Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Exploding the Gender Binary

In the wake of the George Zimmerman trial and verdict, we've had a lot of discussion of race.  I'm not sure I have much to add to that.

We haven't had much discussion of gender.  I keep waiting.  I'm not sure I'm the right person to begin the discussion.  I'm not the person who followed every day of the trial.  I didn't watch the trial itself, and I confess to tuning out much of the coverage.  My outlook may be flawed.  But I'll launch some ideas anyway, and I'll encourage those of you who are done with this topic to go to the end of this post where I talk about an NPR story on gender that aired yesterday.

But first, the Zimmerman trial and gender.

Am I the only one who sees this trial through a gender lens as well as a race lens?  I first started thinking of this when I heard about a personal trainer who talked about Zimmerman's total lack of fitness when he first started working with the trainer.  The trainer used words like "soft."  He pointed out that Zimmerman looks like a big ox of a man, but he had no strength.  In short, the trainer was calling Zimmerman's masculinity into question--at least, that's how I heard it.

And then there's the jury.  I know some people are outraged about the self-defense angle, but I wondered if the female jurors understood that aspect of feeling threatened just by someone's existence more than a jury of males would have.

And yes, I know that there's the getting out of the car angle.  If I'm driving and I feel threatened by someone walking through the neighborhood, I check the car door locks and keep driving.

I've heard lots of outrage about Zimmerman feeling threatened by a guy in a hoodie ambling through the neighborhood.  I've heard lots of outrage that a teenager can't go buy snacks without the suspicion that he's up to no good.

But I'm that middle-aged, white woman who sees teenagers ambling through the neighborhood and wonders what they're up to.  If you're a man with a hood on your head and it's dark, a shiver of fear goes through me.  If I'm driving, I keep going.  If we're both on foot, I will swerve so that you can't grab me.  No matter what time of day, I will move out of arm's reach.

I'm not a man.  I know that my best bet is to avoid conflict.  George Zimmerman was socialized in a different way.  No, I will not bring up the macho aspect of various cultures, but a good social scientist would.

These ideas bring me to the NPR story on gender that aired yesterday.  It brings me back to an old question:  how much of our behavior is a function of biology and how much of it is the way that our society trains us to be?

Am I conflict-averse because I have a womb?  Am I conflict-averse because my society has told me that men can be dangerous and it's not a fair fight?  Is there something about my personality that wants to avoid conflict that's not tied to gender at all?  Am I simply tired in a way that Zimmerman was not?

Is it about the gun?  Is the gun the great equalizer?

Or is this binary thinking the problem?  Are there two genders or more?

Most of us would say, "Two."  We've been trained to think that.  Is it time to blow up the gender binary?

I've often said that gender is a spectrum.  I have a BA in Sociology, so I will also say that I think that where one lives on the spectrum is deeply affected by our society.  I will also admit that recent advances in various scientific fields make me think that our biology has as deep an effect on our gendered lives.

How would our lives be different if we saw gender as a spectrum?  How would our societies be different if we thought less rigidly about gender?

I've met transgendered people who say, "You just can't understand what it's like to feel like you have a body that doesn't fit, how it feels when your outside doesn't match your inside."

I'm a woman in the U.S. culture, a woman who's not living a life painted in frilly pastels, a woman who's larger than my culture would tell me I should be.  I think I have a glimmer of what it's like to inhabit a body that isn't what I feel it should be (I'd be happy to be 30 pounds lighter) or what my society tells me it should be.

The issue of gender, especially transgender issues, may come to be seen as one that's as important as the Civil Rights struggles of the 50's and 60's.  Here's a quote from the NPR piece that I found most interesting.  The reporter, Margot Adler, interviewed Carl Siciliano:  "So, he says to me, these college students you saw identifying with transgender people, the most marginalized group in our society, how different is that from you, when you were in college, identifying with the most marginalized and joining the black Civil Rights movement? He brought me up short. I had to think long and hard."

When it comes to gender issues, I suspect we've only just begun to think long and hard.

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