Sometimes when I’m taking notes I jot something down in a way that gives me a little epiphany. I was in a basic lecture about being intersex and I was writing about the sexual fluidity of sexual orientation. How you may at times identify as heterosexual, at other times bisexual, and maybe even flow into homosexuality completely. (My notes often diverge entirely from what subject at hand.) I then wrote, pressing the tip of my pen firmly into my notebook, can gender be fluid?
What I had caught on to was the question: can men be women, and then men again, and then women? Can they flow in-between men and women in the third gender? Can the binary of men and women be broken? It only took a few moments before I answered my own question right next to it.
I’ll skip the heavy stuff about the social construction of gender and go into some basic ideas about gender. If you’re not familiar with the idea, this might help.
When a baby is born they are observed by a doctor. Based on what that doctor observes, they then say “you have a girl” or “you have a boy.” The problem with this is that most of what makes a girl a girl or a boy a boy has been constructed by the time we are in, and the space we are in. If you think about what a boy is and what a girl is you can certainly come up with a list of characteristics and expectations in your head. The belief is that those things are created, and not an inherent part of what that baby is when it pops out.
Gender expression is how we express our gender. I am cisgender or “cis” which means my gender expression matches my sex that I was given at birth. I’m biologically a girl, I look like a girl, I have all the parts of a girl, I act like a girl. But what does that mean? If a girl doesn’t “behave like a girl” does that mean she’s not a girl?
Gender expression is interesting because it allows men and women or someone who is intersex to behave in ways that might not particularly align with what is appropriate for their assigned gender. It gives them the opportunity to go outside of what is normative (typical for their gender) and do/dress/behave/act in ways that are typical of the other gender or more androgynous.
So gender can be fluid, based on our gender expression and the way we interact with the world. We can exist within it, around it, outside it.
The problem is that the our society and most societies are set up in a way that accepts and runs on a binary. Most of how we interact in the world (including simple things like going to the bathroom, the clothes we can wear, the gestures we can make) are based on whether you are male or female. This makes it difficult for people who are intersex or people don’t want to or feel uncomfortable existing within that binary.
Understanding things like gender expression are important because we act as “agents” to tell people when they are or aren’t behaving like they should. We do this by making fun of or ostracizing people who behave in ways that we feel are inappropriate for their gender. If you’ve ever told their friend they “look like a dude” or “are acting like a pussy” or worse yet, played “guess the gender”, you have played an active role in silencing the chosen gender expression of the people around you. This is damaging because gender expression is for many or most people directly tied into their identity and how they view themselves as human beings.
A challenge, if there was one: Pay attention to the language you use. No matter who you’re around. It’s much more difficult than it seems.
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