Speaking of Gender

A reflection by Lindsey

In many conversations about faith and sexuality, people frequently emphasize one’s sexual orientation over one’s gender identity. Those attempting to talk about LGBT issues often overlook the last letter of the acronym. Questions about gender and gender identity get shifted into the background, pushed behind the stage, and were rarely welcomed into the conversation in the first place. Sometimes, concerns for fundamental equality between men and women can obscure why gender identity might matter.

I’ll be the first to admit that I feel out of my league when I try to speak of gender. I grew up thinking that gender was little more than a biological tag that indicated what restroom you used in public areas. I never had my gender flouted in front of my face to tell me that I couldn’t do x, y, or z. In many ways, I consider myself fortunate that I never encountered gender as an obstacle that blocked opportunities or prevented me from deciding how I wanted to express myself.

That doesn’t mean gender is easy.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to see how gender saturates the world around us. I’ve been lucky enough because I have never been able to be bothered with the “right” way of expressing myself. If you look at photos of me beginning at the age of 5 and continuing to present day, you’ll see that my self-presentation has been more or less constant for 25 years. Sure, there was a blip on the radar in 7th grade when I was experimenting with what it might look like to have long hair, but we all know that junior high students try on a range of self-presentations. In many ways, I feel safer because 5-year-old me knew how to be Lindsey no matter what other people might think. That’s one part of my 5-year-old self that I’m glad to still be holding onto to this day.

Yet, I wonder if we’re starting to see a shift in how we talk about gender. I’ve become increasingly aware that it’s possible to label another person’s self-presentation as “gender non-conforming.” In some ways, I wonder if conversations around gender identity are starting to diversify in a way akin to the many different conversations about sexual orientation. When people began discussing sexual orientation, the dominant word used to describe the minority sexual orientation was “gay.” For a good bit now, the dominant word used to describe the minority gender identity was “transgender.” I find myself welcoming the broadening of the discussions as people with degrees of gender variation begin to experiment with ideas like genderqueer, bigender, and agender even as these terms have exceptionally fluid definitions.

For my part, I’ll admit to being somewhat lost in the shuffle about what all of these terms mean. None of these terms seem especially comfortable for describing my own situation, but I’ve been on this journey long enough to know it’s okay that I’m not ready to go out and buy assorted buttons to broadcast my preferred vocabulary to the universe. I’m profoundly grateful that so many people over the years have related to me simply as Lindsey without asserting the various rules of gender identity, performance, and expression to control my activity. Since having my own awakening as to how gender manifests itself in our world, I’ve experienced some rather jarring discomfort when I notice people actively enforcing gendered boundaries. I joke that there’s sort of a gender scale that stretches from 1 (gender is not noticeably present in any constraining way) to 10 (gender organizes just about every expectation and interaction), where I’m particularly apt to label my experiences of profound discomfort as Gender 11 moments. I’ve also noticed that when I have my choice of where to be, I’d rather be in environments much lower on the gender scale.

Talking about this topic is hard, partly because I think we’ve gotten so used to the conversation being about sexual orientation that we overlook how people navigate questions about gender. I didn’t even realize that gender might be an important part of how I experience these conversations until just a few years ago. But I wanted to take some time today to open a conversation about gender here on the blog. The door is open, the kettle is on, and I’d love to talk with you more in the comments.

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15 thoughts on “Speaking of Gender

  1. How straightforward and honest this is! I’ve never doubted anything about my gender as a woman, but I know people who have experienced gender dysphoria and that experience must truly be difficult in ways I can’t even understand. People should be able to be who they are, no matter what other people say. Did you see the story in the news recently about the little girl dismissed from a Christian school because of her short hair and liking for jeans and t-shirts? How very sad.

    • Hi Candy, I did see that story. Unfortunately, I suspect that we’ll see a greater number of similar stories as conservative Christians try to guard against the “evils” of gender variance. Part of the reason why I think we haven’t seen bigger pushback by Christians yet is that the conversation is only beginning.

  2. Like you, I grew up believing that I could be whatever I wanted, and that being a woman was in no way a barrier. In my mind, as a child, the only things I couldn’t do as a women were be a dad and play football 😉

    Sometimes I think we do a disservice by using LGBT. I fear that in some ways it only confuses others (those that are more heteronormative) into thinking that somehow sexual orientation and gender identity are the same thing. I think that sometimes we forget about gender identity bc in a lot of ways we’ve just tacked the T onto the end without thinking about it…it’s as if we’ve done it simply as some sign of solidarity with another similar, yet different, minority group.

    • I tend to agree with you about tacking on the ‘T’ – it does add to the general confusion around conflating sexual orientation or identity with gender identity, especially among people who have not chosen to or been required to think more deeply about gender in their own lives.

      • I’d be careful about asserting that everyone saying “LGBT” is merely tacking on the T. Some writers keep the T to be extremely intentional in acknowledging that gender identity is an important part of the queer experience.

        • That is a good point.
          I guess I find myself pretty confused about where to “place” gender identity when having conversations with people who are not particularly sensitive to queer experience – I am thinking mostly of straight, cisgendered, (often conservative) Christians. On the one hand, I dislike the conflation of gender identity or perceived gender expression with assumptions about sexual orientation – i.e., that boy loves ponies and the color pink, I bet he is going to be gay when he hits puberty. Or from another angle, the notion that gender complementarity justifies or provides evidence for a heteronormative/heterosexist worldview – i.e. because there are just two “real” gender identities (man or woman), this is “the real way” they should relate to one another (heterosexually).

          It seems that questioning accepted gender categories is more upsetting to the ‘norm’ than questions of sexual orientation. Perhaps because we have more vocabulary or more experience talking about sexual orientation – so people are more accustomed to it. Or, perhaps because it is possible to fold sexual orientation into one’s understanding of the world without having to explicitly look at gender at all – just accept that men can be attracted to men, and you don’t necessarily have to deeply question what makes someone a ‘man.’

          Ugh, I don’t know. I think I just don’t know enough about any of this to talk at length, yet here I go…yammering.

          The acronym gaining currency – GSM, for ‘gender and sexual minorities’ – seems somewhat helpful to me, especially because it gives more equal weight to the ‘gender’ side of things and the ‘sexuality’ side of things.

          • I’m generally one who regards yammering as helpful. We only can have a thoughtful conversation when we have people willing to yammer a bit.

            I’d say gender is tricky, because I wonder if the various waves of feminist movements have created a society that can get away with gender agnosticism. For my own part, I was reading a lot of research that suggested different environments were gendered. It was easier to think that the research was completely drawing at straws for a good bit. Then I had my own gender awakening. Becoming more aware of how gender functions inside of me has made me much more acutely aware of places I see gender in society. Yet, I still struggle to find language that moves beyond a sense of “gender roles” to describe what I mean when I say that I’m seeing gender.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Rhea! I’m not so sure that the conversations are wholly distinct. I read an article not terribly long ago that asks, “Where have all the butches gone?” (You can find it at http://www.shewired.com/lifestyle/2013/09/05/op-ed-where-have-all-butches-gone?page=full). This article posits that freedom to explore one’s sexuality opens the door to also explore one’s gender.

      I think there’s a difference between “gender is no barrier” and “gender doesn’t matter.” A more developed conversation about gender identity might be able to help us understand why gender can matter so dearly.

  3. I am a middle school teacher. Sometimes I have students whose gender is not apparent to me. I don’t want to offend that person by using the wrong pronoun…ma’m or sir or she or he. Usually I just try to use that student’s name, but inevitably at some time in the year I will embarrass myself (or the student) by saying the wrong thing. So does anyone have any tips for dealing with this type of situation? At the middle school age, that student may still be exploring who they are. I want to be sensitive to each student and show that I care about each of them just as they are.

    • Hm, that is a good question. I have not been in this position myself, but in general it is never a bad idea to simply ask the student how they prefer to be addressed. At the middle school age, I would be surprised if a student has “decided” what pronouns they prefer – I’d be surprised if students that age have thought a great deal about gendered pronouns either on their own or at the encouragement of their parents or education. I suppose there is some room to accidentally offend a student (or parent, for that matter) if you ask them specifically how they prefer to be addressed, but on the other hand you could also use any push-back as a small teaching moment to say, for example, “Well, sometimes people might prefer to be addressed as ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she,’ so I just wanted to make sure I ask out of respect.” Just my thoughts.

      • As another concern related to middle school students, not all students are going through puberty at the same rate. Lots of students are all over the map with regard to their secondary sex characteristics. It’s a time in life when a lot of students may be misgendered.

    • I would just ask. And if you are afraid of singling out a student (or two), perhaps at the beginning of the year you can have the kids fill out a worksheet type thing asking what name they prefer to go by, what pronouns they prefer to use, what’s their fave song, TV show, and just other random stuff so it doesn’t feel like it’s all about gender identity to the kids.

    • Hi Sarah, thanks for the question. I think it’s a really great conversation. I’m inclined to recommend asking students to fill out an information card with their preferred name, their preferred pronouns, and other fun facts that you’d like to learn about them on the first day of class. If someone asks you why you want to know their preferred pronouns, you can say something like “People frequently guess at which pronouns are right for another person without asking. It’s more polite to ask someone you’re just meeting so you can be sure to use the right pronouns.” When I’m teaching classes, I tend to avoid using gender as an organizing principle in my room. For example, I’ll refer to my students as “students” (or “scientists” if I’m teaching a science class) rather than “ladies and gentlemen.”

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with how you identify the distinction in the way sexual orientation and gender identity are addressed in general. My own experience is that I’ve invested so much energy in building a bulwark against assaults directed at sexual orientation, starting at an early time in my life when I wasn’t even consciously doing so. As a result of long experience I almost carry a swagger about that topic at this point. On the other hand, I’ve pretty much flown under the radar and I’ve received a pass on gender identity, relatively speaking (and I’m painfully aware that’s not the same experience for some of my cohorts). It just hasn’t pressed those hot buttons for those around me like sexual identity does. As a result, my understanding of my own gender identity is visceral, and I’ve been winging it for quite a while. And now Facebook has 56 gender options now, oy vey!
    Thanks for the post. I can relate.

    • I too find myself much more equipped to have a thoughtful conversation about sexual orientation rather than gender identity. I think the 56 Facebook options speak to the emerging conversations about gender, but I would also say that the panoply of options indicates our collective difficulties in finding appropriate language.

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