Girls and boys. Women and men. Ladies and gentlemen. In a society where it sometimes seems that sex and gender are the same thing and that binary is key, perhaps it is no surprise that many of us grow up as strictly one or the other – male or female. And while technically, as we will soon learn, this is generally correct in terms of sex, gender is a different story. The truth is that gender is fluid, and the expression of it is as well. Even when we accept this however, many of us do not recognize the obstacles that are faced by some when they want to express their true selves. Though we would like to think that we are all independent and don’t care too much about what others think, when it comes to expression of gender, we are much more dependent on others and their opinions than we may realize. As we see in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room when drag queens face harassment by others or in Amazon’s original series Transparent when Maura Pfefferman has trouble coming out as transgender to her family, one’s expression of gender – particularly when done against the norms – can be an obstacle-ridden path, dependent on others’ opinions, both in the public and private realm.
Before we can begin to discuss the obstacles of gender expression however, it is important to understand a few concepts. First, sex is a biological distinction. It is based on physical attributes such as, “reproductive organs and secondary sex characteristics that develop at puberty” (Launius and Hassel 32). Gender, however, is our performance of daily actions, “’such as how we use our voices, cross our legs, hold our heads, wear our clothes,’” which are then typically labeled as masculine or feminine (qtd. in Launius and Hassel 33). In many cases, one’s gender correlates with their sex – biological men act masculine and dominant while biological women act feminine and nurturing. These assumptions, and a multitude of others – including those in regard to our actions, jobs, and behaviors – are what we would call gender norms. And while they may seem harmless, they actually play a hindering role for some in their expression of gender. Perhaps Judith Butler says it best when she says, “surely, there are nuanced and individual ways of doing one’s gender, but that one does it, and that one does it in accord with certain sanctions and proscriptions, is clearly not a fully individual matter” (Butler 525). This is a problem for numerous reasons.
Schools are where students go to learn. From history to art, students are taught many things, including, “appropriate behavior, attitudes, and appearance for their gender” (Launius and Hassel 37). The problem with this, is that students are then limited in understanding the full scope of what gender can be, and, “those who ‘fail to do their gender right’ are often punished,” by odd looks, snide comments, or even physical violence (Fellabaum 129). Further, even when students realize this as an issue and work to educate others and generally make change, they are often let down. In fact, many students in the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) that J.B. Mayo Jr. studied, tried to make change, but, “the lack of support from adults in the school thwarted their efforts to educate peers beyond the GSA meeting space,” and this thwarting may logically extend to the expression of gender against the norms as well (Mayo Jr. 107). Students in these settings just don’t feel supported. Can we blame them?
As we discuss gender against the norms, one category of individuals that may come to mind is drag queens. These biological men who dress in women’s clothing, accessories, wigs, and makeup certainly defy the norms. For some of them it may just be fun to play with gender. For others, however, dressing in drag provides an opportunity to express their true selves, which otherwise might stay hidden.
Some would say they are beautiful. Others would say they challenge the norms. But in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, readers would surmise that drag queens are just part of the culture. The entire book follows David, a gay man in a relationship with a woman and in an affair with another gay man. In one scene, David and his friend Jacques visit a gay bar frequented by drag queens. And while we may expect David to be accustomed to such an environment, in regard to one of the drag queens, David explains how he feels: “people said that he was very nice, but I confess that his utter grotesqueness made me uneasy; perhaps in the same way that the sight of monkeys eating their own excrement turns some people’s stomachs” (Baldwin 27). This dehumanization portrays not only an unflattering image in our minds but presents a potentially suppressing action against drag queens’ behaviors as well. Fortunately, David does not say this to the drag queen’s face, but there should be no doubt in our minds that something along these lines has been said in real-life situations before. And it is these ideas – and the anticipation of harassment as a result – that keeps some people from expressing their true identities.
Similar issues may exist in our private lives – particularly at home, with family. For the purposes of example, let us assume that in general, members of a family get along, are supportive of each other, and love one another. Now consider a family whose child is gender nonconforming. Maybe their son – a biological male – enjoys wearing dresses, painting his fingernails, and playing with baby dolls. Or maybe their daughter – a biological female – hates wearing dresses, enjoys playing football, and prefers the color blue. While the concept of gender as fluid would say that there is nothing wrong or out of the ordinary with this behavior, “because of community pressure or personal beliefs, parents – most often fathers – struggle to accept a child who does not fit within social norms” (Malpas 454). The effect of this could be one of two things. If the child continues the behavior, “the gender nonconformity can become a significant source of conflict between parents and a damaging source of disconnection between parent and child” (454). Perhaps worse however, is if the child allows this conflict to be an influencing factor in expressing their gender – forcing themselves to conform to the norms in order to regain their parents’ approval, but avoiding their true selves in the process. We don’t have to be psychologists to understand that this suppression of gender expression might lead to problems later in life, such as dissatisfaction with their appearance, performance, or even relationships with significant others.
Especially in families with adult children, the roles discussed above – parents and their gender nonconforming children – may be reversed. Amazon’s original television series Transparent features one such family who finds out that who they once knew to be their father Morton is actually a transgender woman who goes by Maura. In the pilot episode, Morton gathers his adult children for dinner – he has something important to tell them. Morton makes many attempts to out himself as transgender during the discussion that ensues, but he cannot bring himself to do it. Eventually, Morton simply tells them, “I’m selling the house, I’m done with the house,” as a way to avoid his original intent (Transparent 12:14). Why Morton does this is obvious – he is worried about what his family will think. After all, he’s been a father, a male-figure, to them their whole lives. This fear of Morton’s is realized in the third episode, “Rollin” when Morton, now Maura, has finally come out to her eldest daughter and asks, “are you okay with me?” (1:06). Though her daughter’s love would be assumed by the majority of viewers, because Maura has never previously been able to reveal herself to her family, she is unsure what to expect. Even in our own supportive, loving families, expressing one’s true self can be difficult.
At this point, the observant reader may suggest that we cannot justifiably call this paper a comprehensive discussion of gender nonconformity – something is missing. The previous examples are largely based on biological males who challenge gender norms. Importantly, this is completely by chance – I did not intentionally seek out these examples, they are simply what I came across when researching. Perhaps this points to a larger issue. Not only are actions against gender norms generally frowned upon, when we do begin to discuss such actions, it seems that only one side is even considered.
Still, it’s not all bad – there may be reason for some hope. After all, though Amazon’s Transparent exhibits the difficulties of expressing one’s true gender amidst a world of gender norms, the fact that media is beginning to bring these difficulties to light is heartening. Also notable is that the youth of today seem to be increasingly accepting of gender fluidity, and, let’s be honest, all things that older generations are not. Many of us envision, “a future… in which a wide range of gender identities and expressions would be permitted, even encouraged” (Launius and Hassel 34). Those who encourage acceptance of others should be encouraged themselves to continue, and “as for the rest of us, the least we can do is try to keep their path forward clear” (Harding 222).
Hesitation about revealing our true
selves. The potential for harassment from the public. These are both fears that,
to some extent, impact us all in our expression of gender. Our society values a
sense of normalcy in all things – gender being one such thing. Unfortunately
for many, gender is one of the things that should not be subject to conformity
at all. Still, we see some progress – in gender-fluidity-accepting youth
populations and coverage of these issues in the media. For these small steps
forward at least, we should be grateful.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal, no. 4, 1988, p. 519. EBSCOhost.
Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. Dial Press, 1956.
Fellabaum, Jennifer. “Conceptualizing Gender Performance in Higher Education: Exploring Regulation of Identity Expression.” NASPA Journal About Women in Higher Education, vol. 4, no. 2, Sept. 2011, pp. 127–141. EBSCOhost.
Harding, Kate. Asking for It: the Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It.Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2015.
Launius, Christie, and Holly Hassel. Threshold Concepts in Women’s and Gender Studies: Ways of Seeing, Thinking, and Knowing. 2nd ed., Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.
Malpas, Jean. “Between Pink and Blue: A Multi-Dimensional Family Approach to Gender Nonconforming Children and Their Families.” Family Process, vol. 50, no. 4, Dec. 2011, pp. 453–470. EBSCOhost.
Mayo, J. B., Jr. “Adults’ Complicity in Limiting Students’ Understanding of Sex, Gender and Sexuality at School.” Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning, vol. 16, no. 1, Jan. 2016, pp. 105–110. EBSCOhost.
Solloway, Jill, creator. Transparent. Amazon Studios, 2014. Amazon,https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/B00I3MPZUW/ref=atv_dp_season_select_atf