectrum is unrealistic, as well as the concept that people’s gender stay the same their entire life.
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In 535 BC, philosopher Heraclitus noted that, “Nothing endures but change. There is nothing permanent except change. All is flux, nothing stays still." Accepting that a person’s gender is fluid, constantly changing or growing, is key to making society more accepting. It is unrealistic to assume that a person’s gender will remain constant throughout their entire life. In the novel Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, they discuss the idea that a person can take on multiple identities in their lifetime and in turn, will identify as multiple genders throughout their lifetime. In modern media, Orange Is The New Black features several transgender and gender fluid characters.  Since 535 BC, people have recognized that life is fluid, and a person’s gender identity is included in that. People are constantly growing and learning new things about their identity, and many factors contribute to a person’s identity. One factor that can contribute to how a person identifies themselves is the society they live in. Every society and culture is different, so people’s ideas on gender varies from society to society. For example, in India, Australia, Germany, and other countries all officially recognize a third gender option on legal documents (Nandi). This is something the United States has yet to do, and is considered one of the next big steps the government should take to create a more equal society. American society is still hung up on the idea that a person should only identify as a binary gender, and enforces these ideas onto a child before they are even born.
From the second a baby is born, the pressure of identifying a binary gender is encroached on them. Society as a whole typically views gender as a dichotomous axis, in which a person is filed under one of the two categories. In the United States, society feels a the need to impose gender norms onto all of its members. In an essay written by Barb Judge, she discusses how rigid societies view gender. Judge states that:
A baby as either male or female (on the basis of visible genitalia) is generally seen as a simple matter, even though this label will be used to define the child and will have monumental implications for the course of the child's life. The practice of assigning a gender label at birth operates with only two potential outcomes…  Babies must fit within a label—either male or female. Very literally, our bodies must fit our words.
Parents feel such a strong pressure to force their children into a binary identity, and generally do not consider the fact that their child would prefer to identify as a nonbinary gender. Although it has historically been difficult to obtain the actual percent of the population that is transgender, it has been found that at least 3% of the American population identifies as transgender (Haas & Herman, 2014). The majority of the transgender community are trans women and trans men, but the agender and genderfluid population is also increasing. Gender identity relates to the gender norms that one identifies closest with, and as society begins to end gender stereotypes, identities can get confusing.
As society progresses and gender norms are broken down, the difference between gender identities can be confusing. Gender norms include prejudices, and society frequently uses gender as a weapon for oppression.  People should be free to act however they want, regardless of their gender identity. Some argue that society should deconstruct the establishment of gender to  create a truly free and equal society. Eliminating gender identities completely is an extreme idea, and society is unlikely to accept this idea, but taking a step in that direction is necessary to making social progress.
Gender is a complex concept, constructed by society as a way to categorize and oppress people. As society progresses, society’s views on gender are also progressing, and it is vital that individuals become increasingly accepting of people’s gender identities. Showing compassion, and having an open mind when discussing gender is key to society moving on. One can only hope that society will one day be a safe and accepting to people regardless of their gender.

Article written by Claire (@c.eeh)

1 comment:

  1. This was beautifully written and is of extreme importance. I feel better educated on the subject of gender now. I have always been accepting of transgender, gender fluid, and agender people, but I have never quite completely understood it. I believe that I do now. Thank you.

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