Thursday, June 14, 2012

Gender: we don't know what it is but we know we have it

Last month I was involved in a rather enjoyable online discussion on the subject of "Is gender socially constructed and what does that mean for trans people?" (I meant to blog about it sooner, but I've been busy and I had to finish the Baldwin piece and get the book back to the library.) This question gets discussed a lot in feminist/gender studies circles. We know that our society has fairly strict gender roles, and that many people find them oppressive and want to change them. Often this gets confused with the problem of transgender: if you're not happy being a man, or a woman, then do you really need to change your gender, or do you just need to modify your gender role? Or, as the person who started the thread phrased it:
Is it that beyond the body parts, we built gender roles so rigidly that to live the way one wants to live ... one needs to identify as a different gender instead of just ... being?
To which I replied:
I want to tell you that trans* people hear this all the time. "Why can't you just loosen up a little? Why do you have to go the whole nine yards and decide you're not the gender that everyone thinks you are?" It doesn't work that way. I don't know how to explain why it doesn't work, but it doesn't.
She answered:
This is basically the genesis of my question.  The way I have thought about gender, as an absolute construction, suggests it should work this way. Yet the lives of people who live this stuff says it doesn't. Ergo, the way I have thought about gender goes wrong somewhere.

What worries me about not knowing where the errors are is that that stuff can get into the work you do, the way we make policy. If I reject the idea of gender essentialism ... and use the notion that it is socially constructed in my work, but that is incorrect, what damage could the work do on the levels that I don't notice?
And my reply was:
Part of the reason might be, even if you stretch your own personal definition of gender, as long as you call yourself "male" (for example), enough people will treat you as male in ways you don't want to be treated that it's just not worth it.

In any case, when it gets right down to it, I think it's more important to uphold everyone's right to express their gender identity than it is to decide where gender comes from. I mean, even if it is socially constructed, is that any reason why people can't choose their gender presentation and/or reject their socially assigned gender?
For me, the final paragraph was what made the discussion worthwhile. I had never realized that before. But it's so true. Moreover, I find it hard to believe that feminism really supports the notion that we're stuck with our socially assigned gender. And yet many feminists keep trying to lock trans people (especially trans women) into their socially assigned gender. Anyway, it was fun.

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