Can We Go Beyond Gender?
The writer imagines a world without gender constructs.
Since before I remember, I’ve known that I was a little different.
Growing up, my brother, our dad and I had this funny custom that reinforced the distinction. My father would ask us, “Who’s a man?” And we would bring a fist to our chest with a thud, like a gorilla, and Dad would say, “Damn right.”
Then we would do the same saying, “Who's a woman?” Our mother would respond by slowly pressing an open palm to her heart to symbolize gentleness.
However, the older I got, the more I noticed shades of gray between the black and white of these gender roles played by my parents. My father expressed emotional sensitivity, for example, making it very clear to us that when his contributions to the household were not acknowledged, it hurt his feelings.
Also, Pops wasn't the only practical one in the house. My mother would get on my dad’s case for bringing home art and furniture that was out of our family budget, arguing that we had to be frugal with our money.
These gendered characteristics had perennial expressions, but which parent they appeared in was dynamic and unpredictable. It was just as likely that my mom take a dominant position in any given scenario as it was that my father would be kind and nurturing.
Should Gender Constructs Be Eliminated?
This makes me wonder if gender constructs are necessary at all. For so many of us, the rules we were given for how we view our bodies were unhelpful, even harmful. We had to do the work of coming to terms with that and defining new rules that were beneficial and healthy. This is really what we talk about when we refer to our inalienable right to freedom, to live and express ourselves in authentic healthy ways. When it comes to gender, the roles we have been assigned could simply be inadequate or inappropriate for who we are as people, like a suit we were passed down but doesn’t quite fit.
In fact, if there is one thing that epitomizes manhood for me, it is the two-piece suit. Every day, my father would wake up, put on a suit and go to work. The suit is a man’s modern-day armor. As for her fashion statement, my mother was not big on heels, but she did wear red lipstick. Something about it made her feel complete and, I think, a little powerful.
So, I wondered if I could harness the power of my mother’s feminine performative armor the same way that I was able, and encouraged, to harness the power of my father’s business suit. But there is no vernacular for both at once. If I wanted to retain a masculine presentation and wear lipstick, I would have to author that vernacular myself.
To reimagine oneself means to detach from centuries of tradition and ritual long held as absolute. Even when it isn’t intended to offend anyone, taking on a new gender and completely redefining one’s personal likeness are among the boldest acts a person can take.
We must see them, however, as we view those daring acts of creativity adored in both art and science.
Exploration Is Key
Lipstick on a black man could be read as minstrel; it could be read as homosexual. But there is room for exploration of black masculinity and an opportunity to claim social agency. Social pressure can be confining. Yet there is hope. I think back to the suits that my father wore and how he never wore them the way they came home from the store. He needed to customize his suit to fit his own body, the way he moved, the way he wanted to be seen.
On the one hand, I did not want to abandon completely the construct of manhood. But, on the other, I wanted to alleviate some of that feeling of suffocation. So, I took shears to my clothes, self-tailoring them to fit the way I moved and wanted to be seen. The result was still something immediately recognizable as “man,” but was also inconsistent with conventional masculinity. Thus, I gained the agency to make my manhood more flexible and less fragile.
I permitted myself to be more self-determined.
My resistance to hetero-normativity and conventional gender roles asks, “Is it possible to pioneer new ways of being in society that disrupt what we think we know, yet maintain both some kind of social order as well as a sense of self?” If I wear a skirt, nail polish, or lipstick, it isn’t necessarily meant to be a political statement, to shatter gender boxes for the sake of doing so.
In my life, these statements are personal declarations meant to reclaim a sense of self that has been stripped or suppressed by a rigid, inhibiting and therefore oppressive social paradigm.
What Could We Lose If We Lost Gender Constructs?
Skeptics reasonably might focus on what we stand to lose by accepting gender fluidity. It certainly destabilizes the control and perceived safety of having clearly defined social expectations. Whom might we encounter in a bathroom? Who best to nurture an infant? Who wears the literal and metaphorical pants in a relationship?
It is assumed that these rules are pillars in our social agreement and upsetting them could lead to some sort of chaos. But if these pillars are myths, then we must ask ourselves if it is ethical to sustain them.
Those of us who have experienced the failure of these pillars understand that chaos is actually caused by grounding our faith in such fragile supports themselves. When we look closely, no one actually fits neatly into gender confines. All of us are asked to shed or expand some element of our personhood to fit womanhood or manhood, without regard to how much of our character is comprised. Gender roles demand that men lean into masculinity and fulfill their gender expectations. Womanhood asks that women default to femininity, whether or not that is fundamental to their identity.
Alone, the constructs of masculinity and femininity point only to polarities, once to identify mating partners, but which have since shed their utility with the advent of language.
If we seek balance in our personalities, strict compliance with either of these two pillars of our society becomes less reliable. As we see in queer communities, a dynamic social environment can emerge that has a basis in expectations that are more fundamental and reliable than what we have come to settle for thus far.
By taking ownership of our gender identities, and doing the work of unpacking, understanding, expanding (or even abandoning) them, we rid ourselves of a system that asks us to fit everything about how we love and live in a tiny box.
We owe ourselves the chance to embody more than gender binary would suggest we can become.