Guest Post: The Gender Binary

My previous post about living as a woman in a world without fear garnered much conversation – always a good thing, as opening dialogue on matters that are detrimental to any members of society can only be a step in the right direction to a world filled with acceptance and kindness. The discussions I’ve had with my crazy-amazing friend, Elizabeth Wayne, are times I truly treasure; she has a unique view on the world, and I often wish she had a greater platform to reveal a mind that looks at the world and those in it on a truly global scale. So I’d like to provide a platform here, to offer another view of how the world ‘works’ through the eyes of one of the smartest people I know. As individuals, we can only look at the world through our own eyes; our experiences are subjective because we are individuals – that isn’t a negative by any means, but by reading views and experiences of others, we, as individuals and a society, have the opportunity to become more empathetic to those around us. So without further ado, I hand the floor, and the mic, over to Elizabeth Wayne…

The Ritualised Dehumanisation of Civilisation Through Labelling.

~ Elizabeth Wayne

**For this discussion, the use of the term gender is regarding the culturally dominant binary of male and female. I do not believe that gender identity starts and stops with the genitalia we happen to be born with.

Labels are a contentious thing. Stick one on a milk carton and you have all the essential information we need to know about what is inside the container (we hope). When it comes to labelling people, they, unlike the milk, might have other ideas about the labels you use. The convention of applying labels to people (a species that has managed to extend its average lifespan decades longer than our great-grandparents, giving us the prolonged opportunity to evolve our understanding of human nature as individuals within the greater community) undermines our ability to form a cohesive society built on equality, especially if you stop and consider how long we wear some of those labels.

label maker

The debate regarding gender inequality has generated heated discourse around labels such as feminist, masculinist, equalist and humanist. Everyone pointing fingers at the patriarchy, looking for someone to pin the injustice on — battlelines drawn, “Who’s side are you on?” While all this goes on, more research comes out speaking to the gender inequality against females in pay, media representation, sexual and domestic abuse, etc. The masculinists* go on the defensive, pointing out that they too are exploited in the work place (many of the people fleeing to western countries are male looking for work so they can support their family at home and are often abused by systems that exploits their vulnerability), they are also the victims of sexual and domestic abuse (one third of domestic abuse victims are male), and society is falling back on a new default position that if you are white and male you are ‘the problem’ in spite of any efforts to be part of the solution. The more the debates rage, the less room there is for intersections and the sense of ‘other’ is maintained.

All of the aforementioned issues are important. Any issue where inequality and prejudice exists should be addressed compassionately as a society. But that means pulling things apart. Things get messy. We often have to face hard truths — sometimes, we have to admit we aren’t just part of the problem, we are the problem. It starts with a baby.

Everyone on the planet knows a parent. Some of you may be parents yourselves. Did you find out the gender in-utero, or did you wait until the arrival? Either way, it usually goes a little something like this: “It’s a _______! <insert boy/girl here>.” Some of you may think ‘so what?’ That simple declaration makes gender the initial focal point of a person’s existence. This has a domino effect that will last a lifetime.

girlboy

Take a minute here and think about that. If a person’s gender shouldn’t matter on a CV, then why does it matter when they are born?

The moment those words leave your mouth, a chain reaction starts. Chances are the child has a gender-based name. The cards, balloons and gifts arrive, reaffirming the gender of the child in both proclamations and colour association. Well-meaning friends and family will buy clothes, shoes, toys, linen, nightlights, pictures and cot mobiles with the gender in mind either consciously or unconsciously. Some parents may opt for a unisex name and their child’s room is gender-neutral with colours other than blue and pink (the current cultural association of genders), not wanting to define their child. But it’s only a matter of time before the dominant gender binary asserts itself.

Somewhere in those early years, the language used to describe your child will change. All babies are born beautiful, but at some point, young boys start getting called handsome. In the blink of an eye, the adoration makes room for the start of the dehumanisation process and young children are taught that emotions are a bad thing. ‘Don’t be a cry baby.’ ‘I thought you were a big boy/girl.’ ‘Big boys/girls don’t wet the bed/cry/misbehave.’ For many children, they hear such things before they walk into a school yard. We lie to them as though adults have got their shit together and we tell them that all the feelings that they experience are the domain for very young children. These barbs are often laced with gender bias against the so-called ‘feminine’ aspects; ‘Don’t be a sooky la la.’ ‘Don’t be a sissy.’ ‘Stop crying like a girl.’ Even if their parent isn’t the person saying it directly to the child, someone else might be, perhaps a friend, relative or another child parroting what they are told. Overt displays of emotions — negative or positive — are not to be done in public, and are often suppressed at home. If your child seems to be too much of anything, someone may recommend a trip to the doctor for a diagnosis and a new label (and possibly a prescription).

For those parents that fight to keep their child’s early years gender-neutral, by the time they get to school, the gender binary asserts itself for six hours a day. It could be as blatant as boys in one line, girls in the other, or something less obvious such as discouragement from things deemed to be associated with the opposite sex (girls playing with trucks, boys playing with dolls etc). If your child tries to move across the divide, the dichotomy is so ingrained even at this early age, the ridicule and shaming from young children, parents, care givers etc is enough to cause serious damage to your child. By this stage, terms like ‘boys will be boys’, ‘man up’, ‘that’s girl stuff’ and ‘drama queen’ are readily used. Naturally, as the children get older, the terms get more vitriolic. If a child attends every year of school, a child starting school this year in Australia will spend 13 years in this pressure cooker of an environment.

Somewhere in those 13 years, hormones kick in, amplifying every aspect of their lives. Any early natural gender identity association they felt goes into overdrive and they struggle to be true to those instincts. By high school most kids have some level of autonomy about their identity and they literally start to wear their heart on their sleeve. Those that cross gender assumptions are subjected to ridicule and physical assault. It could be as simplistic as long hair on a male and short hair on a female. Parents call it rebelling when their child starts to act and dress outside their perception of who they are — a perception developed in the gender dichotomy of male and female. The adolescent calls it being authentic. Unfortunately, authenticity isn’t valued as a character trait prior to adulthood. The early, formative years are reserved for conformity, and when it comes to gender identity, being authentic or even experimenting with things attributed to one sex or the other isn’t always a safe option. The suicide rates among teens that are facing gender identity issues and/or a sexuality that falls outside the heteronormative are staggering.

lifeline

Many opinions, social structures, identities etc. have solidified into absolutes for many teenagers by the time they finish high school. From there, we throw them into the deep end — get a job, go to university, start drinking, vote and help decide your country’s fate, have sex as god intended, but don’t do drugs. Each year a new wave of teenagers are tasked with fixing the patriarchy, racism, economic disparity etc. Once upon a time, it was us. All of us raised under clearly defined ideas of masculine and feminine. All of us born to a fucked up version of society full of inequity, bias and hatred. All of us wanting to do our part to fix it. So we call ourselves feminists, buy dolphin-safe tuna and recycle, not realising just how much of the system we unconsciously perpetuate. We tell our children to treat everyone equally, but we set them up in a dichotomy the moment we tell the world what genitalia they were born with before we even utter their name. How do we expect society to dismiss gender as a barrier when everything we teach our children exists around a dichotomy that tells them gender identity is everything. If we don’t want gender to matter in the board room, then gender shouldn’t be an issue from the womb.

Add to this the other labels that often get applied at birth — ethnicity, religion, nationalism, in some cases political (the family that votes together, stays together)—  and you’ve got multiple ways to define people as ‘other’. I implore you to take some time and ponder who those labels serve and why. If those labels (and their inherent narratives grounded in fear) don’t serve us, then why do we still use them? If we are going to live in a global village, it’s time to break the label maker.

I say all of this with the gift of hindsight. My children were labelled by their gender when they were born, one with a semi-gender neutral name, the other gender-specific, both names reflect their grandfather’s heritage, they have their father’s surname even though they were born before we were married, they were christened in their father’s religion in spite of my own reluctance to christen them at all, the list goes on. Now they are young adults learning the hard way how it all works. I try to lead by example whenever I can and that means I spend a lot of time catching myself in all the little things I do and say that reinforce the gender binary. I encourage them to be smarter than me, to fight the good fight of equality with compassion, and to pay close attention for it’s the little things that keep us blind to the big picture.

Disclaimer: I am a Humanist. I do not refer to myself as a feminist because I believe that such a term only furthers the gender bias and conforms to the concept of a binary gender association when it isn’t a true representation of society. I stand for equality and compassion on all fronts. I think the time for grouping people by their differences must end. For kindness to win out, all it takes is a willingness to see ourselves in everyone around us.

I’d like to thank my dear friend and soul-sibling, AJ, for giving me the opportunity to share this.

*The use of the term here is to illustrate those that speak up for men’s rights.

*** If you or anyone you know needs support, reach out to friends and family, or contact crisis-support organisations in your area. You are not alone. ***  

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