JJ Vincent asked a 50-year-old about gender, identity, self-expression, and what defines a man.
I felt like I knew Peter long before I met him. He’s an untraditional guy in a pretty traditional place, and the second time I met him, a nice-to-see-you turned into a few hours of things I never knew existed, courtesy of the internets.
Q: The dictionary is being rewritten. How would you define gender?
A: gender, n. : a category of humanity, determined socially, but commonly linked to biological sex.
Q: How would you identify your own gender?
A: I self-identify as male. If asked for details, I could further specify cis- and straight, but I don’t usually bother to write that on the forms.
Q: What do you think makes someone a man?
A: I think the fundamental essence of manhood is being the person you want to be, rather than the person others try to make you; it’s also, I believe, the fundamental essence of womanhood. Basically, I see a far greater distinction between a man and a boy than I do between a man and a woman. There are things I do and like and believe that some might consider “unmanly,” but to me, a fear of being considered “unmanly” is childish–something only a boy should have. If you’re a grownup, have the courage to put that crap aside.
Q: There’s a lot of current discussion about children being raised without gender. If you had care of a very young child, how would you approached gendered issues (toys, clothing, activities)?
A: With our kids, we tried not to lay down rules about gender expectations–baby clothes could be any color, and we tried to avoid the pink/blue dichotomy, etc. by refusing to find out their sexes before birth. Once our sons could talk, we generally allowed them to choose what they were comfortable with in terms of toys, clothes, etc. Both had a few dolls, but were generally more attracted to action figures and vehicles. They were voracious readers and video gamers, and both played instruments, but neither did a whole lot with organized sports (though they both played a few seasons of soccer and t-ball.) The younger, now a theater major, was always a performer and took a few years of dance classes, which were largely populated by girls, but he didn’t seem overly concerned about the fact. The elder became interested in organized sports after he hit college, but through high school his main extracurricular activity was marching band. Basically, neither has demanded or rejected any stereotypically “male” activities, though both self-identify as male and straight.
Q: Most forms and surveys have boxes on them for M or F. Would you change this if you could and if so, how what would you put instead?
A: I can think of some situations where it might be important information–for medical personnel, perhaps–but much of the time it just seems unnecessary to make the distinction. A slot for the respondent’s preferred form of address would be better, allowing the questioner to refer to “Mr./Ms./Mrs./Miss/Dr./Reverend Whatever” during a followup call.
Q: Do you think topics of gender identity and expression should be discussed in schools? Why/why not?
A: They ARE discussed in schools–by students. Any variance from gender convention will be subject to lengthy conversation on the playground or the lunchroom from K-12 and beyond as students try to figure out what those conventions mean and how to negotiate them. The hard part is getting those conversations to include those who can provide some education on the subject–adults–to have those talks with kids in a way that shows respect for them and respect for the myriad ways in which gender can be expressed.
Basically, I see it as a fairly important part of sex education, and like sex education, it is all too easily taught badly.
Q: A question about relationships. If a person identifies themselves outside of the traditional M/F, should this be an early topic of conversation? Should it be a topic at all? [clarified to refer to romantic relationship]
A: In a romantic relationship, yeah, I’d think that would be a good thing for the partners to know about each other. Obviously, if one partner is interested only in M or F and the other partner doesn’t identify either way, that relationship may have problems. Moreover, if the person who identifies outside M/F is uncertain whether this prospective partner really IS interested in only M or F, it’s difficult for that person to feel comfortable sharing much. And since gender identification tends to be a fairly central part of a person’s identity, I’d tend to think that erring on the side of openness is preferable to keeping things quiet in hopes that they won’t cause problems down the line. (Of course, I think erring on the side of openness is preferable in nearly every walk of life, not just relationship advice.)
Q: With regards to your own children, did others trying to impose or instill their gender expectations on them? If so, how did you handle this?
A: I have no doubt that others did this, but not in ways that we were aware of. Once kids go off to school, they’re getting educated by a lot of people, not all of them teachers. We tried to be clear that we expected them to show tolerance and give equal treatment, sometimes by example (my wife’s not taking my surname, for example) and sometimes more explicitly (talking openly about sexuality and gender issues at the dinner table). I don’t know that anyone at school demanded that they do any differently, but at a public school in a county that’s gone Republican in every election since we got here, it’s certainly possible. One thing neither has ever shown, I’m happy to say, is any whiff of homophobia. Both have close gay friends, and our house was sort of a safe house for one friend of our younger son whose parents didn’t handle his coming out very well. During high school, our elder son mentioned that two people had asked him out and he wasn’t interested in either; only later did we learn that one was a girl and one was a boy. We didn’t have to spend much time saying “TREAT GAY PEOPLE EQUALLY” in so many words, but I’d like to think our actions helped them learn to do so. And perhaps it’s not too much to hope that their schoolmates and teachers helped them as well.
Q: With regards to gender being socially determined, what do you think are the biggest influences on a person’s gender development?
A: Parents are the biggest influences. If your dad forbids you from learning the piano, or your mom tells you ladies have to wear skirts, fighting that will require some extraordinary strength of will in a child (or adolescent).
But even if without explicit demands, parental expectations make themselves felt. I knew my father had been a three-sport athlete, and when I was in junior high, I wanted to live up to what he’d done; when I started doing theater in 10th grade, I knew I was giving that up, but I also knew by then that I’d be happier doing what I wanted to do. And as it happened, my dad never said anything negative about my doing theater or giving up sports.
The flipside of that, of course, is that I was definitely influenced by my peers. Many of the guys on the basketball team were people I didn’t like and had nothing in common with other than loving basketball, while the other techies love the same kinds of music and movies and books that I valued. It wasn’t until high school, though, that I could really see what *I* wanted. I wanted friends who would accept me for the whole of me, not just the part of me that enjoyed a conventionally popular sport.
Since I had the luxury of growing up straight and cis- (and white, and economically secure, and educated), I’m not sure I’ve had the chance to form especially insightful views on gender development, but in every other aspect of my personal development, I’ve viewed my parents as the foundation, my peers as the frame, with my wife being the load-bearing portion of the latter. Granted, she might prefer some other terminology there.
Q: Last question. You have the chance to display/show your gender identity. Anything goes, no questions asked. What do you wear?
A: Hmm. Maybe it’s my privilege talking, but displaying my gender identity is way down the list of why I wear what I wear. Part of that is my Gilda Radner-based style (“I base my fashion choices on what doesn’t itch.”) Part of it is also that social norms for men my age basically back up my preferred dress style. A t-shirt and gym shorts are my typical warm-weather gear, and I throw on an overshirt or a light sweater (often with a collar) and jeans if it’s colder–totally in line with convention. And that’s probably what I’d wear if I identified as female, too. Basically, I’m much more interested in femaleness than in femininity. I’ve got no real desire to experiment with feminine conventions of dress, makeup, jewelry, etc., though I’m very definitely curious about the female body and the female experience. Had I been born without a Y chromosome, I expect I’d dress much the way I do now–no jewelry, no makeup–though I’d probably have different undergarments. And at work, I’d probably dress like Olivia Dunham on Fringe.
Photo courtesy of author, provided by/used with permission of subject.
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