Why gender can never be simply defined

8th November 2022

You may be aware of the current, seemingly unending, debate surrounding gender.

How many genders are there? Who gets to decide what genders can exist? Why are people so obsessed with the need for all these categories?

Gender has now become such a mystery, and thus such a strong source of fear for the forces that continue to oppose change within our society. These people, many of whom are more right-wing and hold disturbing amounts of power, believe one thing: there are men, and there are women. And there is nothing else.

You see, these traditionalist people fear the idea that there are others in the world who are able to live out their truths, and who are refusing to be forced into a single categorisation of themselves. Let’s be honest: what drives them is jealousy. How come someone else gets to express themselves in an “uncommon” way? And the only way they combat this feeling inside them is to target the “woke leftist snowflakes” — but, while we’re on the subject, let’s just remember that a snowflake, by definition, is something so fragile and easily offended, that if there is one small change to their atmosphere, they’ll have a literal meltdown. If you ask me, liberals are not snowflakes. Conservatives are.

These fundamentalists have made it their agenda to oppose changes that they know nothing about. Like the breakdown of the rigid, toxic, archaic gender binary that continues to oppress every single person in within our society. In fact, this binary was set up to facilitate oppression in the first place. Rigid gender binaries derive from harsh racial divides, in order to protect the power of the cisgender, heterosexual, white men, who wanted to maintain their dominance in society through the view that different races are essentially different species, and have distinct anatomies. They believed that white people were more evolved, because their culture was different to that of people in every other part of the world, and that, people of any other culture were “underdeveloped”, and therefore needed to be taught how to “behave” and run their societies. Colonisers used this to justify denying political rights to those they oppressed, as they established an evolutionary hierarchy, in which they specifically placed Black people closest to animals, followed by other people of colour, then followed by white women, and then white men (who were considered the pinnacle of evolution).

In making this last distinction between men and women, colonising powers were able to force the idea that it was only “primitive” societies that did not have strict divisions between men and women, and thus the idea of being gender non-conforming was a mark of savagery, incompatible the modernity of those in power. Additionally, this idea was not only delivered to people of colour in order to ensure that they would accept the authority of the white people in charge, but it was also applied to white women and queer people, who were already so concerned with their limited power and safety in society that they were determined not to have more that could be held against them: scientists in the early 20th century, who feared that they would lose power due to the growing empowerment of white women and Black people, would suggests that white queer people’s physical features resembled those of Black people, emphasising the idea that gender non-conformity was a sort of evolutionary “throwback”, almost like a mutation in these white (and therefore supposedly more perfected) people.

It is in this way that the gender binary has set everyone up to fail.

The idea remains that if you want to be at the top you have to be a duplicate of all the values that the colonisers demonstrated. This is why sectors like politics or law enforcement remain such “boys’ clubs” even to this day, as the belief remains that, in order to succeed, we have to think, behave and even dress like the particular men that continue to hold power over us.

This is also why we all now hold the internalised view that being a masculine man or a feminine woman is the correct way to live, and that, beneath the clothes, the makeup and the pronouns, gender non-conforming people are just playing dress-up. Like children who shouldn’t be taken seriously. Queer people are constantly being gaslit into believing that these core aspects of our identities are merely a phase, and something that needs to be grown out of in order to deserve a place in the “real world” and to finally be taken seriously by those around us.

A key example of this is the absurd argument surrounding the use of pronouns. It’s actually shocking how stumped conservatives are when it comes to this topic. What’s more, considering how many governmental figures on the right spent their entire lives educated in some of the best schools in the country, how closed-minded, short-sighted and just straight-up ignorant they are is incredibly alarming. These people have been put in charge of out country and can’t even understand a simple grammatical point.

There are multiple notes to be made on the use of pronouns, the first of which is that ‘they/them’ has been used in the singular form long before the idea of gender non-conformity was named. ‘They/them’ is simply used when the gender of a person is unknown. We often say that someone has lost their phone, for example. It is not an uncommon, nor difficult idea to implement, but as soon as it is suggested in the context of making the world more inclusive for queer people, the proposal is immediately disregarded and considered frivolous, or radical. Queer people are accused of making up words, and trying to change the language.

But language has never been as precious and unchanging as people like to maintain. Words used a hundred years ago now have completely different meanings, with many offensive terms that used to be relatively mainstream now effectively discontinued within society, in order to cease causing offence to marginalised groups — and rightfully so. Moreover, new words have been created, in order to fit in with new aspects of society. Terms like “googling”, “selfie”, “foodie”, even “infomercial” and so many more have only been around for less than 40 years, and we’ve had no problem integrating them into our vocabulary range. This is simply because they suit those in power just as much as the rest of us, and so they don’t feel threatened by new words that have no ability to undermine what their authority is based upon.

You see, there is a reason as to why we as a society are so hesitant to accept that gender can be a spectrum. People really seem to hate the use of ‘they/them’ pronouns because they seem so obscure (even though they’re not) and don’t reveal enough about a person for the rest of us to make an uninformed judgement about them. We really seem to believe that we have the right to know every single thing about a person, even if we’ve never met them. Because of this, we are driven to assume people’s pronouns based simply on their appearances, as well as their assumed genitalia, an idea that, above anything else, is incredibly uncomfortable, and just odd. What’s even more disturbing is that our treatment of people completely changes, based on what’s between their legs. From the moment a baby’s sex is determined (often even before they are born, through the use of ultrasounds, that are now mainly used to serve a much more superficial purpose than merely checking up on the health of the unborn child), social norms begin to dictate everything about the rest of this child’s life. The clothes the child must wear, the toys they must play with, the interests they must have, the emotions they must show (and hide), and the positions they must take in society are all determined based simply on a child’s genitalia.

If you feel uncomfortable reading this, you should.

I cannot believe that this argument still needs to be made, and that there is still a debate surrounding whether or not people deserve the equal right to respect — especially when giving this respect is so much simpler than denying it.

Last year, when Instagram launched a new feature that allows users to include their pronouns in their profiles, cis-hets seemed to have an absolute field day making fun of the general use of pronouns, with the mind-numbing joke “my pronouns are nor/mal” used to an utterly overwhelming extent. But even if your pronouns fit the gender assigned to you at birth, you still have a right to share them — and it’s actually important that you do. Sharing pronouns facilitates the creation of a space for queer and trans people to do the same without feeling judged of isolated, as well as allowing everyone to dismantle the idea that a person’s gender is defined solely by their appearance. Ultimately there is not one correct way to be a man, or a woman, or anything else, and thus sharing pronouns acknowledges that people do not have to parade their identities if they don’t want to, and that everyone has the right to the respect of being asked how to properly refer to them, in order to ensure their comfort, and at no cost to anyone.

There is nothing in life that only has two sides. Take the metaphor of emotion: there is happy, and there is sad. But there is so much in between. We can feel completely neutral. We can feel a little happy and a little sad at the same time. We can cry from joy, or laugh in our sadness, but that doesn’t mean that this is a dangerous subversion of the expectations of these emotions. Or, we can feel something else entirely. We can be sure of our emotions, or confused about them. But, whatever we feel, every feeling is valid, and deserves to be treated with equal regard. Just because we don’t choose our emotions (just as we don’t choose our gender), they are still real, and we should still have the ability to express ourselves, regardless of what stereotypes dictate. In the same way, people of any gender deserve the right to exist without constantly explaining, justifying or proving that they are real. It’s undoubtable that a lot more people would identify as gender non-conforming if they were actually able to understand what it means, without being fed myriads of false information or being made to think that the whole idea is laughable and nonsensical.

As a society, we have to completely reject the idea that we are bound to the labels assigned at birth. Even the way we are socialising the younger generations is becoming increasingly problematic, due to the increasing popularity of things like gender reveal parties. These events literally allow parents to set out the entire futures of their children based on something as simple as the food colouring in a cake. What’s more, not only do these have a negative affect on the children that are forced into a heteronormative upbringing, but even the environment is suffering from these absurd celebrations over the genitalia (and everything connotative of them) of a child. In 2020, the El Dorado wildfire that burned nearly 23,000 acres of land was started by couple in California, when their gender reveal party went wrong, while in Brazil, one couple recently contaminated their entire city’s water supply by dying a waterfall blue for their baby’s gender reveal.

In fact, the inventor of these events has even said that she regrets “creating a monster”, and is now a mother of a gender non-conforming child. In 2020, when the Black Lives Matter protests were receiving criticism from almost every angle, simply because certain protestors were lashing out in their anger, gender reveal parties (that destroyed more property than every single one of those marches) didn’t make people nearly as mad, simply because the idea of them is in-keeping with societal expectations.

Gender binaries are so ridiculously, painfully, unbearably destructive to every single one of us. And yet, we’re continuing to internalise all of the harmful ideas that we’ve been taught about gender roles and norms, and then we pass them on to the next generation, who end up suffering just as we have. And all of this simply because, with every generation, we’re repeatedly fed the same line that “that’s just the way things are”, and nothing will improve any time soon. We’re discouraged from social change. We’re ridiculed. We’re made to label and judge one another before we know anything about each other.

We cannot pass judgement on people based on what we think is between their legs. We cannot measure people based on how well they fit the boxes we’ve forced them into. We cannot define gender.

By Sarah Clif, Student


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