Gender ain't what it used to be

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday June 29, 2011
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(Illustration: Christine Smith)
(Illustration: Christine Smith)

There was a time in my life when I viewed gender as a very black and white dichotomy, where there were men and there were women â€" even though I understood that sometimes there were people who transcended their birth gender on either an occasional or a permanent basis. Nevertheless, the world was composed of two basic genders, and that was that. One gender is from Mars and one from Venus, to pull from a very hackneyed book title.

While my thinking evolved, I suppose this is the view of many, if not most. I suspect the average person on the street sees only two basic genders, and identifies strongly with one or the other. There's no question in their mind which of these two options they fit within, and they've felt much the same for most if not all their life. They were born a man, they'll die a man, and in between they'll do all the things they expect a man to do. Easy peasy.

I'm sure if you asked my mom, for example, the idea of some alternatives to women and men, even in terms of relatively minor differences, would be hard to comprehend. Women do things in one way, men another. It is why the very notion of the Equal Rights Amendment battle of the 1970s was a positively foreign idea to her. Why would it even be needed â€" she and others might argue â€" when it was pretty clear that there were many obvious differences between the sexes, and these differences had always served humanity perfectly well.

Even in the somewhat tolerant 1970s, from what I recall as a young child playing around my parents and their friends, there were some strong divisions of gender. Somewhat androgynous clothing for kids may have been in, but Barbie still was a stewardess, and Big Jim was a member of a paramilitary adventuring team. Men were very much men and women were very much women â€" and those outside the norm were tossed into the stereotype bin as diesel dykes or limp-wristed sissies.

Funny how those who display some sort of gender variance are assumed to be homosexual before anyone simply considers them to be gender non-conforming.

Times have changed since then, for both better and worse. Then there were relatively few mainstream stories of transgender identity beyond Renee Richards on the tennis court, or say box office bombs like Myra Breckinridge. Billy Crystal's character on the television comedy Soap may have spoke about the need for a sex change, but he was portrayed as a gay man â€" one who later got married and fathered a child with his wife.

Today we have more than scattered stories and bad media portrayals. We have a movement that â€" in spite of its many troubles â€" is slowly plodding forward, gaining rights and changing minds along the way. The idea of transgender people in our society, once wholly taboo, is â€" well, less of a taboo than it was.

Yet as we see gains for transgender acceptance, we still see rigidly defined gender expectations. Barbie may have moved on to other professions, but her world is still a pink one. McDonald's offers gender-specific toys with every Happy Meal, and every tool in the hardware store seems to come in a less-heavy, Pepto-Bismol pink version. Supposedly many of these are for breast cancer awareness â€" but the message is still just as clear. These are the "girl tools."

The media â€" and society â€" still conflated being outside of gender norms with homosexuality, and the notion of living within an alternate gender space â€" or allowing one's child to make up their own mind about gender, as seen with Baby Storm in Canada â€" is viewed as nutty at best.

With all that said, however, things are changing at a rapid pace.

Just a decade ago, the notion of a Baby Storm was all but unheard of. Even in transgender circles, the notion of exploring an alternative gender space was uncommon.

Not so now. Even with the strong divisions that are continually forced down our throats on a daily basis in popular culture, the notion of making up your own mind about gender is more and more common. People are exploring beyond binaries, and considering new paths.

Gender need not be a binary. Really, it never truly has been. While we can define sex in such a fashion â€" and I think there may be plenty of wiggle room there as well â€" gender really does fit more as a spectrum of presentations and conduct, a panoply of expressions that both encompass "man" and "woman" in their most binary and rigid forms, and goes far beyond such simple defaults.

I think I've made it clear above that there is still a long way to go. Society changes slowly, and it's quite likely we'll take two steps forward and one step back â€" perhaps several times.

With the prevalence of online social networks and the rise of advertising on same, we're again seeing promotions based solely around gender â€" and as a result, many sites require an "M" or an "F" designation to aid advertisers.

Likewise, with some of the recent evangelical conservatism, you see a push for "traditional" gender roles right along with arguments against "non-traditional" marriages. Men are still being expected to be men, women are still supposed to be women, and both are still being handed a set of often-outdated expectations.

Nevertheless, it is changing â€" and will continue to. That is its nature, and that's the beauty of it all.

Gwen Smith applauds those who find their own space. You can find her online at