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.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?
- Bem, S.L. (1993). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate of sexual inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- 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
- 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
- Kindlon, D. J. and Thompson, M.(2000). Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. New York: Ballantine Books.
- Money, J. (1994). Concept of gender identity disorder in childhood and adolescence after 39 years. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 20, 3, 163-177.
- Stryker, S. (2008). Transgender history. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.
- 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 GoodTherapy.org.
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