If you want your boy to be a “real boy”, dress him in pink

The important question about gender differences is not whether they’re real.  It’s whether they matter.

First of all, when we talk about gender, we have to be clear what it is we mean, because the topic of sex and gender is much more nuanced than our day-to-day language yet conveys.

Most often, “gender differences” seems to refer to a binary understanding of gender:  “People born with a penis are male.  People born with a vagina are female.  This is both their sex and their gender; this is the natural way of things that is necessarily the case.”

So for a minute, let’s pretend that’s true.  Let’s ignore the incidence of intersex people and transgender people and the millions who, like me, identify as gender queer.  Even though it’s as misguided as claiming an absolute boundary between races and ignoring the existence of mixed race people, let’s claim that genetics or biology determines that there are Males and Females and, to an extent, the characteristics of each category, which differ in key ways.

Even if all that were true, in today’s society, where binary gender norms are enforced, whether they have some real basis simply doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter whether, say, hormone levels control people’s predilections and abilities.  Trying to pinpoint such differences is like doing a study in which all blue-eyed children are taught to speak only Chinese and all brown-eyed children are taught to speak only Italian, and then the linguistic differences between eye colors are analyzed.  Any “natural differences” are canceled out by the ones we create.

If we assume that there are “natural” gender differences, there shouldn’t be a need to police them.  Women shouldn’t need to be brought up to be a certain kind of woman, or men a certain kind of man.  Given total gender freedom and equality, we’ll find that they gravitate toward certain clothing, certain fields of work, certain relationships, all on their own.  It would still be in everyone’s best interest to create an absolutely gender neutral society so that these differences could freely flourish.

Using the supposed existence of the gender binary as an excuse to raise, educate and treat people differently shows disingenuousness– an insecurity about the scientific fundamentals of the theory, covered up with a desperate attempt to rationalize a belief ingrained since birth.  I challenge people who honestly believe there are Men and Women who are Different to have the courage to work for real equality in the hope that, on a fair playing field, their ideas will prove accurate.  Anything less isn’t science or even theory, it’s dogma.

When it comes down to it, binary gender theory isn’t about acknowledging differences.  It’s about enforcing similarities.

Woman on woman

I am currently going through intensive outpatient rehab for drug and alcohol abuse.  And the facility I’m attending is an all-female one.

At first this fact barely registered with me, because, as George R. R. Martin famously said, “I have always thought of women as people.”  When I did start to think about it, at first it made me uncomfortable, even irritated.  As I’ve written about in previous posts, I am a strong advocate of not only sexual equality but sex blindness (on the condition that full equality is achieved) so I’m not thrilled about treatment being segregated.

In addition, I have always felt equally comfortable mingling with men and women.  Being queer, I experience no disparity caused by attraction; not being particularly feminine or masculine, I don’t find I have more or less in common with people on the basis of gender, sex, or orientation.

So it came as an unpleasant surprise to me when I soon realized that I actually am more comfortable in an all-female environment in this specific instance.  The obvious question it brings to mind is, why?  Why do I feel less self-conscious and more at ease than I would if men were present in our groups and classes?

It hasn’t taken me long, though, to come up with the answer, and it’s not about how I relate to men or women, but how they relate to each other.  Analyzing the dynamics of our interactions, I realized that the way the other patients interact with each other and with me is markedly different from how they would behave in a mixed environment.

A few examples:  Waiting for a support group to start on Monday, we ended up having a long and light-hearted conversation about the size and sagginess of our breasts.  Many of us, also, have experienced severe sexual trauma in heterosexual relationships, about which we speak very frankly.  And the terms “sisters” and “sisterly love” are ubiquitous– even I, not prone to finding heartwarming cliches appealing, have used it in a genuine way several times.

I don’t believe any of these communications would take place, or at least not in the same way, were men present.  For the most part, the patients identify as heterosexual and cisgendered.  Comparing our interactions to those of mixed groups– even those involving socially liberal and aware people– I realize that when both sexes are around, there is invariably an unspoken subtext of sexual tension and self-consciousness:  People may not be interested in one another; they may not be flirting; but they are constantly sizing each other up on the basis of attraction, and that’s reflected in their verbal and physical communications.

Women often don’t talk about their bodies or their sexual history and preferences, because there’s a sense that this might be either uncomfortable or arousing for their male company.  (Having, obviously, not been privy to all-male groupings, I don’t know if there are subjects that they similarly address only with other men, but I would expect so.) And there is no appropriate and simple equivalent to “sisterly love” in a mixed setting.  “Brotherly love” indicates affection between two men.  “Sibling-y love?”  That just sounds ridiculous.  “Familial love?”  Overly formal.  And even were it qualified, using the word “love” between heterosexual men and women conjures awkward connotations of romance.

That’s how ingrained, I believe, heterosexual attraction and coupling is in our society.  It so pervades our media and social norms that even when people don’t know what they’re doing, and would if asked disavow altering their behavior on sex-based grounds, they unconsciously find it impossible to break free of that early socialization.

So of course I’m more comfortable in this environment.  Talking openly about our most intimate experiences, forming bonds that can support us through the most difficult fight of our lives, making the most of our opportunity for sobriety– this requires lines of communication that aren’t blocked by coyness and reservation.  Cheesy or not, it requires unquestioned sibling-y love.

This makes me feel simultaneously depressed and relieved.  Depressed because it’s become clear to me how large a role sex and gender, like race, by default play in the interactions of even the supposedly enlightened.  And because I wonder whether I unwittingly change my behavior in the same way, which would demolish some of my claim to being unbiased and ungendered.  Yet, relieved, because it reinforces my belief that people need not be consciously discriminatory, even when they come across as such:  I don’t have to feel guilty for being comfortable in an all-female environment, because it reflects a social, not a personal, reality.

That’s what it boils down to, in the end.  However much I might wish that sex didn’t play a role in how people treat each other, that’s not (yet) a reality.  In almost every situation, I would argue that even when it feels awkward, mixed interaction needs to be encouraged, because that’s the only way it will become standard and truly comfortable– by people learning to deal with each other as individuals in real-world scenarios that necessitate common non-sexual purposes, in the same way that racial equality could only be facilitated by legally ending segregated schools and businesses.

However, in this specific case, we are talking about immediate rehabilitative care that for many may be life-saving if done right.  If that means using sexual segregation as a means, for now, because it helps this treatment be more effective, then as grudgingly as I admit it, that’s what needs to be done.