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Monday, March 06, 2006

Gender isn't a two way street


Being transgender provides one the unintended consequence of becoming very aware of how society reinforces and polices gender among its members. We see it as we grow up, placed into gender roles that don't speak to us. We see it, too, as we begin to shift away from such, whether moving entirely from one gender to another, or simply choosing to move into spaces beyond the typical conventions.

The first question asked when a child is born is the one that tells the world – or at least everyone in the delivery room – if a child is a girl or a boy. From the moment a blue or pink blanket is doled out, the average child is placed in a lifelong series of rigidly gender specific situations.

Some households, and some locations, are better than others. Yet even in the most gender transcendent spots, one might still find a false dichotomy in action. Such is the nature of participation in a society that requires one to walk a path – and one path only – specific to a determination about your genitals by a delivering physician.

It has not always been so rigidly defined, though such a division among the sexes has likely played a role in human society since there were humans around to have a society. Even as late as the 1920s little boys and little girls were dressed and groomed largely identically – in dresses – until males reached their breeching age, typically before age 5. Such a quaint practice fell out of favor in the era of the depression and World War II, and never returned in the post-war era.

When I was a young child in the 1970s – yes, even in those days of so-called unisex clothing and other attempts to break down the barriers between the sexes – gender was very much policed. Young girls lived in the era of Holly Hobbie, hot pants, and Easy Bake ovens in fashionable avocado green. Boys had Big Jim dolls, "Toughskin" jeans, and Evil Knievel.

I pushed every line I could, trust me. Still, even then there were lines one simply could not cross. In an era that brought the fight for equality between the sexes, some things were still treated as immutable. Women remained – as a general rule – the homemakers; men the breadwinners.

Fast forward a couple decades, as I worked on coming out in the era of grunge. The roles had 20 or so years to shift. Kurt Cobain could perform "In Bloom" while wearing a dress, but he was a rare exception. This was the era of Spice Girls, after all, and women were being signaled to be, well, girlish. Into this world I had to learn to move from one gender to another.

As I worked toward my own transition, I became acutely aware of how rigidly gender was still being enforced. I would say that it might be even more so today.

Yes, one can argue yet again that there are both trends and people defying gender roles today. Yet, like Nirvana's frontman a decade ago – or David Bowie in my youth – these were not the standard, but were, perhaps, reactions to it.

Take a moment to consider how many things one encounters in a given week that are specific to one of two specific genders. Clothing stores focus toward two roles, but so do the toy aisles at your nearby Toys 'R' Us. Even seemingly generic toys like Lego building blocks are sold with a specifically feminized version cast in pastels and focusing on home and family sets: no castles or construction sets to be found. Barbie – Web site polls to the contrary – remains aimed as a toy for young girls, and the Bratz dolls follow right along in her wake.

Fashions for women have increasingly begun to focus on low-cut jeans and midriff-baring tops. Clunky heels have had their renaissance, as have large bangles and beads. Men's fashion remains a little more toward the center, but even then the styles remain focused toward a masculine ideal.

We live in a time when the ideals of masculinity or femininity can be seen embodied by the celebrities of our era. I feel we can do so much better, though, than a female ideal that is Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson, or the male role models of Ashton Kutcher or Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson. There is little room for those who might otherwise take a place outside the space of a genitals equal gender dichotomy.

In my own life over the last several years, I have tried to be mindful of gender presentation. I have even sought to make it clear that I am not going to fit myself into a stereotype simply because I identify as a woman: I would rather chart my own course than fit into someone else's arbitrary designations.

This doesn't change who I am, or what I may identify as. I know who I am, and I need not worry about trying to act as something I'm not.

I'd like to offer a challenge to each of you, though. I'm not going to ask you to go out there and march against gender – at least not today. No, rather I want you to consider, just for a moment, how gender has defined your own life, and consider for a moment if some of that might have held you back from time to time. Maybe, just maybe, you could even consider a change in your own life against these constructs, and just briefly explore a road less taken. It might be worth the trip.

Gwen Smith has little reluctance in wrecking a perfectly good set of polished nails when it comes to working on her car. She's online at


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