Friday, May 27, 2011

Behind the Mask

Gender diversity lives under the radar. It hides itself from the public eye, waiting until it feels safe to show itself. We wear a mask. Always trying to pass, afraid what people must be thinking. Afraid of what they will do to us if they find out who we are. We change the gendered pronouns of our partners from he to she, from she to he in front of company who may not approve of our sexuality. We lie to ourselves and say that things are getting better, that we are on the road to acceptance in our culture.
            In truth, in many ways we are digressing. It is true that blatant discrimination is decreasing on a mainstream level. However, we are facing new subtleties that redefine the term prejudice. Our language is adapting to make hate speech a normal part of conversation. Worse still, we combine sex and gender into a single definition that makes the two terms interchangeable and paves the way for ignorance. How many times have you been asked to indicate your gender on a form when the only options are male/female? Not only are the options limited, but they are both incorrect. Even in demographics we cannot identify ourselves correctly.
            Perhaps most indicative of the long road ahead of us in a cultural acceptance of gender diversity is our continued disdain for anything feminine. Our culture maintains an undercurrent of misogyny despite feminist movements as far back as 1890. We are faced with gender roles that are strict but also unequal. Masculine roles are valued in our culture, whereas feminine roles are subservient. A man is weak if he has feminine qualities whereas a female who presents in masculine ways is overstepping her bounds. She has no right to be masculine. Without considering traditional masculine and feminine roles to be of equal value, we cannot have acceptance of gender diversity.
            In an ideal world, acceptance of gender diversity would mean that as long as the roles necessary for survival were fulfilled, the sex or the gender of the person performing the role would be irrelevant. Men and women and everyone in-between or outside of those categories would be free to experience the full range of human expression. Telling a boy that “boys don’t cry” would be outdated. Likewise telling a little girl that “ladies don’t play in the dirt” would be a laughable insinuation. Social pressure to pass as the gender you have been assigned would fade, and people would be free to present how they were comfortable, be it cisgender, transgender, or gender queer. Women who want to be feminine could do so freely without being considered foolish, shallow, or mimicking the oppressor. Men could be masculine if they wanted. There would be no rules as long as the necessary social roles were filled by someone.
            This gender utopia seems farfetched from a contemporary perspective on gender roles. One has to wonder if accepting gender diversity on mainstream level is even possible. The barriers to acceptance are difficult to overcome. Religion, misogyny, and ignorance are significant challenges to acceptance of gender diversity. In many ways, these three things go hand in hand. A religion with misogynistic undertones creates a culture of intolerance towards deviation from prescribed gender roles based on a person’s birth sex. Ignorance works with both religion and misogyny in that strong belief systems make it difficult for a person to feel motivated to explore concepts that fall outside of their religion. Misogyny promotes ignorance by creating a bias that may prevent someone from being open-minded to discussions on gender.
            Most dominant religions tend to have misogynistic undertones. The idea that a woman’s place is at home, and that this role is inferior to the masculine role of providing for a family, encourages a social structure to be built around the assumption that women themselves are inferior to men. Throughout history, women have been seen as a commodity. In agricultural times, woman were traded like property and used as bargaining chips in order for patriarchal families to gain status and wealth. As the world has industrialized, this line of thinking has been challenged. From the time that women in America began the first women’s movement in 1890, they have sought to raise their social status. Although the first wave of feminism on through the second earned many rights and privileges for women, the need for a third wave gives evidence to the still misogynistic base for our patriarchal society.
            It is difficult to hear women’s voices above the roar of an overbearingly male dominated political system. The few women in politics are belittled publicly in that their manner of dress supersedes their accomplishments in legislation. Women are pushing for recognition while fighting an uphill battle against sexism that is constantly seeking to restore them to traditional roles. Religion works behind the scenes to tell women that they are fighting a losing battle and that biological determinism insists that they are physically unable to take on traditionally masculine roles. Moreover, our culture insists that in order to lead, a woman must be masculine. That socially categorized feminine qualities are unfit for leadership. This idea does a disservice in that it denies all individuals the opportunity to utilize the full range of qualities within themselves to overcome difficulties.
            By suggesting that certain qualities are to be solely feminine or solely masculine and further demanding that based on a person’s sex there can be no crossover of these qualities, our culture suffocates itself. Acceptance of gender diversity would mean being able to express both the masculinity and femininity which we all have within us. As a result, humanity as a whole performs poorer. It takes more than just cool or warm colors to paint a landscape, but rather a combination of both working in harmony to fully portray the image. It is in this combination of masculine and feminine that we create well-rounded individuals. Those who can embrace both ends of the spectrum are likely to be more successful, and above all, happier in life.
            In order to discuss a true acceptance of gender diversity, gender cannot be considered binary. The options are not limited to A or B. Instead, there is a plethora of in-between and outside possibilities for gender expression. I am not talking only of people who identify as a gender opposite of their birth sex, but also of those who identify as androgynous or gender queer and think of themselves as neither masculine nor feminine. If we dropped feminine and masculine labels for qualities then people could combat the boxes we currently force upon them and identify if and how they choose to.
            If accepting gender diversity was as beneficial to everyone as it seems then why is our culture fighting gender fluidity tooth and nail? It is possible that there is an evolutionary reason for binary gender roles as we have them in our society. Other animals also punish deviant behavior in their social groups. By reinforcing positive behaviors and punishing behaviors that endanger the survival of the group, or the species as a whole, other animals promote the continuance of their species.  One way to look at this behavior compared to our own in the context of gender diversity is to assume that gender diversity could have a negative impact on our species. However, a healthier perspective would turn the tables on this behavior. If instead of punishing diversity, we punished prejudice, it is possible that humans could utilize fresh perspectives and talents in order to aid our own species.
            Our world currently is in an environmental crisis. Overpopulation and over consumption means that the world’s resources run scarce. If we as a species channeled the energy we formerly put into ostracizing those who challenge what we culturally consider normal, then we could capitalize on what these individuals have to offer. Think of what humans could create with all of the currently unappreciated talent from those individuals whose voices we ignore. Forcing gender diverse people into hiding means that we cannot see what they have to offer. There is an untapped resource in the oppressed that our culture fears exploring. If we can overcome our phobias and choose open-mindedness instead of ignorance, it is possible that we, as a community of diverse perspectives, could achieve what we have only imagined.
            There is no reason that gender diverse people should have to wear a mask. In reality, we are all gender diverse.  Each of us has masculine and feminine qualities and those attributes that are not heavily gendered inside us. We are most successful when we embrace ourselves for all that we are. By restricting ourselves to only certain parts of who we are, we do ourselves a terrible disservice. No one should have to fear showing feminine characteristics if they are male and women should not be denied their right to express their masculinity. When we place restrictions on expressing who we are individually, we risk the health and happiness of our entire species.