The concept of a post-gender world is really exciting. I’m frequently frustrated that we’re not living in that future yet. We’re not in that future because we haven’t built it yet. I say we’re not building it fast enough. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the patient type. The slow process of changing culture upsets me. Change is so exciting to me because it means I’ll have a greater variety of experiences in my life. Even if I live to be 150, I know I’ll be sad at the end, thinking about the future I won’t get to see. So, when I see our culture processing the same issues for so many years, I start ranting like an 16 year old punk who just discovered outrage.
So, what do I mean by “post-gender”? I absolutely do not mean that we should declare the gender conversation over, assume that we’ve reached equality, and never speak of it again. There are a lot of very real problems that still exist. We’re not going to solve them by ignoring them. The effects of gender-based assumptions are not going to be instantly healed. It takes time to understand this situation enough to completely dismantle it. I get this. What I mean by “post-gender” is a commitment to building a future where gender is actually irrelevant, a future where dividing people along gender lines is seen as arbitrary and stupid as dividing people by hair color. Months ago, my friend Kewagi said this on twitter: “I have this dream of gender eventually going the way of the tie – initially, strict insignia (military), now fashion accessory.” (original twitter post). That sounds awesome and just makes complete sense. Where’s the fast-forward button?
Especially in this bubble called San Francisco (at least in my immediate community), the gender roles of the 1950s and earlier are agreed to be obsolete. They’re seen as harmful things of the past that don’t deserve to live in present day. Saying outright that “women should…” or “men should…” is a great way to get yourself shamed. Despite this, longterm effects of established norms persist. They persist in the way we dress, the way we interact, and what opportunities we believe to be open to us. They persist in subtle ways that are much harder to understand. How much has my perception of my own agency been shaped by having a biologically female body and a feminine(ish) gender identity to go along with it? As I discover bits of my behavior and thought that are limited by this, I can do my best to banish them and rewire my brain. Will I ever find all of them? I doubt it, and this bothers me. I’m resentful that these things were allowed to affect my developing mind.
I was really lucky to be raised by parents who thought it was important to treat their daughter and son equally. It wasn’t perfect, especially since they weren’t the only adults I encountered as a child, and most others were not as enlightened on the subject. They tried their best to give us the same toys and encourage us in the same ways. I remember being really confused when people outside my family suggested that there were things I couldn’t do because I was a girl. In middle school and high school, when classes were separated by subject and skill level, it took me a long time to notice that the gender ratios of my advanced science and math classes were all wrong. When I took woodshop the gender division was more obvious, likely because of the boys’ attitudes. I was one of four girls in a class of about 16. My friend Angel and I saw this as an opportunity to show off. Boys were supposed to be better at this, but she and I did the highest quality work, never had to be called out for using the tools unsafely, and got the best grades. We were thrilled to enter a male-dominated environment and brag about how much better at everything we were. The boys’ discomfort at this was intensely amusing. The boys in that class were more obviously conditioned to be stereotypical “Men”. Their assertion that men were better at this particular skill was stupidly easy to disprove. They came into this class assuming they’d be good at it because of gender conditioning. In their arrogance, they didn’t bother to learn. Though they never treated us as equals, they eventually stopped their verbal chest-pounding when we kept proving them wrong.
In math and science classes, the boys weren’t usually dumb enough to say sexist things like “girls are bad at math.” In those classes, I got along equally well with students of whatever gender. I was one of the smart kids, and the other smart kids treated me as one of them. Sometimes I’d look around the room and wonder why there were so few girls in the class. I was smart enough for these classes, so why couldn’t the other girls get in? I started thinking that maybe boys were generally smarter than girls and I was one of the weird smart ones. Since I was a misfit, especially with other girls, this explanation seemed plausible. It didn’t occur to me then that other kids were not necessarily raised with the ideals of equality that my parents held. It didn’t occur to me that those other girls may have been told that they couldn’t do certain things just because they were girls. I didn’t realize how arrogant I was to think that everyone grew up with the same privileges as I did. How many of them thought themselves incapable of learning things without ever being encouraged to try? What is it like to be so defined by other people’s negative assumptions?
It’s shameful that kids are still taught to shove themselves into these limiting “boy” and “girl” roles. Many parents still assume that little children should be raised differently based on gender. Even the well-intentioned statement “girls can do anything” can backfire if a little girl never thought otherwise. I remember being confused by this sentiment as a kid – of course I can do anything, what does being a girl have to do with that? It let some doubt creep in and established a division between groups of humans that I didn’t perceive before. But, that statement could be incredibly useful for a girl who already perceived the boy/girl, man/woman division and felt limited by it. Depending on personal history, this same statement can have drastically different effects. So, how can we talk about the artificial cultural construction of two genders without accidentally perpetuating it? Keeping kids naive about the gendered world they’ve entered might be helpful in some ways, but ultimately deprives them of the tools to recognize and take apart the limitations they encounter. Dwelling on it too much may keep the gender divides alive and strong in the minds of future generations.
How can we finish fixing this legacy disaster of gender roles? I want so badly to see this finished in my lifetime, so we can legitimately declare victory and move on. In my mind, the importance of equality is so obvious. Getting culture to reach that ideal is complicated and messy. Undoing the damage of centuries is hard work. Not everyone is able to wake up one day and say “Well duh, dividing humans by gender is a stupid, obsolete idea! We’ve been such assholes! Let’s make amends and find a way out of this mess!” It’s disappointing that we still need to spend so much effort convincing people that equality is a good idea when that effort would be much better spent in strategizing and solving the damn problem.
This is why I get so impatient with those who defend the fears of bigots. Someone who fears what will happen if women and transgendered people gain true equality, if all humans are able to marry someone they love, or any other thing that absolutely needs to happen before this fight is over, should not be babied into thinking their fears are reasonable. No matter how real that fear feels to them, it’s still illogical, irrational, and completely naive. The only thing they stand to lose is their ability to scream about being afraid without being seen as a bigoted fool. Their fears should be addressed, but never validated. If someone’s afraid of monsters under the bed, it’s not actually useful to tell them “Yes, monsters are scary! I understand that you’re afraid! I’ll protect you from the monsters!” Instead, how about this approach: “I’m sorry you’re afraid. Let’s look under the bed together and see what’s there. Oh look! It’s just some toys and clothes that got pushed under the bed. The shape of them in the dark might look like a monster, but it’s completely harmless.” Patient, compassionate education about why these fears are unfounded is necessary. I don’t think I’m the one for the job. When people argue emotion against logic, I tend to just call them idiots and write them off as Not Worth Listening To. I know this solves nothing.
Actually repairing damage of centuries of oppression is a far more interesting problem than convincing people that it should be repaired. Pressure should be strongly put on anyone who is perpetuating oppression. As a culture, we all must become better at recognizing oppression and all its lingering effects. We must become better at calling bullshit anytime inequality shows up, even in subtle ways. We must become better at strategizing ways to repair the damage of unequal structures. Old hierarchies and traditions deserve no protection. Until every human truly believes that being human is enough to guarantee human rights, this process isn’t done.