The ugly and violent death of gender conformity

How long will it take for gender fluidity to be viewed as a healthy expression of human identity?

Mark Greene
29 July 2016

Credit: The Good Men Project. All rights reserved.

We’ve reached the tipping point on gender.

Thanks to an upsurge in diverse gender images in the media, gender progressive public conversations and growing parental awareness, millions of our beautiful children are gracefully and elegantly exploring the inbetween spaces of gender; pushing the boundaries of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ in ways both large and small as a natural part of their self expression.

We’ve reached this tipping point thanks to the courageous pioneers and activists of the gender equality movement. The genie is out of the bottle. Too many kids have discovered the magic of self determination. There simply is no going back.

Accordingly, we are witnessing a cultural collision between the dominant discourse about how to be a ‘real man’ or a ‘real woman’ and the inevitable gender fluidity of millennials and those coming after.

The promise of a more diverse and accepting world is out there, but things are likely to get worse before they get better, and I don’t just mean arguments over bathrooms. Our bullying, violent, gender-policing culture will not give up control easily. Gender fluid and trans people will continue to be victims of violence.

Those of us who don’t want to conform any longer will have no choice but to join the fight. When we join the fight, it erupts everywhere at once; in our workplaces, our churches, our schools, our streets, and even in our own beds. Those closest to us, alarmed and embarrassed by change, often seek to force us back into our traditional gender roles.

But, you know what? No matter where you are on the spectrum between the masculine and the feminine, right in the middle or all the way to one end, if you accept the simple logic that there is a spectrum, then you know in your heart that this is your fight too.

Who gets to makes the rules?

Typically, the most archaic of our religious, political and social institutions are the most militant in defining and enforcing traditional gender roles for men and women. The enforcement of these roles aligns with those institutions’ self interest, consolidating economic, religious and political power. But no matter how powerful the institutions enforcing them, it was inevitable that traditional gender roles would eventually fail to match up with the evolving culture we inhabit. And so, a violent battle is raging.

Make no mistake. The aggression violence flows one way in this battle. Violence is perpetrated by advocates for traditional gender against gender fluid and trans people.

Which begs the question: Why are Americans who perform gender in traditional ways so threatened by those who perform gender differently? Why are some of us willing to commit violence up to and including murder to suppress gender expression that doesn’t match our own? And how long will it take for gender fluidity to be viewed as a normative healthy expression of human identity?

For those of us who consider ourselves to be somewhere on the gender spectrum, the issue is simple. For us, we are not strictly defined as men or women, any more than we are strictly defined as being tall or short, black or white, weak or strong. Using these binary constructs to define human beings ignores the reality of the diversity that is inherent in being human. In almost every defining aspect of the human condition, we exist on a spectrum intersected by wide ranging issues of context, history and intent.

And so it is with gender. Setting aside the complex question of who even gets to decide what is masculine or feminine, each of us is a blend of these aspects. We’re all somewhere on the spectrum and as such, none of us have the right to claim the correct way to perform gender. We are all real men and real women, however we choose to present ourselves.

Listening to ghosts

The rules of traditional masculinity and femininity are social constructions; created and enforced by dominant discourses rooted generations in the past; a product of social, religious, and economic systems, which, though passing or long gone, continue to exert powerful cultural influences well after they have ceased to operate.

The rules by which men in America perform traditional masculinity were born on the brutal factory floors of the early industrial revolution and the resulting hi-rise offices that towered over them. Those rules, often referred to as the Man Box, go something like this:

“Real men” don’t show their emotions except for anger

“Real men” are providers not care givers

“Real men” are heteronormative, sexually aggressive and dominant

“Real men” are leaders, make all the decisions

“Real men” never show doubt

“Real men” are never unemployed or disabled

“Real men” love to talk and play sports

Our deepest personal aspirations

Traditional gender roles are brought into existence by a kind of coerced collective agreement driven by those at the top of the social order, (political, business and religious leaders) and enforced by shaming, violence and collective self-policing. But despite the institutional pressure to conform, our collective consensus about gender and sexuality is ever evolving. This is because our individual definition of gender is tied to our deepest personal aspirations. Where we are on the gender spectrum can never be forcibly made to conform, only suppressed.

Our culture’s wholesale suppression of gender diversity contributes to the rage and violence associated with men in our culture. Forced to perform a narrowly defined definition of manhood, many men feel the stress and frustration of living inauthentic and ultimately unrewarding lives. Often, when confronted by those who do not conform, these men act out violently, angrily seeking to validate the self suppression of their own more wide ranging aspirations.

If enough brave souls break out of the Man Box and express gender differently this gets seen, and seeing is believing. A crack appears in the facade of the social order. A shift begins. More people perform gender differently.

So as our collective view of gender inevitably shifts, moved to greater degrees of change by activists and cultural icons, our monolithic social constructions about gender, ideas about how to be a “real man” or “real woman,” seem increasingly obsolete, restrictive, and oppressive.

They remain as archaic tools of forced conformity, weapons of self interest applied by the failing social institutions that continue to enforce them. If our traditional male and female roles were designed during the industrial revolution to benefit those at the top of the social structure; designed to insure the production of babies, the staffing of factories and the manning of armies, they are by now, as obsolete as the rusting 20th century factories which birthed them.

The generative power of economic chaos

Over the last thirty years, our economy has been subjected to the shock and awe of economic disaster after economic disaster, a real estate bubble here, a Wall Street banking collapse there. Job security is gone. The cultural carrot and stick of the regular paycheck has effectively disappeared. Millions of men and women alike have been forced to invent new versions of themselves and new ways of working or raising children. In doing so, they are free to step away from the traditional gender performances once enforced uniformly across American workplaces.

For men, once we step outside the traditional performance of gender, we discover that the risks are not as scary as one might think when peering out from behind the wall of traditional manhood. It simply requires the support of a community of like minded people. Welcome to the Good Men Project.

Men are increasingly coming to understand that the monolithic supremacy of what we call traditional manhood is an illusion, a scam. Traditional masculinity is a dominant narrative that we have accepted, and in accepting it, we have made it the dominant narrative. But it remains simply one story of how to be a man. There are many, many more. Traditional manhood has no greater value than any other version of manhood and when enough people catch on to that fact, the Man Box will disappear, perhaps overnight.

Show me a female fighter pilot and I’ll make the argument that she is, in part, a social construct. Yes, I understand the years of hard work and commitment that she has put in to her achievement individually, but the opportunity for her to even try is a byproduct of our evolving view of gender. The politics of the women’s rights movement leading back to the first women suffragettes tipped the cultural dominoes that one by one led to this point. And it could not happen until enough people agreed that it should. The female fighter pilot is not an outlier; not an exception that proves the rule of what women are, she is the result of a culture that is now allowing a limited amount of that kind of gender performance by women. Allow it and it will happen. 

If we lived in a culture that prioritized female fighter pilots, they would just as easily be the rule, not the exception—a rule that would arguably tear down whole sections of our gender expectations of women.

The US is a nation that has restricted the aspirations of its people. The story of political change in America is the story of human aspirations overcoming the restrictive institutions which seek to force our conformity.

The end of the paper tiger

So, we are left with the question, how strong is the driving force in our culture that privileges traditional masculinity over a range of other kinds of manhood? Is it a vibrant current influence? I think not. It is more likely the dying vestige of a bygone era, slowly releasing its grip on our restless children.

What we consider to be traditional gender roles can be perfectly valid ways of performing gender, but to elevate traditional gender roles above other gender performances is counterintuitive to everything we know about human aspirations and expression. Which means, what we really need is not something to replace traditional gender but instead a tradition of encouraging all expressions of gender. As wide ranging expressions of gender as we can imagine.

As a society, we are collectively coming to value fluidity as an asset across the spectrum of human endeavors, both business and personal, which has led to the great cultural upheaval taking place all around us. Call it the death throes of the binary. One symbol of this upheaval is a war over bathrooms in America. The most evolved of our political institutions have awoken to the innate humanity of embracing gender fluidity—a remarkable shift from just a few years ago.

This is yet more proof that the tipping point on gender is here. It will require that we push harder than ever to normalize wide ranging views of gender. But if we are to embrace gender fluidity we cannot at the same time condemn traditional masculinity, only the enforcement of it on others, for it too has its place on the spectrum.

What we need is a culture that encourages people to gravitate towards what is comfortable for them while allowing others to do the same. And when we reach that point, the only barrier left will be not the conformity demanded of us by others, but the conformity we might yet enforce on ourselves. Because nothing is quite as scary as freedom.

This article was first published by the Good Men Project.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData