What is the significance of gender today? Never before has society been faced with such a critical reassessing of the notion of what it means to be a man or a woman. I don’t just mean in terms of dress or rights or even culture. The recognition of transgender legal protection and sensitivity has necessitated that we question the assumption that society is constructed by two genders: male and female.
Over the past quarter-century, we have come to understand myriad biological, environmental, and cultural influences on one’s gender. The idea that men are men, and women are women came into question with the recognition that individuals are on a spectrum in terms of sexual orientation and though chromosomes play a role, other influences also determine how we view ourselves. One’s gender identity ultimately is how one sees oneself, and not how society constructs it. Probably one of the most important recognitions is that we decide who we are, and personal identity is not something that should allow for judicial or legislative approval.
I’ve learned much about gender importance of late. Encouraged and enlightened by my forward-thinking wife and colleagues, I indicate my gender pronouns on my email signature. I’m a cisgender male, but I can’t assume others know that.
I teach courses in conflict resolution at the graduate level, and last month during a class activity we engaged in a facilitation activity. The course is a practice course where students learn how to convene groups dealing with controversy. In this case, the facilitator/student acknowledged each student (who were role-playing as community members) with “sir” or “ma’am.” The student has a military background, so I recognize the emphasis on respectful engagement with others that is important in that culture. All military people I know use sir and ma’am. But after the facilitation in debriefing, a student raised the uncomfortableness of being referred to as “ma’am.” At one time, I would have thought women might feel uncomfortable because “ma’am” might be equated with an older person, who was likely married (lead to stereotypes). The same goes for “Miss” suggesting, a younger single person. But the student’s objection related to the assumed gender of the person. “Ma’am” like “sir” have uncontroverted gender implications. Men are sir, women are ma’am. But what about those who identify with neither gender? What do we call them?
Many use the pronoun “they” to indicate a person who views themselves as neither male nor female. I was at a party recently and the child of a colleague wanted that pronoun used. In talking about the child in the third person to my colleague, it was challenged to move from “he” (that had been the previous pronoun) to “they”. It took being mindful of my conversation, which is important but challenging. But I did it.
I think a natural next stage in recognizing gender is considering “sir” “ma’am” and other traditional ways of formal interaction. These constructs exist not only in verbal communication but in written ones also. How often have you used “Dear Sir/Madam” when we don’t know the gender of the reader of a letter or email? I’ve tried to move away from that in recent years to use the rather archaic phrase “To Whom It May Concern” (probably the only time I know I’m using “whom” correctly). A better approach is finding out the person’s name and addressing with that name fully, as in “Dear David Smith.” This leads to conundrums with “Mr.” “Mrs.” “Ms.” “Miss. ” Again, there appears to be no option available for someone who identified themselves as neither a man or woman.
As we a society engage in a broader conversation of gender identity, we need to reflect that new awareness in the ways in which we communicate, be it in writing, or verbally. Though arguably it will be uncomfortable and even resisted by some, we have as a society in the past demonstrated we can transform the way we look at others in ways that treat them with respect and tolerance, and moreover, advance an inclusive society.
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