When Jesse was younger, over and over, people would ask, ‘Are you a boy or girl?’ He was very patient about it, explaining politely, over and over, that he’s a boy. Sometimes when people assumed he was a girl he’d correct them. Other times he chose to let it go. One time a shop assistant who had called him a girl apologised profusely for her error. Jesse said, ‘Oh, it doesn’t bother me – it bothers Paula more.’
I think it reflects our society’s attitude to girls and women, that people tend to apologise if they’ve accidentally called a boy a girl. Why should that be such an insult? But apparently it is. Getting the gender wrong is supposed to be unforgiveable.
What about those who don’t fit neatly into a gender? Why should we all be forced to?
Why does gender matter so much?
When I read ‘Parenting beyond Pink and Blue,’ Christina Spears Brown explains that our society’s obsession with gender begins at birth. The very first words we hear, out of the womb, are usually those of a doctor or midwife pronouncing our gender. Every visitor who comes to meet the baby will be told, clearly and within earshot of the child, what the baby’s gender is. This is usually announced before the name. Clothes are selected based on appropriateness for gender, and their appropriateness is discussed in front of the baby. Our very earliest language learning tends to revolve around gender ideas.
Apparently we humans are primed to categorise ourselves according to groups. It doesn’t matter if what the group is, just that it’s important. In a classroom where half the students are arbitrarily given blue or yellow T-shirts, if the teacher makes a big deal about the colour, the students will too. If the teacher addresses the students by colour (‘Can all the yellow students please line up on the left and the blue students on the right?’) then the students learn that the colour is important. By the end of term, students will have learnt to identify with their colour, and will remember traits of people with their own colour. Students remember best the things that apply to students of their own colour, and tend to forget the things that apply to students of the opposite colour. Students given blue and yellow T-shirts by teachers who never mention them again don’t categorise or focus on the colour of their shirt either.
It’s the same with gender. We are taught from birth that it is the single, most important fact about ourselves. So as humans, we apply ourselves to learning and liking the details required by our own gender, and tend to forget and like less the details focussed on by the opposite gender. In this way we are socialised to select girl clothes over boy clothes if we are a girl, and if we are a boy we are socialised to prefer boy toys and activities over the ones encouraged for girls. Even parents who do their best not to introduce gender bias to their children are heavily outweighed by society, which feeds gender messages to us from the second we are born.
That’s why we feel it matters so much, because of our human tendency to attach to the groups we belong to. Studies have shown that without the gender-socialising, our brains, tastes and tendencies do not divide down gender lines.
Is there anything we can do about it?
We can all make a conscious choice to focus less on gender in our language and interactions. Instead of saying ‘you’re good boy’, say ‘you’re a good kid’. Instead of asking if a baby is a boy or girl, ask how the birth was, or how they’re sleeping. While it’s true that knowing a person’s gender does tell us a lot about a person, because we are so heavily socialised to gravitate towards the norms of our own gender, we need to step outside the box and recognise that these traits are socialised traits and are not innate.
And before you ask if someone is a boy or girl, ask yourself why you need to know.
I love this painting. I’m keeping it for myself. But if you’d like a print, they are available here.