What is gender? Part 6: Gender as role

 This post is the sixth in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.


The conversation on gender roles.


So far my posts on gender have focused on various transgender or queer experiences to help bring to light the ways in which different aspects of gender can be problematic for different people. This last post has the most to do with cisgender (non-transgender) people.

Many cisgender people sympathize with the transgender movement because of small ways in which they don’t conform to stereotypical masculinity or femininity. Until recently, a man who wanted to be a nurse was berated because nursing is a “woman’s job,” despite the fact that he gravitated to that profession simply because he had a heart for nursing. Similarly, people might assume a woman is lesbian simply because she plays rugby.

This is the battle with gender expectations, and it’s the most universal site of gender conflict. I’d venture to say every single person fails to conform entirely to the gender expectations of their time. If everyone perfectly conformed to archetypes of men and women, there’d be no personality or individuality in the world. These roles are what people are most willing to question, and rightly so.

Gender breakdown common

Gender expectations are all the assumptions we make about an individual based on their assigned gender. If a child is pronounced a boy upon delivery, he’s often dressed in blue because the expectation is that boys and blue go together. This is the beginning of gender rearing, the socialization of the child based on who that child is assumed to be. A girl will often be given barbies because it’s assumed she wants to play with them instead of toy swords.

Gender expectation also plays into gender roles; what “part” the person is expected to play. The girl is given dolls to play a mother role, whereas the boy is given guns to play a warrior role. These become at once more exaggerated and more nuanced in adult life, where certain professions (like police officer) are considered male-typical, whereas others (like homestay nurse) are considered female-typical.

These strict gender roles aren’t just assumed; they’re enforced. This is where pejorative gender comes in. A boy who cries is called a sissy – his non-“masculine” behavior is negatively compared with women. A girl with masculine features is mannish – her non-“feminine” physicality is negatively compared with men. Failure on a biological level is just as censored. A man or woman with reproductive issues is a “failed” version of their gender – sterile, impotent, barren, depleted, unfruitful, infecund. Slurs against queer people like fag, he-she, and freak serve the same purpose.

Some rigid conservatives may still believe a woman’s role is exclusively in the kitchen; the question they never seem to ask themselves is what if a particular woman is genuinely inclined toward working in the stock exchange? You can formulate as many opinions as you want about how “she’s denying her natural femininity because of ungodliness or bad female role models or feminist brainwashing,” but what if she’s really, actually, truly inclined and disposed toward a professional life outside the home? Similarly, if feminists rewrite the script for “true women” to only include a professional career, what if a woman is really, actually, truly inclined and disposed toward a domestic life with lots of kids? Either way, an abstracted ideal is taking the place of the individual’s personality.

This every-day experience of gender is more or less universal. Through this window every person, cisgender or not, can relate to the gender embattlement of gender non-conformers. We’re all gender non-conformers in some way; for some people it’s just more pronounced, physical, conscious, or problematic.

Since this is the most relatable aspect of gender that everyone can understand, it’s no suprise that often it’s the only gender paradigm through which people will consider transgender experiences. Clearly I must “want to become a woman” because I don’t like competitive sports as much as most guys, or because I’m emotional and empathetic, or because I value the role of motherhood. The truth is I value motherhood because I experience myself as a girl, not the other way around. Transgender allies need to use this role aspect of gender to sympathize with transgender people, but also need to be careful not to over-relate their own struggles to those of particular transgender persons. Otherwise, they risk weaponizing and appropriating transgender narratives toward ulterior agendas.

What some lay people and pseudo-scientific psychological theories assume about my transsexual embattlement.

That being said, gender roles touch on what might be the most important aspect of gender: relationality. What sexual reproductivity, sexual orientation, subconscious sex, gender identity, masculinity, femininity, and social grouping all have in common is they mark how we relate to ourselves and others in the world. Gender essentialists are getting at this when they assert that people have a natural place in the world that situates them in biological relationship with others. (Religious gender essentialists are getting at this when they talk about the divinely-ordained orientation of the masculine to the feminine.) Gender deconstructionists are also getting at this when they point out the ways in which people are consigned to unjust, demeaned, and heavily policed situations of inequality because of gender norms. Both acknowledge this relational aspect: either where biological facts (or divine intent) situate us, or where social oppression warps those facts to demean certain individuals. We need both sides of the coin.

The truth is that apart from small conflicts with gender expectations, the majority of the population experiences gender and sex in incredible alignment. Most people designated “male” have a male genital, genetic, hormonal, sexual, and subconscious sex that is undisputed, masculine tendencies, and identify their gender as “boy” or “man.” Most people designated “female” have a female genital, genetic, hormonal, sexual, and subconscious sex that is undisputed, feminine tendencies, and identify their gender as “girl” or “woman.” The fact that this dichotomy exists isn’t in itself problematic. This statistical binary is present even in the animal kingdom where socialization is rudimentary and gender ideologies are non-existent, so it can’t only be a social construct. The problem isn’t with binary sex, but binary sexism.

Binary sexism is precisely the aforementioned universal experience of being bullied into rigid gender conformity regardless of a person’s natural mode of being. It’s the idea that the gender binary has to be enforced as a law, rather than enjoyed as an outgrowth of human relationality. In our current culture most binary sexism is related to misogyny; the standards that both men and women are held to praise masculinity and demean femininity, so the policing is often centered on protecting masculine superiority. This is why transsexual women are far more demeaned than transsexual men – transsexual women threaten masculinity, whereas transsexual men prove that masculinity is something to attain to. It’s also why boys are punished more severely for “devolving” into “effeminacy,” whereas tomboyish girls are given relatively little trouble.

The truth is the gender dichotomy doesn’t need to be enforced to exist, and doing so causes unnecessary damage to individuals.My little brother, for example, seems to be a naturally masculine child. Unattended, he would probably gravitate toward toy soldiers of his own free will. As he’s undergone puberty and his social group has gotten more demanding, and perhaps in part because he’s conscious of my own feminine expression, his demeanor has changed. I’ve noticed a stiffness in him that I never perceived when he was a kid. His masculinity, which was once free and expressive, seems that much more performative than before. He doesn’t act differently; he behaves the same, but with more self-conscious huff-huffing about his masculinity. I’d like him to live in a world where he can be a man because he’s a man, not because he needs to prove that he’s a man.

As far as I know, my brother is part of the statistical majority: he physically, psychologically, and socially fits within average male parameters. This is fine. What I don’t understand is why it’s not fine to exist on the fringe of these averages. Most people have untroubled sex-gender alignment; some do not. Most men are masculine; some are not. This shouldn’t be more troubling than the natural variation in peoples’ voices. On average, males have voices with a fundamental frequency of 125 Hz, and females have voices with a fundamental frequency of 200 Hz. In actual fact, the vocal ranges of males and females overlap, and outliers from both sexes can have voices that approach the fundamental frequency of the other sex. How tyrannical would it be if those outliers were forced to have vocal surgery to “correct” their voice? How barbaric would it be to lop off a woman’s legs because she’s on the tall end of what’s considered average for a female?

It’s ridiculous to claim that stereotypical males or females are the only “real” way to be human. It’s just as ridiculous when transgender activists want to make transgender the “new normal.” Any group that tries to remake the world in their own image is doing the world a disservice. Whether a cisgender woman treats every gender non-conformer as a freak, or a genderqueer person wants everyone to be completely androgynous, the gigantic world of gender – and with it, the entirety of humanity – is being crammed into a small, ego-sized hole in which it can’t possibly fit. The exceptions to gender norms don’t disprove the reality of gender any more than the gender dichotomy render gender non-conformers nonexistent. There’s an imperative to coexist just as there’s a reality to acknowledge: we already co-exist in the literal sense. The challenge is to coexist humanely and with attentiveness to each others’ unique existence.

Gender is a many-faced thing, so instead of proffering the word like a shotgun, we need to take the excruciating time and exhausting energy to actually differentiate peoplenb s’ experiences and hear their genuine concerns about gender enforcement. Different sides to an issue don’t make the issue contradictory; they just make it three-dimensional.


Click here to proceed to Part 7, a personal plea for gender sanity.


5 thoughts on “What is gender? Part 6: Gender as role

  1. Pingback: What is gender? Part 5: Gender as behavior | The Catholic Transgender

  2. Pingback: What is gender? OR Why the term is both meaningless and indispensible | The Catholic Transgender

  3. Pingback: What is Gender? Part 7: A Personal Plea for Gender Sanity | The Catholic Transgender

  4. Pingback: Binary “Gender Ideology” Refuted: The Complexities of Gender | Queering the Church

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