JJ Vincent asked a 24-year-old about gender, identity, self-expression, and what defines a man.
I met Steven through a mutual friend, who I met through an off-hand comment at a craft show. Steven is both a common commodity in North Alabama – an engineer/geek – and a rare commodity, one of those people who is comfortable anywhere, with anyone. Plus, he makes chainmaille superhero jewelry. Which is really cool.
Q: The dictionary is being rewritten. How would you define gender?
A: Gender – noun, The sex (identity?), or lack thereof, that a person views themself as having, regardless of if it matches their biological sex. Ex. Alex’s gender is female even though her sex is male. I’m not entirely sure sex is the right word, which is why I put identity in parenthesis.
Q: How would you identify your own gender?
A: I’m a boy/man/male. I suppose if you want to be very specific, a cismale.
Q: What do you think makes someone a man?
A: I try to believe that any person who identifies as a man, is a man. However, it is not always possible to tell how someone identifies without talking with them first. If we are assuming what traits do I look for when trying to identify a man, then appearance will become a strong indicator. Facial hair and short hair tend to be two hallmarks of a typical man. Men tend to wear pants or shorts rather than dresses or skirts. Though of course, kilts are generally considered a masculine dress item…
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. Personally, I would raise my children as the gender of their biological sex. If, however, my son wanted to play with dolls, I would try not to judge and discourage him. Similarly, if my daughter wanted to play football or soccer with the boys, I would encourage her.
I can understand why parents may raise their children genderless, but a) I feel that would be incredibly difficult for me as a parent to maintain, and b) would be incredibly difficult to maintain once my child began being exposed to the outside world. I think having to explain to teachers and classmates that my child has no gender would be very difficult. For example, should my child be referred to as a he, a she, or an it?
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 think it depends on what they are really asking for. If it’s a medical form and they are really looking for sex and not gender, then I think M or F is probably fine. For something else, say a survey, where they are looking for Gender, I think having an Other option would not be a bad idea, so M, F, or Other. This would allow someone who identifies as neither male nor female to not feel excluded and/or alienated.
Q: Do you think topics of gender identity and expression should be discussed in schools? Why/why not?
A: I’m not sure on this one. I’m leaning more towards not discussing it unless it becomes an issue just because I can see it becoming distracting to actual learning, especially since it can bleed over into gay rights and other politically charged issues. On the other hand, for many kids it would be the only place they’d be presented with a discussion of gender issues, as it is not something likely to come up at home. If it were to be presented in school, I think it would definitely fit best into a social studies course.
I also think that it shouldn’t be brought up until the kids are older and more likely to comprehend such vague issues as gender. 7th or 8th grade at the earliest I think, though freshman year of high school might be a better fit since it’ll be a fresh start for many kids, and it might be an easier time for kids to transition into a new identity.
And if it is brought up in school, then I think it would best be presented as a very interactive course. Have the kids themselves work at defining gender. Try not to make it seem so instructive or indoctrinating. Present solid science behind how our minds perceive and conceive of gender. I think this would help tone down the push-back from parents who disagree with gender studies. And that push-back is one of the big reasons why I can see it becoming a distraction rather than a chance to actually explore and learn.
If evolution is as controversial as it is, I can’t see gender studies going over much better. Which is why, as I said, I lean towards leaving it out of school unless it becomes an issue. For example, if a student feels that their gender does not match their sex, then it might be a good idea to try and have a teacher explain gender and how it is different from biological sex in order to help the student fit in better and to help the other students understand why Patrick now identifies as Patricia or as a genderless child.
Q: A question about relationships. If a person identifies themselves outside of the traditional M/F, should this be a early topic of conversation? Should it be a topic at all?
A: I think it depends. If they identify as something other than M/F, are they comfortable with people using a gendered pronoun for them? If not, then I think at least some comment about that should be made so the person is comfortable.
I think this is something that would be different for each individual person.
Now, if you are talking about the person who is dating the non M/F person, then that’s a slightly different story. Part of that is going to depend on how they figured out the other person does not identify as male or female, because I don’t see this conversation coming up unless either the non M/F person brings it up, or the person they are dating is informed. If it is from a dating profile, then a quick question of how to refer to the person they are dating might be in order if the profile does not provide any clues. If it’s from another person, then I personally feel that it should be ignored until the other person is ready to bring it up. And of course, if the non M/F person mentions it, then they’ve already brought it up.
Basically, other than maybe a quick question of if the person has a preference for being referred to (he, she, it, etc), I think it should be up to the other person to bring up when they are comfortable. At least in the early stages of a relationship. Once the relationship is a little more established, then I don’t think it would be too terribly inappropriate to ask questions about it, provided the questions are not accusatory and they seek to provide insight into how the other person views themselves.
At least no more inappropriate than asking someone why their parents got divorced.
Q: Going back to the idea of what makes someone a man, what differences do you see, if any, between expectations of a man today vs the expectations of a woman today?
A: I see men has having greater leeway with who they want to be. For example, if a man sleeps with several women, he might be considered a player, which does not necessarily have many negative connotations. A woman who sleeps with many men is almost always considered a slut, which carries many negative associations.
Women have a harder time partly because many still expect many, if not most women, to prefer staying at home and being housewives. Women who choose to go and have a career are often presented as neglecting their families for the sake of their career. If a woman identifies as a feminist, she has to fight the image of the rabid, militant, man-hating lesbian.
It seems more acceptable for men to deviate from their norm than it is for women. Why this is the case, I don’t know, as I feel it is perfectly acceptable for men and women to be who they want to be.
There does still seem to be a backlash against men who display feminine traits or who participate in activities traditionally thought of as feminine. Women, if they can avoid the man-hating feminist label, sometimes seem to have an easier time crossing the gender boundary. It’s perfectly acceptable, even welcomed, for a woman to enjoy watching football, a traditionally male past-time. A man who knits or sews or who enjoys putting makeup on people often finds his sexuality questioned, and often by implication, his worth as a human being. There have been inroads made here recently. The kitchen used to be thought of as a traditionally feminine domain, but with celebrity chefs such as Bobby Flay and Gordan Ramsey, men are welcomed back into the kitchen and their love of cooking beyond the backyard grill is no longer questioned. Even men who enjoy baking and making pastries face less stigma thanks to shows like Cake Boss.
I hope that the trend continues, and that inroads are made for women, so that their sexuality will no longer be questioned when they profess to enjoy working on cars and motorcycles, or making the perfect tackle in football, or any number of other traditionally “male” activities.
Q: On the idea of raising a genderless child, you’ve said that this would be difficult to maintain as a parent, especially once the child was exposed to the outside world. What do you think is the biggest influence on a child’s gender development?
A: There are many influences on a child’s gender development. I’m sure the biggest influence for each particular child is different. For example, if a child is born with XX chromosomes, but develops male genitalia, I think it is obvious that the child’s genetics will probably play a big role.
As for what is the biggest influence in most children’s gender development, I’m not really sure. I know one of the bigger influences to whether a child feels comfortable expressing whichever gender they identify as probably is the environment they were raised in. It’s far easier for a biologically male child who identifies as a girl to explain to her parents who have expressed tolerance for trans gendered people all her life than it would be for her to come out to parents who have railed against transgendered people as being confused or worse, abominations.
And of course, cisgendered children have an easier time of it than transgendered children. But if we’re just focusing on what is the biggest influence on how children come to identify themselves? I really am not sure. I don’t know that every case would have a biological cause, but I also don’t see it being purely a nurture thing, or how would you explain a transwoman being raised by parents who insist that she’s really a boy?
I think if the choices were narrowed to biological (nature) or social (nurture) for cases where there is not a clearly defined cause (XX male), then I would probably feel that social causes have a greater influence on gender development. I have no concrete evidence of this, but society starts influencing children as soon as they are exposed to it. And parents shape their children’s lives even before they exit the womb. Therefore, I don’t see it as a great stretch to say that social causes have the greatest influence on a child’s gender development.
Q: Last question. You have the chance to display/show your gender identity. Anything goes, no questions asked. What do you wear?
A: Probably what I wear normally: jeans, t-shirt, and Chacos. I don’t think that I would wear anything different to prove that I identify as a man, because wearing something different would be portraying myself as someone other than me. As someone more identifiably male. I am me. I identify as a male. I am a large, long-haired, bearded person who wears jeans, a tshirt, and sandals. I feel that gives a better impression about me than any other outfit probably would.
photo courtesy of the author with permission from Steven B.
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