Gender has been a major buzz word for the past couple years, with gender diversity being reflected more in popular culture, whether it be through television shows like Orange is the New Black or celebrities like Ruby Rose, Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox. Even though many of these platforms and people are giving better exposure to the trans and gender diverse community, their heavy commercialisation can result in many misconceptions. If I was to attempt to quash every one of these I would be writing a thesis, so I will attempt to give a brief run down on some vital points that are often misunderstood when it comes to gender.
Gender is not binary.
Sex and gender are often used synonymously, however the two are very different. One’s sex is largely determined by biology. Gender on the other hand is not so easy to define; it can be seen as your identity or sense of self, which may be influenced by many factors. When we are born, or even before, our sex is determined and then we are usually assigned a gender, either male or female, according to our biology. However, gender is a spectrum, biologically it can exist across a continuum, as well as with factors that go far beyond biology. Genderqueer is a broad term that can be a starting point; it can be used as an umbrella term for gender identities that are non-binary, gender fluidity. Miley Cyrus and Ruby Rose both identify as gender fluid, meaning they sit further towards the middle of the gender spectrum. This position may fluctuate. In fact, Facebook introduced 51 new gender options last year to try and give users more terms to pick from so that they will hopefully find a more comfortable way to describe the gender they identify with.
Gender can be constructed.
Who decided that blue was for boys and pink was for girls? Who decided that beer was a ‘man’s drink’ and vodka cocktails were a ‘bitch drink’? Who decided what is masculine and what is feminine? Nothing is inherent to a particular gender. These features and characteristics have been shaped by popular culture and society. Gender theorist Judith Butler talks about the idea of gender being performative. Basically, the point she makes is that gender can be a performance, kind of like a play. You can act out the “male” or “female” role, according to society’s expectations, in order to gain acceptance, even if this doesn’t match with what you are truly feeling. This can be very troubling for many, just look at Caitlyn Jenner’s hyper-masculine Olympic athlete image back in the day when she was known as Bruce. Jenner recently talked about how, as a child, you quickly learn about what is accepted and how you should behave. How would you feel if you were constantly pressured to hide your true identity because of the threat of ridicule and rejection? So the next time someone says, ” they walk like a girl” or ” they talk like a man” shouldn’t they rather be saying “they walk and talk like themselves”?
Gender identity is not a choice.
I heard someone say a couple days ago; “…if Caitlyn Jenner chooses to be a woman, that is her choice, I respect that.” Good on them for trying to be open and accepting, but they have a common misconception which can be really harmful in the wrong context. When discussing the same topic, Fox News Host Mike Huckabee said “Now I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE…” The point is, no one can choose their gender identity, in the same way that you can’t choose to be straight or gay. It is certainly not something we should taunt.
Gender and sexual orientation are completely separate things.
One of my friends told his mum he was gay recently, she was accepting and went on to ask him “you don’t want to be a girl though do you?” This highlights another major point; gender and sexual orientation are two different things, two separate spectrums. A question frequently raised is ‘if you are a trans woman but are attracted to girls, does that make you a lesbian?’ The answer to this can vary depending on how the person identifies themselves, however we need to start opening our minds beyond labels. What about those who consider themselves genderless or gender fluid? They completely break down notions of traditional labels and categories. Many people fear this, as it disrupts dominant ways of thinking. It is easier to market products to specifically categorised audiences. Imagine if there were no categories of gender, no ‘housewife’, who would you market spray and wipe to? Surely not all adults
Every gender deserves equality.
For some people, these ideas may seem pretty abstract. But opening your mind is something that is important for yourself and others. Start to question the actual logic behind many of the notions about gender that people accept without criticism, most of these ‘conventional’ ideas have been built up through the media and society. A University of Auckland study a few years ago found that around 40% of trans youth experienced severe depressive symptoms, with nearly half self-harming within the year of the study. It also found that one in five trans youth attempted to commit suicide. Trans people also face a much greater risk of physical and verbal abuse. These shocking figures are certainly not okay. Everyone may have their own views and theories about gender, and that’s fine. However, everyone deserves respect and freedom to live as the person they identify as. This respect and freedom is key to changing the needless suffering of many. For example, when Caitlyn Jenner was ‘transitioning’, the media constantly belittled her. Once she fit to the popular ideals of what is feminine, on the cover of Vanity Fair, most media shifted and it became trendy to support Jenner. Where was all of this support while she was transitioning? What about those who cannot afford the procedures that she had done to transform her body to fit society’s ideals of the gender she identifies as (like most trans people), or those that don’t want to fit them? What about those who can’t handle the abuse anymore?
Even though gender is getting a whole lot of appeal, and public conservation is opening up, it is important that we never assume or take any heavily-commercialised messages as given. Asking questions is one way to get around this. Try not to make assumptions about someone’s gender identity or be insensitive. Use gender neutral language and pronouns. There is still a lot of discrimination out there, and it is up to all of us to work together to change that. When it comes down to it, we are all fellow humans.
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