The trouble with talking about gender

Simple messages are easiest to remember. Being easy to remember is often conflated with being true.

Unfortunately, the traditional view of gender is the simplest — it’s a toggle switch, there are two settings, M and F. Anything that deviates from that rubric is… deviant.

We have a more sophisticated view of this nowadays. Gender is not a toggle switch, it’s not even a dimmer, with gradual settings. It’s more of an equalizer board, with many sliders. I’d say it’s a bank of equalizers with unpredictable interactions — a truly chaotic system. So much so, that it becomes a chump’s game even to discuss, it’s just too complicated.

And, actually, why do we need to? I remember when I was a kid in the 1960s, people being very exercised over men’s long hair. Simpler times, I know! The cliché complaint was, You can’t tell the girls from the boys!

Now that I’m in my 60s looking back, I wonder, Why do you need to tell the boys from the girls again? Are you looking to match up your child? Do you need to know whom to underpay, whose ass you can grab without consequence, whom you would invite to the club? Why is it even interesting to know the boys from the girls?

I’d argue it isn’t — who cares? Well, apparently a lot of people. Parents care. Confession — I don’t have biological children of my own, I am a step-parent. I’ve never had a baby. But it seems that parents of babies are obsessed with the physical characteristics of their children. This is sensible and probably a survivalistic trait, selected for by evolution. Even as children grow into adults, I find their parents obsess over how they look, even if they know this is not a healthy focus. Better to reward them for things they’ve chosen, such as kindness, hard work, and generosity, rather than being pretty or being handsome or being tall. But there you are, we are apes and we do ape things.

So parents want to know what their kids are, M or F, and if the kids don’t fall neatly in those categories, parents can get upset. Upset people like to blame others for leading their perfect offspring astray, because the alternative is to either blame themselves (very unpleasant) or just accept that life is more complicated than they thought. That is hard to admit.

I am reminded of the endless fretting about exposure to gay people (my family was in the NYC theater scene; I was brought up around every conceivable permutation of sexuality; for the record, I’m straight… though effete and sometimes taken for gay). It was almost as if being straight was some kind of grim duty and took iron discipline, which, if relaxed for a second, one would tumble into gayness. I think all the people who believe that need to examine their own sexuality, if they feel that being gay is truly where joy, delight and freedom lie, and being straight requires constant work.

A difficulty for the community trying to open us up from the strict binary era is talking about schools to parents. If you say that schools need to change, that parenting needs to change, many parents will feel insulted and attacked. They loved school! The sports, the dances, the surreptitious sex, maybe even the classes. If you’re telling them, no, do it differently, the challenge is how to say that without driving parents right into a defensive crouch. I’m not smart enough to do this, sadly. If I were the character in Ted Chiang’s Understand, maybe I could figure it out.

This is often true; one can “say what one thinks” and feel virtuous, but if, in the process, you make someone else defensive, you’ve lost.

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