Last week I met a friend for coffee to catch up after the recent birth of her first child. Of all things you can never full prepare for as a new parent, what surprised her most was the fascination of strangers around the baby’s gender. Having never really thought about gender, my friend shared that repeatedly their first question would be ‘boy or girl?’ The questions persisted even when she started replying, “a tiny human”.
So why the obsession with labeling people, especially tiny humans, into these categories? Glad you asked, follow me….
Before we go too far – a quick primer on terms related to gender. Most people are familiar with gender identity (innate sense of one’s gender) and gender assigned at birth (visual observation). Sometimes these are aligned (cisgender) and sometimes not (transgender, gender fluid, non-binary, intersex, agender, etc.).
The social assumptions and expectations based on one’s outward gender expression (clothes, mannerisms, voice, etc.) is most often referred to as ‘gender attribution’. Someone views your expression and applies all of their preconceived gender notions to interpret which social rules to engage.
From an outward perspective, gender labels are inherently problematic. Male and female categorization usually centers on observable cues. Body type, voice, presence or absence of facial hair, mannerisms….quick indicators that allow us to label someone male or female. We use them to regulate our behavior and assumptions based on cultural norms combined with life experience.
Gender then becomes a mechanism that tells other people how they should treat us.
In this model, one arbitrary characteristic dictates much of how a person interacts with the world. The opportunities afforded to them, degree of personal safety, even the level of agency available to a person are largely determined by one’s presenting gender.
The thing is – gender is often the least relevant attribute within casual exchanges. My healthcare provider needs to know if I have a uterus or a prostate. The gas station attendant, not so much. If you interact with people differently because of their presenting gender, that’s on you. And probably something worth talking to a professional about.
Viewing gender as an innate sense of human identity, self-applied labels are important in conveying how others should interpret us. This is me, this is who I am, these are my pronouns. I have autonomy over my gender identity, which will not be limited by vocabulary or lack of understanding.
As more and more states formally recognize genders other than male and female, expanding this set of labels becomes increasingly important.
Part of being human is a need for social recognition. We want to be seen and to matter—especially among segments of the population that are traditionally marginalized.
Gender identity is something that belongs to me. The dominant culture cannot erase it, define it, appropriate it, or blur it out until it matches theirs. Our collective obligation in this is to respect and recognize the humanity of individuals. That starts with incorporating a new understanding of gender into language and social norms.
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