Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sex vs. Gender

In the early morning hours preceding the sex reveal of our twins I find the feminist and gender activist within me compelled to write the following post.  I know this will probably lead to some eye rolling, smirks, and dismissive behavior.  But know that my thoughts are not merely my opinion and a voicing of empiric experience, but ideas backed by the research of people far more intelligent than I.  I say the following not to put a damper on our overwhelming excitement on finding out if our twins are boy(s) or girl(s), but because it just feels like the right write thing to do.

When we had our first child, we didn't reveal her sex ahead of time.  We had no idea what we were having and decided to leave it up as a surprise.  Our baby shower wasn't pink or blue.  We didn't know ahead of time what to call her and all of our gifts arrived in shades of green and yellow.  Emma's name in utero was Fidget since my only clue to her personality was her inability to lie still while I was trying to sleep.  She was a blank slate and everyone's dreams for her ranged from becoming President to prima ballerina.

When Emma was born, this changed.  It wasn't premeditated or malicious.  All actions were born of love, but everyone (myself included since I am by no means immune to the affects of our society) started treating her differently.  All of her gifts and belongings immediately shifted from green and yellow to pink.  But it wasn't just about the color.  It was deeper than that.  It was about people's attitude toward her.

I would like you to picture in your mind a little girl and a little boy before you.  Think about how you would compliment that little girl.  Think about what you would want for that little girl.  You might say that she is pretty.  A good girl.  You might compliment her on her hair or her choice of clothing.  You'd probably feel compelled to hug her and tell her over and over how beautiful she is.  And when asked what you'd dream for this little girl you might imagine a healthy woman walking down the aisle as a happy bride with flashes forward to the day that she has children of her own.  You'd want "the american dream" for her which means - yes - going to college but above also falling in love and having a family of her own someday.

Now let's look at that little boy that is standing before you.  You certainly wouldn't call him pretty or beautiful.  You might call him handsome but his expected reaction to such praise would be to take the compliment gracefully and not make a big deal about it (while the little girl would be encouraged and applauded to pose and preen while everyone fawns over her).  You might hug him, but not too much. Instead you might just shake his little hand so as to make him feel "like a man."  You might call him a good boy but you probably wouldn't compliment his hair or choice of clothing.  Having called him handsome would have been enough and further comments on his appearance would just be....odd.  The assumption would also be that he had absolutely no say in what he was wearing since his mother probably picked his clothing for him.  Boys have no interest in such things.  And when asked what you'd dream for this little boy you might imagine him tall and strong, strappingly attractive with his pick of young women from which to marry.  But he would be respectful and noble, honorable and brave.  You might picture him as a lawyer, doctor, or the CEO of some big company, certainly making more money than you did and providing for his children even more than you were able to provide for him.  When you imagine this little boy's future you dream of success and power.

Some of you may be vehemently shaking your heads that you don't do this.  You might intrinsically see where I'm going with my heavy-handed examples, but if you're willing, really think back to how you speak to little boys and girls and the gifts you bestow upon them.  While it's not 100% of the time, I'm betting that most of your comments to little girls have something to do with their appearance and most of your comments to little boys have something to do with their character.  When asked most of us would defensively swear that we are all for equality of the sexes and that our children - despite their sex - are free to grow up and be whomever they want to be.  But in our actions, and words, we contribute to the same gender biased crap that the media spews out every day.  Partially because we too were brainwashed and partially because for many of us, we agree with the media.

Boys in pink tutus threaten us.  So do aggressive women in suits.  Emotional boys, girls who hate dresses and the boys who wish they could wear them.  All of these images make most of us cringe because they do not fall within our definitions of girl and boy.  They are other.  They are wrong.  They should be changed.

But that is not the truth.  Pink and blue are just colors.  What's wrong with orange and black?  Girl and boy are just genders.  People are so much more interesting and complicated than the social norms we prescribe for them.  And no I'm not talking about sexual orientation.  That's a whole 'nother bag of chips that I could go on and on about.  I'm talking just about gender expression.  Your biological sex is what you were born with, but that doesn't necessarily mean you cleanly and conveniently are team blue or team pink.  Most of us are an explosive spectrum of colors and grow in to people with opinions and choices that are far more varied than the world's definition of boy or girl.

Why do we do this?  Why do we tell our boys they can't cry and then wonder why they have anger management issues?  Why do we constantly compliment our girls on how they look and then wonder why they garner their self respect on their body image?  Why do we place the burden of "family provider" on our boys and then wonder why they crack under the pressure?  Why do our highest hopes for our girls amount to their wedding day and then wonder why they're barely making over minimum wage?

We are doing this to our children!  In our every interaction with them we are telling them that the world is right and that they must conform or face ridicule and failure.  Ridicule?  Yes, that's still going to happen no matter what they pick because people will always suck and make fun of you no matter how much you conform to society.  But failure?  To subconsciously imply to a child through thoughtless commentary that they will be a failure in life because they aren't "normal" is so wrong and stupid I have no eloquent words to describe it.  We can all think of famous, successful, and great contributors to our society that grew up being labeled geek, fag, fattie, or freak.  If you read their biographies most of them will always be scarred by how they were treated growing up, but they overcame that treatment and persisted in being true to who they are.  Most of us aren't that lucky or strong!

So after the reveal is over, but before you run out to the store to shower us with blue or pink, just take a deep breath and think.  Girls can like trains and trucks and blue.  Boys can like princesses and ponies and pink.  Girls can be firemen and never want children or husbands.  Boys can be hair stylists and stay-at-home-dads.  And the saddest part, is that even after I've done all of this writing, most of you still cringed after reading those last two sentences.

I'm not saying that people with gender expressions that happen to match their biological sex are wrong or denying their true selves in some way.  With my training in the field of women's and gender studies I was fully prepared to raise a gender bending child and fight off society with a stick if they got in her way.  But that's not who Emma is.  Emma, despite my attempts to expose her to a plethora of choices, adores princesses and pink; ballerinas and ponies just like "most" girls.  I sometimes scratch my head in wonder at how I had this obvious "girlie girl."  But then I remember my research and I am reminded that people are who they are and it's up to us to let them be that.  We should of course guide them to be kind, respectful, and wise.  I'm not saying that a kid who shows proclivities towards becoming a bully should be encouraged to "be themselves."  That's ridiculous.  I'm saying that if a child is interested in becoming or doing something that may exist outside of the lines of your comfort zone - but doesn't hurt anybody - consider that it may be ok.  Your children will hopefully not only thank you for it someday, but it would cut down tremendously on their therapy bills.

If you are willing, try exposing your children to all of the cultures, philosophies, and dreams that you can, regardless of their sex or your personal beliefs.  Try to look at them without the filter of gender and see who they are as people - not the people society expects them to be.  You might see a lot that you were missing before.

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