Questioning the imperative to be gendered

Despite women's progress, the norms that dictate that people should act along gender lines are stronger than ever. The rules of gender come first, humanity second. Genderqueers are transforming gender and challenging the constricting gender roles that limit everybody’s lives.

Ray Filar
25 March 2013

'The first question we usually ask new parents is: “Is it a boy or a girl?”. There is a great answer to that one going around: “We don't know; it hasn't told us yet.”' - Kate Bornstein, 1995

It's 1983. Controversial radical feminist Andrea Dworkin stands in front of a crowd of 500 men. In an act of now legendary feminist bravery, she challenges the men to a 'truce', a short, 24 hour period during which rape will stop. Dworkin tells her audience about the presence of rape in women's lives. She explains that every three minutes a woman is being raped, every 18 seconds a woman is being beaten. 

“Stop your side for one day”, she says. “I dare you to try it. I demand that you try it.” Despite or perhaps because of the content of her speech, one man physically threatens her after the lecture. 

Exactly 30 years later, everything and nothing has changed. Women are still waiting for the 24 hour truce. Two young men convicted of rape last week in Steubenville, Ohio, were sentenced to less than two years behind bars, whilst media coverage fixated on the damage to their reputations. The problems remain the same. But the ways in which feminists, queer and trans* activists and anti-gender campaigners oppose gender norms have multiplied indefinitely.

 Genderqueer opposition to the man/woman gender binary goes hand in hand with the old school feminism pioneered by Dworkin and others. Genderqueer is one label for the many ways in which people identify outside of the gender binary. Gender nonconformity, political opposition to the binary, holding a changing gender identity or not having a gender can all be forms of genderqueer identification. 

People who define as genderqueer for political reasons often do so to create social and political change. Challenging the limitations of language, genderqueers often adopt and use gender-neutral pronouns, such as 'they', 'ze' or 'hir'. Campaigns for unisex toilets and the use of 'other' as a gender option on official forms are two additional small, but meaningful, ways in which this style of activism plays out in the public sphere.  

But it isn't just about the changes that make differently gendered peoples' lives significantly easier. It's about seeing how constricting gender roles limit everybody's lives on a grand scale. 

Transforming gender is still a revolutionary act, perhaps even more so today than it was in Dworkin's era. As novelist Hilary Mantel recently discovered to her cost, traditional gender roles are engraved so deeply on the British cultural psyche that it's considered blasphemy to criticize Kate Middleton. The media zoomed in on Mantel's description of Middleton as “precision-made, machine-made…with a perfect plastic smile”. They tried to turn Mantel's lecture into a girl-on-girl cat-fight, completely ignoring how her comments were part of a larger critique of media perspectives on monarchy.

The imperative to be gendered played out: the press defended the Princess, the ideal woman, whilst largely lambasting Mantel, who has the temerity to be Britain's greatest contemporary novelist without being sexy. 

The message was clear. Though feminism has made tremendous advances on legal, political and cultural fronts, women are still assessed as women. The rules of gender come first, humanity second. Whatever a woman's achievements, under public scrutiny she will be reduced to her looks. To how well she measures up to ideals of femininity. A similar rule plays out where lesbian, gay and bisexual rights are concerned. The British government is likely to pass the Marriage (Same Sex) Bill,  legalising same-sex marriage, but this will do nothing to oppose the gender binary itself. Gay marriage only cements the idea that love is properly expressed in twos along gender lines. Men and women marry, women and women marry, men and men marry. There is no questioning of the terms involved.

Despite women's progress, the norms that dictate that people should act along gender lines are stronger than ever. Governments, corporations and media bodies together form a powerful lobby with investment in the pursuit of profit, the maintenance of the status quo. Over 12000 people recently signed a petition asking toy company Lego to stop advertising next to The Sun's Page 3. In a minuscule hooray for feminism, the children's company announced they would stop advertising next to the bared breasts of young women. Yet only last year the company decided to bring out a special Lego range 'for girls', featuring an abundance of pink and cutesy animals. The reassurance that women will still be feminine is the sweetener that makes the bitter pill of women's rights palatable. One step forward, two steps back.

Binary breakers: genderqueer politics

Through the personal embodiment of binary-challenging gender identities, genderqueer politics question the terms of gender, giving feminism new tactics for fighting sexism. Though there are numerous ways of being genderqueer or acting out genderqueer politics, and a central feature is challenging the idea that there are only two genders. One amazing internet resource lists over 300 potential gender options, from 'agender' to 'boy with a vagina' to 'womyn'.

 It's arguable that not all the choices represent distinct genders, but the gender list makes clear that the man/woman cultural schema demonstrates an incredible paucity of imagination. And it isn't just gender that exists on a spectrum. According to Biology and Gender Studies Professor Anne Fausto-Sterling, about one per cent of live births display some biological sexual ambiguity. Human life is much more fabulous than patriarchy would like to let on.

For those involved in queer or alternative LGBTI communities, these kinds of politics are nothing new. Genderqueer subcultures have been flourishing for decades. Artists including Del La Grace Volcano, Justin Vivian Bond and Heather Cassils work with genderqueer themes. Genderqueer activists are involved in political action around the world. The website Genderfork, which describes itself as 'a supportive community for the expression of identities across the gender spectrum', is well-established, with years' worth of photos and thoughts submitted by users. A DIY research conference called 'Spotlight on: Genderqueer' is happening at Warwick University in April. Musicians including Chris Pureka and Rae Spoon identify publicly as genderqueer. A support group called Trans*genderqueer London is currently restarting. And that's not even to mention the writers like Kate Bornstein and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, whose books have captured genderqueer politics and ideas as they developed.  

But within straight British society, attempts to explain genderqueer are sometimes met with sneers of disbelief. The gender binary has an iron grip on the cultural imagination. Despite trans* peoples' increasing public visibility in mainstream TV shows like My Transsexual Summer, the match between gender behaviour and bodily anatomy is still largely seen as an indisputable truth. Even when arguing the case for the flexibility and fluidity of gender, the idea that the binary is important as a convenient social shorthand is tough to shake off.

One problem with this reliance on the binary nature of gender is shown through the rates of violence against non-gender conforming people. Research by Stonewall Charity shows that 65 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people experience homophobic bullying in school. The charity also found that violence against gay, lesbian and bisexual people is often provoked by perceived gender transgression, not just beliefs about sexual orientation. Yet the fact that this mainstream gay organisation doesn't even recognise transgender or queer people as part of its remit gives some indication of just how little understood challenges to the gender binary are.

 Back in Dworkin's day, radical feminists made the case that the oppression of women stems from gender. They argued for expanding ideas of what it could mean to be a woman, advocating economic, political and cultural independence. They challenged ideas around masculinity and femininity, about how being a 'real man' meant being a provider, playing sports, demonstrating strength, or how being a 'real woman' meant being caring, nurturing and receptive to male advances. They demonstrated that belief in this gender binary was one of the root causes of women's oppression.

Where genderqueer steps in is in dispensing with the necessity for the ideas 'man' and 'woman' altogether. Instead, genderqueer politics envisage a society in which 'man' and 'woman' aren't enforced on everyone, but are potential options for those who want them. Alone and in communities, genderqueer people open up gender so that people can choose to adopt mixtures of stereotypically or non-stereotypically feminine and masculine traits, dispense with them altogether, or move between them, alongside challenging them on feminist grounds.

In living genderqueer personal lives, activists form the grounds for organising to create wider social change.  


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