Sunday, February 17, 2008

Gender F'n

(Assignment completed for my Working With LGBT Clients Class):

I love “masculine” women. The walk, the talk, the dress, the personality. All of it. Mainly this attraction stems not from the traditional male role, but rather from the brevity one must endure as they do such things as taking the clippers to their head. In our patriarchal world women are meant to be calm, pretty, mothering, straight, and also strong willed. Creating the new categories of what a woman can be like is provocative – it’s hard work that I admire. Leslie Feinberg’s “Trans Liberation” piece talks about this courage: “I don’t think the point is why are we different? Why have we refused to walk of two narrow paths, but instead demanded the right to blaze our own? The question is not why we we’re unwilling to conform even when beaten to the ground by ridicule and brutality.” A very important question I think because that strength is one that should be modeled.

As a feminist I have molded myself in to this person who wants to eradicate gender roles – or at least the requirements men and women have placed on them if they want to be seen as normal in our society – because the barriers hide the true identity of all of us. We are not simply black or white – the gray in between is a continuum of color, blending, meshing, and creating new palettes with time. As much as I want to be self-assured, I have to step back and ask myself is this who I want to be. Is this what I want to look like?

On the one hand I would like to say that my own independence trumps society’s creation of what is normal, but then I wonder if I myself contribute to the perpetuation of conformity each time I shave my legs, wear a low-cut shirt, twirl my hair on my finger, or take part in other stereotypical interpretations of my gender. Do those markers make me feminine? What about the other times when I wear my sneakers to a club, wear a baseball hat, cheer on sports teams, goggle over beautiful women, and emit confidence? Do those markers make me masculine? It seems that as much as I try to depart from gender roles, the more I find myself doing stereotypical things to affirm them.

Newton’s search for the “right” role seems to be typical. Many lesbians I talk to think about these roles, and moreover, once they settle on an identification or representation, many work hard to keep it up. Newton points out how people fall into these roles because of the normalization of them in society – gay couples end up modeling heterosexual couples; where the concept of feminine and masculine are huge factors in the relationship hierarchy. She quotes a line from a documentary she watched that seems to describe this ongoing struggle to fit into labels that either we choose, or society places on us: “A woman not much taller than a fire hydrant tells the impartial camera how at first she had recoiled from joining an association of little people because ‘I was horrified when I saw them. I had to tell myself you don’t look like that.’ ”

If I put myself in to a category of femme then I compare myself to other femme lesbians…how do they walk, talk, dress; and how does that compare to me? Same goes with when I decide that I am just kind of gender neutral; I look at other neutral-looking lesbians and decide how I compare to their looks, personality, etc. Actually, just writing such a thing reminds me of the privilege I have to be able to maneuver through these identifications. I have the mind frame and desire to be on this continuum, which may make it easier for me to “pass” in the world – being a butch woman would limit this flexibility, I would imagine.

The same goes for trans people. Last week in class we talked about including transgender people within the context of sexual orientation, because we questioned the obvious: that gender is something that does not mean straight or gay. I believe after reading the “Trans Liberation” article by Feinberg, the idea of gender most certainly should be included because it plays such a large role in our sexual being. The gender binary effects all people – no matter straight or queer – and people run across all sexual orientations. Within sexual orientations are people who identify as male, female and many points in between. If sexual function and intimacy are important elements in normal human life, the way one represents themselves freely is crucial to healthy development.

So folks need to examine this, and advocate for the abolishment of gender oppression.

Barb Burdge’s “Bending Gender, Ending Gender” article explains the way social workers should advocate for this expression, and I agree because as noted in the beginning of this written assignment, I noted my own love and appreciation for people who fight off the masses in order to be who they want to be. Not being able to do this is oppressive, which is why it amazes me that the National Association for Social Workers does not have gender listed as a status that is oppressed. How could the founding doctrine of a profession that values “self-definition as a matter of self-determination ad social justice,” as stated in the Burdge article, not recognize the need to eliminate gender-based oppression?

Maybe this exists because of the ill-conceived notion that gender is something that is only “acted out” but not something that is real and ever present, such as noted in the Burdge article: “From this perspective, gender is a performance for which every person alters outward appearances to align with an internal sense of gender identity.” Esther Newton appears to negate this finding: “This masculinity, my masculinity, is not external; it permeates and animates me. Nor is it a masquerade. In my own home, when no one is present, I still sit with my legs carelessly flung apart.”

Newton points out that butches are “laughable to straight people," and I think this is because so many people are caught up in this idea that all relationships have to have one male and one female gender expression (which in the straight world means one man and one woman). They marginalize and oppress butches for this. Unfortunately many never stop to think whom it said that only biological women can be feminine and that only biological men can be masculine. Who wants to live like that, and really, is it even possible to be 100 percent all feminine or all masculine? I say no because current definitions of either gender identification means that a woman can basically never be assertive, have direction or goal, be confident, wear a cropped hairdo, etc. That would make this person robotic almost because I believe that humans require the need to lead AND to follow (which seem to identify both male and feminine trait).

Thus, I fully support and agree with Burdge’s call for gender advocacy: “We cannot end gender oppression by ignoring the inherent oppressiveness of the hierarchical gender binary. Social workers can work to disrupt the traditional gender binary and advocate for gender rights – the freedom to one’s authentic self.”