John Totten discusses how gender is part of our search for authenticity.
There has been a lot of talk recently, including backlash, concerning the transgender movement – the emergence of Caitlyn Jenner as a new spokeswoman, the push for new laws protecting transgender rights to use bathrooms that match identities. A lot of the talk has been positive and encouraging. A lot of it hasn’t. A lot has been mean. One thing that has been clear to me, as I witness the backlash, is that each of us has our own idea of what gender is. There seems to be some consensus here and there within particular subcultures, but as soon as you look at a different subculture, you find a new group of presuppositions.
What makes a woman a woman? As soon as one determines a necessary biological factors we find exceptions to the rule. Not all women have ovaries. Not all women have breasts. What are we to make of those who are intersexed or who have male and female biological traits. From a therapeutic (or compassionate) perspective: nothing. We don’t need to read anything into anyone other than the information they give us.
Of course, people communicate their gender in nonverbal ways. There are gender expressions- masculinity, femininity, and in between. These are determined by a negotiation between the individual and the society they take part in.
So we identify as a gender and then we express it a certain way and the subjective realities of how these processes happen are infinite. If we are rooted in our own subjective gender which is then affirmed by the culture around us, we can lose the awareness of its subjectivity. It starts to appear objective. We start to assume that there are particular requirements for masculinity and femininity. But when I look at my friends and loved ones, those requirements are disparate.
Some believe that hunting is an objective expression of masculinity. Or fighting. Others see intelligence and leadership as decidedly masculine. Others see critical thinking, mathematical skills and technological prowess as expressions of their masculinity. Some are artistic and sensitive. And of course, as over half the population who identify as female become more empowered they remind us that they also encompass all of these qualities as expressions of their femininity.
So gender, in this context, isn’t so much something that we are assigned, as it is something that we do. We gender— as a dance or an act. It becomes part of our search for authenticity. And sometimes we stop the search, sometimes we don’t. My masculinity looks wildly different than it did ten years ago and will inevitably look different ten years from now. Because it is a process that I am taking part in.
There is nothing fruitful in trying to attach ethical or moral values to a process that is universally part of the human experience. We all take part in gendering. It seems more valuable to spend our time being curious about the infinite ways in which this process happens and how those ways might inform our own gendering as action.
Previously published by John Totten.
Photo by zoetnet.