(This is a response to a weekend column article on the topic of gender stereotypes published by “The Guardian” on September 16th 2017.)
The restrictiveness of rigid gender roles has, as far as I can remember, always seemed absurd to me. Why should we expect all men to be dominant, stoic and always the ones to make the first move, or all women to have long hair and be intensely into shopping or the color pink? I, therefore, see recent efforts to normalize gender non-conforming styles and behavior as a pleasant surprise. In a world of right-wing rhetoric re-emerging around every corner, at the very least the idea that boys can wear dresses and girls can aspire to become engineers is moving more and more into the mainstream. Or, at the very least, it’s moving into a lot of liberal circles.
It’s a thorn in my side then that this criticism of gender roles all too often seems to go along with the delegitimization of non-cisgender identities. (The term “cis” refers to individuals who identify with their assigned-at-birth gender.) This happens most often with non-binary identities. “If you say that liking unmanly things makes you another gender, you’re reinforcing gender stereotypes.” So the argument goes. A perfect example of this dangerous misconception is an entry in Hadley Freeman’s Weekend column published in The Guardian titled “Let’s drop the gender stereotypes – we are all non-binary.” On the one hand, the author rightfully attempts to dismantle gendered stereotypes. On the other, though, the article falls victim to common misconceptions about what gender is and how it works.
Pink Butterflies and Blue Cars
Freeman starts off her piece by talking from personal experience as a mother. She lists a lot of her very personal concerns about the enforcement of gender roles on children. Correctly, she points out that most of the backlash against gender nonconformity in children comes from “tediously reactionary conservatives.” And there’s a lot of those. She goes on to defend UK department store company, John Lewis. John Lewis had previously faced negative responses for deciding to no longer put gendered labels on children’s clothing.
Her comments regarding these phenomena are spot-on. She narrows the problem with gender stereotypes down pretty well when she says:
“This, the expansion of choice, is what gender neutrality should be about.”
And she is absolutely right. Boys, girls, men, and women should all be able to flout what society usually expects from them on basis of their sex or gender. The idea is to make this less of a taboo and, in turn, empower individuals to be themselves without having to face irritation or mockery. It would be refreshing to see a lot more voices be as progressive as Freeman in this regard.
How do Non-Binary Genders Fit into All of This?
It’s when she delves into the topic of gender identities that her arguments become less progressive and, frankly, less reflected. As she argues that recent discourse about gender seems to further restrict gender categories, she writes:
“When people say they’re “non-binary”, it sounds to me more like they swallowed the lie of the pink and blue onesies. Because the point is everyone, really, is non-binary – no one’s a wholly pink butterfly or blue car onesie.”
She’s referencing an emerging community of people who identify as neither strictly male, nor strictly female. Non-Binary (or genderqueer) identities have been the subject of heated debate lately, especially online. Being genderqueer myself, I’m becoming more and more familiar with the many popular misconceptions about people like me. Sadly, Freeman, probably without knowing much about us, has decided to perpetuate one of the most common of them.
Her argument seems to be that people choosing the label “non-binary” for themselves evidently believe in society’s view on gender. The implication is that genderqueer individuals are simply calling themselves that because it describes their habits of gender nonconformity. And that consequently, since every person on the planet is gender-nonconforming to some degree, however small it might be, everyone is non-binary. This, however, could not be further from the truth.
What Makes Someone Non-Binary?
Her claim that everybody lives gender-nonconformity to some extent is of course absolutely correct. Even the biggest “dudebro” macho guy will act in ways his peers would not expect him to based on what’s between his legs. The misconception lies more with the assumption that gender-nonconformity is what makes someone non-binary. Non-binary, however, is a gender identity, while gender nonconformity is a form of gender expression. The latter is an observable style or behaviour. The former is an internal sense of self only fully graspable for the individual that experiences it.
Once we’ve realized this, it becomes pretty clear why “everybody is non-binary” is an unsupportable statement. “Non-Binary” as a term is used by members of the queer community to describe their feeling of not belonging to either binary category. It’s about an internal sense of self of neither being strictly a man nor being strictly a woman. For many, it describes their need to socially or even medically transition to a state that is different from what transmen and transwomen aspire to. Many want and need pronoun and/or name changes, some want and need surgery and hormones. The point is: no amount of gender nonconformity can make anyone non-binary unless they see themselves that way.
This entire dimension of meaning to the term is ignored by Freeman. And in fact, watering the term down like that renders it meaningless and strips us of the power to describe ourselves and what we are. And yet the line between gender-nonconforming and non-binary, if arguably confusing at times, can be drawn. If you speak from conviction and say “I’m strictly a man/woman” when asked about your gender, chances are you’re not non-binary. Identifying as non-binary is what makes someone non-binary.
Gender: a Choice and a Trend?
My goal with this article is not to convince anyone who believes in the “only 2 genders” dogma that our identities are legitimate. I doubt I would be able to do that, even though psychologists understand that gender is a nonbinary construct in which there are more identities than “male” and “female.” Not only that, but the consensus is that creating an affirmative environment for these identities is the way to go. Discounting them by saying “but that’s kind of how everybody is” actively does the opposite. This is why I’d love to convince liberals like Hadley Freeman that there’s more to it.
But the watering down of the term is not the only way this is damaging to the genderqueer community. The myth that we “chose” our NB identity because we, of all people, have regressive views on gender stereotypes has been popularized so often by misinformed internet commentators that it’s honestly disappointing to see them in reputable news outlets. But this is far from the first time. Case in point: this german article by popular german newspaper “Die Zeit.” The author Witte describes Non-Binary as a trend: “the millennials have long but realized that dualisms are so last century!”.
She goes on to imply that the loudest voices in genderqueer communities are not those who can’t, but those who don’t want to classify themselves. Authors like Witte and Freeman make it seem like “non-binary” as a gender identity is nothing but an arbitrary trend. They make them out to be a choice by those who don’t like rigid gender roles for themselves, but according to Freeman, generally, believe in them.
Genderqueer Individuals and Gender Stereotypes
That this is repackaged transphobia should be apparent to anyone following discussions about binary trans people. It infantilizes and delegitimizes us and gives others a wrong impression of what our lived experiences are like. The truth is: genderqueer people are some of the harshest critics of gender roles and we suffer more from them than most others. When people laugh or yell at me in public, when people complain to campus staff about me, it’s because they read me as a gender non-conforming guy. And that’s scary to them.
The community has put great effort into pointing out that men, too, should be able to wear dresses. We endorse and encourage gender nonconformity in cis people. Rarely have any of us said that any of that makes you another gender if you identify with your assigned one. It’s possible to both support gender-nonconforming cis people and non-binary individuals. It’s important to realize that these are not mutually exclusive. In fact, non-binary individuals can be gender non-conforming as well. After all, stereotypes about what we should look like are currently emerging. Not all of us meet an androgynous or neutral look, and many of us pass for one of the binary genders. People see the expression of masculinity or femininity as contradictory to our identities. We, just like many others, don’t meet a lot of expectations.
I still think that somebody with the exact same style as me can be a cis guy, even if it’s not true for myself. We tend to be well-informed about gender roles and their hurtful implications, mainly because we experience them a lot ourselves. We have reflected views about them. But Freeman’s assessment that we “swallowed the lie of the pink and blue onesies” implies we’re only non-binary because we’re absolutely clueless.
Identifying as a gender is not a choice based on misinformation. In fact, it’s not a choice at all. We choose the terminology, never the identity. And I don’t want to make it seem like the line between gender nonconformity and genderqueer identities is extremely clear-cut. Because it’s not, not always. Believe me. I’ve been there myself.
On a more personal note: ironically, before I identified as genderqueer, I would describe myself as a somewhat gender nonconforming young man. I didn’t just come to the conclusion that I’m non-binary because I’m into things boys aren’t usually into. Although these things can be indications that help us uncover our trans-or genderqueer identities, the implication is not that this is what automatically makes people another gender. Although it’s easy to take that away from our presence when you’re not actually engaging with our perspective.
I realized I was genderqueer when I didn’t feel addressed when “men” as a group were talked about. When I looked in the mirror and thought to myself: “this is not strictly a guy, this is something else.” And when I realized that I just wouldn’t feel quite like myself were I to look like a typical guy again, specifically because then I wouldn’t be expressing my gender. I sometimes dislike being referred to as a “young man.” There are days where I, as cliché as it might sound, “just know” with certainty that I’m not a man. This is a far deeper conviction and sense of self with numerous implications. It’s about how I feel within the world. It’s not just “I don’t meet gender stereotypes.”
Gender Stereotypes, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression
But I need to clarify something. Not being able to fit into either gender role can definitely influence this inner sense of self. Many genderqueer people I know personally have reported this about themselves. But, again, at no point is this a conscious choice, in fact, we have no choice but to come to terms with that gender identity of ours. It still doesn’t imply that every gender nonconforming person has to develop that inner sense of self. My personal story shows that it is very much possible to be opposed to and not believe in regressive stereotypes, already express gender non-conformity as a man and still end up as non-binary eventually. Something I’m not sure Freeman thinks is possible.
What Freeman does is conflate gender stereotypes and gender expression with gender identity as if they’re synonymous. This is a gross inaccuracy, and it’s easy to examine the difference using just a few examples. Gay men sometimes like to express their queer sexual identity by expressing femininity. This, however, doesn’t mean they aren’t men. They’re not non-binary just because they exhibit unusual styles. If they identify as men, they are men. The same, vice-versa, is true for tomboyish women. The concepts of “butch and femme” in lesbian culture prove that it’s very much possible to perform either “feminine” or “masculine” traits while in both cases still identifying as a cis woman. Not to forget that butch trans women exist as well.
Our Gender and our Style
This, of course, doesn’t mean there’s no link between the phenomena. Identity and expression are two distinct concepts, but they’re not unrelated to each other. Trans-and genderqueer people often feel comfortable expressing in ways that are oriented towards, or in another way related to, preexisting societal notions. Many trans women are into long hair, many trans men are into short hair. This is because, in the context of this specific society in which we want to live content lives, we want to affirm our own identities. In a society that has a pretty clear idea of what a woman acts like, people who identify as women will often feel drawn to these ideas. This is true for both cis and trans women. It’s practically impossible to erase all of these ideas from our minds. And accepting some of them for themselves often is a necessity for trans people.
So none of this is our fault. We fall victim to these ideals just like anybody else. For instance, in order to affirm my sense of “kind-of-not-being-a-guy,” it makes me feel good to employ styles considered atypical for men. Nail polish. Pink clothing and hair. Choker necklaces. Is this problematic? I don’t think so. I never implied that this was what made me another gender. Usually, the causality goes the other way around. But even if it had problematic implications, should the blame be on us?
Putting the Blame on Trans People
Freeman seems to think so. As she goes on to criticize biologically essentialist views on gender, she claims that they occur equally often on both sides of the political spectrum. That this is inaccurate relativism is almost needless to even mention. She should know better, especially after calling out the “tediously reactionary conservatives” earlier in her article. Were she to engage in discussions about the topic regularly, the sheer amount of “you can’t change your chromosomes” comments would have long convinced her which ideological faction has the more reflected view on gender and biology.
What she does next is far worse, though. Freeman blames English transgender comedian Eddie Izzard for saying he likes manicures because of his trans identity. She writes:
“After all, it’s not that big a leap from saying boys wear car prints to Eddie Izzard saying he likes having manicures ‘because I’m trans.’ Suggesting a man can’t possibly like having his nails done is a disappointingly reductive take on gender from Izzard, who was once so determined to tear down stereotypes about masculinity.”
Keep in mind that his statement suggested none of that. As I already demonstrated, in the society we live in, transgender identities can be legitimate reasons to want to employ styles like these. To affirm the feminine part of his gender identity, Izzard engages in an activity usually associated with women or girls. This is understandable. The implication was not that being (in parts) a woman is the only reason to have one’s nails polished; or that men shouldn’t. Her disappointment in trans- and genderqueer people for supposedly reinforcing stereotypes is completely misdirected.
Really, Non-Binary people didn’t choose this. We didn’t choose to feel like either. We deserve support. Society needs to learn to accept non-binary genders as legitimate and simultaneously acknowledge that not everybody has them. And those who don’t should still be able to express however they please. So if asked if my gender and gender expression reinforce regressive stereotypes, my answer would have to be this: I just want to feel comfortable. I didn’t choose to be genderqueer. And I didn’t choose to feel comfortable dressing the way I do. At the same time, I want to trust people to be reflected about the topic.
And that means being able to be critical of gender stereotypes while at the same time being able to understand and emphasize with our situation. People should be able to understand that we’re not making a choice and that our attraction to certain styles based on stereotypes is understandable and, in the context of our lives, necessary for feeling content. We can get rid of rigid gender roles in the long run and even combat them right now. But still, in the meantime, in the here and now, allow trans-and non-binary folks to be happy.
The question of whether I would still feel the need to identify as genderqueer if society’s ideas about gender weren’t restrictive is one I ask myself a lot. It’s also one I don’t think I can answer very easily. Maybe things will be less complicated once we’ve gotten rid of the restrictiveness of gender altogether and everyone can just do whatever the hell it is they want. In that at least, Freeman and I have a common goal.