Relinquishing Rigid Gender Rules

A boy plays with a toy ironing board and a girl plays with folding clothes. When we are born, and often even before, the big question is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” The way this question was answered when we were born impacts us every day throughout our whole lives. This is the day we are assigned a gender. In our culture we treat boys and girls, and men and women, very differently. Everything is gendered, from toys and clothes, to emotions and ways of thinking. No one is off the hook from these gender scripts; they tell us how to dress, act, and interact with other people (Bem, 1993; Gagne & Tewksbury, 1998; Gagne, Tewksbury, & McGaughey, 1997). Some people fit these scripts well, and some people don’t. But before we can talk about gender, we have to define it.

Gender is not the same as biological sex. When we ask a parent, “Is it a boy or a girl?” what we’re really asking is, “Is it male or female?” Biological sex is the package we are born into. This includes our chromosomes, our hormones, and our bodies. But biological sex does not dictate gender identity. Gender identity is an internal sense of maleness or femaleness (Money, 1994). For most people, their internal sense of gender matches their biological sex, for others it does not. One term used by people who find their biological sex and gender identity don’t match, is transgender. A person who is transgender has a gender identity that does not match the one that was assigned to them when they were born (Stryker, 2008).

I want to know—how do you know your gender? The two most common genders are man and woman. So, how do you know that you are a man or a woman? Answers about biology or how other people interpret you don’t count; this question is about how you feel. This is your gender. How we share our gender with other people is our gender expression. We express our gender to others by how we dress, wear our hair, walk, talk, and even what professions or hobbies we choose to pursue. Some people express very masculine gender expressions, some people share with others a very feminine gender expression, and most of us fall somewhere on a spectrum between the two. There are also people who have gender expressions that are androgynous, not masculine or feminine.

You don’t have to be a man to express a masculine gender expression, and you don’t have to be a woman to express a feminine gender expression. And gender expression has nothing to do with being gay. A common misconception is that a man who is feminine is gay, but our sexual orientation is not the same thing as our gender expression. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, or straight is about who we are sexually attracted to, not about how we dress, walk, or talk.

In our culture we have rules about enacting your gender; they are very rigid rules and very binary rules. If you want to see an example, look at the aisles in the toy store—there is always a pink aisle filled with dolls, and a blue/red/black aisle filled with action figures. Let’s take a step back: What is really the difference between a doll and an action figure? They are both representations of people that allow children to use their imagination to play. But there is a specific judgment attached to the term “doll” and the term “action figure.” A doll is for a girl and an action figure is for a boy. These judgments go one step further to say that it is wrong for a boy to play with a doll. A girl playing with an action figure may not be deemed as harshly, but if that’s the only toys she likes, there is often a judgment that this is unhealthy.

Gender rules become harmful when they restrict the ability of people to fully express themselves. This can be especially damaging when we talk about something much more personal than children’s toys—gender rules also restrict the feelings that we are allowed to have. Except that feelings don’t work like that; feelings don’t follow society’s gender rules.

As a culture, we have gendered them; for example, anger is manly and sadness is womanly. The judgment attached is that it is not okay for men to be sad or for women to by angry. Psychologists Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon believe that the rules attached to being a man in our society hurts boys: “Dan and I felt that boys were emotionally illiterate, burdened by a conception of masculinity that narrowed their lives. They were unable to express their pain, their sense of shame, their sadness, and inadequacy, except through anger” (2004, p. 27). Their book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (2000) describes one way in which gender rules impact children, and consequently adults.

This is a common experience expressed by the people I have worked with. It’s often masked in the fear, “I think there’s something wrong with me because I—” and they describe their experience of having a feeling that is not socially acceptable for their gender. There is nothing wrong with having a broad range of emotions; it is one of the things that make us human. There are more things in common between men and women than there are different, and both men and women have the capacity to feel and express a wide range of emotions. In the example above, the problem isn’t that the person is having feelings they “shouldn’t” be having; the problem is the rigid nature of our gender system that controls our thoughts and behaviors.

When we begin talking about cultural systems, the idea of shifting and changing them can seem overwhelming. However, what if each of us decided to re-imagine our own gender rules? What if we weren’t ashamed that we’re not “manly” or “womanly” enough? Or if we stopped and challenged the impulse to chastise ourselves for not fitting in and, instead, decided if it’s something we even want to fit into? Just by noticing assumptions we and others make regarding gender identity and expression creates more space to be ourselves. What would it be like to intentionally decide what kind of man or woman or transgender person you want to be without shame, guilt, or self-doubt?


  1. Bem, S.L. (1993). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate of sexual inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  2. Gagne, P. and Tewksbury, R. (1998). Conformity pressures and gender resistance among transgendered individuals. Social Problems, 45, 1, 81-101. Retrieved from SOCIndex with Full Text database
  3. Gagne, P., Tewksbury, R., and McGaughey, D. (1997). Coming out and crossing over: Identity formation and proclamation in a transgender community. Gender and Society, 11, 4, 478-508. Retrieved from SOCIndex with Full Text database
  4. Kindlon, D. J. and Thompson, M.(2000). Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. New York: Ballantine Books.
  5. Money, J. (1994). Concept of gender identity disorder in childhood and adolescence after 39 years. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 20, 3, 163-177.
  6. Stryker, S. (2008). Transgender history. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.
  7. Thompson, M. (2004). Why are we afraid of our boys: A psychologist looks at solutions. The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children, 2,  1, p. 26-30.

© Copyright 2011 by Damon Constantinides. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Faith

    November 14th, 2011 at 4:57 PM

    I have faith that one day it will not matter what society thinks that you “should” be. It will be liberated enough for you to be able to be who you want to be. Now that is the society that I would wnat to live in.

  • Paula Young, LMFT

    November 14th, 2011 at 8:09 PM

    Nice post. This is a little off topic but the post reminded me of a puzzlement in my own life experience, as a woman. Every so often, a man, usually a stranger—the clerk at the post office, the guy in the lampstore, or, as in recently, the guy at the gym, etc, will be oppositional toward me, unprovoked. The guy at the gym, for example wants to argue with me-the arguments are non-senseical/irrational; they are based on nothing, but, he persists. Why does this happen every so often? One male colleague I discussed this with said that the examples I gave him would never happen in his life (he is a tall, white, male) Guys, any thoughts?

  • E. Carr

    November 15th, 2011 at 12:33 AM

    Thanks for the thoughtful article, Damon. It’s good that you explained the differences between gender, sex, and orientation in a clear way. There are so many misconceptions about it it makes me want to throw something against the wall when it’s misunderstood. Why on earth don’t we teach that in schools? It’s probably the first place where youngsters will encounter those that are different from them. Without any frame of reference to draw upon they are unsure what this means or how to react, and sadly do so often in a negative or fear-based way.

  • Jerri

    November 15th, 2011 at 5:10 AM

    Gender rules? You mean those are still around? Looking around I don’t feel that way at all.

  • Fred

    November 15th, 2011 at 10:22 AM

    I remember growing up I would easily cry. My parents, aunts, unless, everybody would go like “crying is for girls, don’t do that”. Really? Can a boy not cry? It is sickening that a lot of people still do and say this.

    And having been through that little experience while growing up, I can only imagine how it would be to be someone sexually yet feel different from your biological identity. The people around them must be tearing them apart at every step!

  • Julie

    November 15th, 2011 at 5:17 PM

    I never want my qwn children to feel limited or defined by those gender stereotypes. But there are some things that are just natural. My daughter loves baby dolls and always has. I will not keep her from that enjoyment just because it fits a little too nicely into that box of what we usually expect from little girls. My boys are rough and tumble- again, that is how they have always been. I am a believer in letting your children be who they are going to be, and loving them no matter what they become.

  • blenda campbell

    November 15th, 2011 at 11:59 PM

    gender rules start the minute we are born-pink for girls and blue for boys..really?

    why does it have to be like that?and your example of dolls and action figures was spot on.the same thing happened to me.I was interested in the more ‘boyish’ toys in my growing up years and even my parents discouraged me from playing with those toys!

    is it more important to stick to this nonsensical rule or is it more important to let you child enjoy herself and be happy with what she’s doing?!

  • lettie garrick

    November 18th, 2011 at 1:46 AM

    I stopped giving a hoot about the entire concept of gender a long time ago, and decided I’m not going to let any man or woman tell me what to do just because my chromosomes are different! Result: I know who I am, people know who I am, and I’m overall much happier within myself because of my openness.

  • Kerry Bass

    November 18th, 2011 at 3:10 AM

    Gender might have meant a great deal back in the Stone Age when we were living in caves and men had to protect the women from mammoths, other tribes, and packs of wolves.

    Now, modern society is built on equality and gender is obsolete. We could just about ignore the concept altogether and let individuals go by whatever pronouns or titles they want. I think the world would be a better place if we did quit labeling everyone and everything.

  • Homer Cummings

    November 18th, 2011 at 3:37 AM

    Here’s what I think about gender roles. We don’t choose our race, and we don’t choose our genders either. Neither of them should be stereotyped nor a reason for others to attack us simply for being who were are. Live and let live, folks.

  • F.W.A.

    November 19th, 2011 at 2:27 AM

    As a transgendered woman, I commend you for writing an article that has been long overdue on this site, and certainly deserves more exposure. Thank you Damon.

    Few beyond those that are understand what it’s like to be born as one sex and feel like the other. The misconceptions are as bad and as offensive as those who cannot tell the difference between schizophrenia and multiple personalities.

  • Damon Constantinides

    November 30th, 2011 at 1:35 PM

    Julie – I’m so glad that you posted. I feel like sometimes when we start to challenge societal expectations there is a backlash. For example, during the 2nd wave of feminism when women were more involved in the work force the choice to stay home and parent was devalued. I feel like the whole point of challenging societal expectation is that we each then get to have more agency in our decisions – which doesn’t mean that girls can’t, or shouldn’t, play with dolls!

  • Damon Constantinides

    November 30th, 2011 at 1:37 PM

    FWA – Thanks for posting! I wanted very much for this article to be both trans-inclusive and accessible to folks with other gender identities. I appreciate your comments!

  • Damon Constantinides

    November 30th, 2011 at 1:41 PM

    Kerry – Gender theorist Sandra Bem has written a lot about whether gender should, or shouldn’t be obsolete. Her original theory was in line with yours – why can’t we just get rid of gender? If it’s so harmful to people, could we live with out it? Later she revised her theory and instead talked about exploding gender. Instead of eradicating gender, what if we just had multiple genders. As many genders as there are people. Much as your last comment suggests – what is we got to decide our own gender and pronouns. She decided this approach was for realistic and still allowed for gender identity and gender performance – something that I would suggest is ingrained in United States culture.

  • Christine

    April 13th, 2015 at 6:36 PM

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