Gender and belief

Some people have beliefs that I don't believe, and I don't mind them having them as long as they don't want me to join in.

Most people I encounter seem to refrain from inflicting their religious beliefs upon me. I don't mean they never mention them, I mean they refrain from instructing me how to think, or assuming that I will necessarily believe the same as them, or verbally judging me by their standards. (How they judge me in the privacy of their own minds I don't necessarily know, of course.)

The same can't be said of people's beliefs about gender. In that domain a lot of people seem to take for granted the reality of their own constructs and interpretations - and then they speak to me, and apply their worldview to my life, as though it were unquestionable fact and I couldn't possibly disagree.

In principle I don't want to stop anyone construing the world in a way that's helpful to them, provided it's respectful to other people too. I don't necessarily contradict people when they say something that I don't believe. If someone tells me they feel an angel is watching over them, then I'm pretty unlikely to respond by debating the reality of angels.

But I notice that I'm getting sick of binary gender dogma being presented as though it applies to everyone everywhere at all times.

Clearly some people find it enjoyable or useful to construe themselves, others and/or the world in terms of masculine and feminine. I'm not demanding that they stop.

(I do think there's a pretty obvious connection between, on the one hand, allocating clusters of attributes inevitably to "maleness" and other clusters inevitably to "femaleness", and, on the other hand, "men are [all] this way, women are [all] that way, therefore X Y Z is natural and justified". So I suspect that investing in "masculine vs feminine" is currently impossible to do without also contributing to the maintenance of sexism. But leaving that question aside for now...)

What I want is for those people to be aware, and maybe even acknowledge from time to time, that it's their interpretation (in some cases, belief system) and not mine.

By that, I don't mean that I've never had an experience of myself as gendered. I was allocated one of the traditional Western two, and I've invested in that identity to the degree that I found necessary in order to live with it. So although I draw the line before dealing in "masculine vs feminine", I do have a gender identity available to me. And that does have its up side. (It grants a dimension of cultural privilege, for one thing.)

But I don't necessarily think that that identity was inevitable as a consequence of the shape of my body. It feels like it could have been a kind of "reclaiming", like reclaiming the identity "queer" or the identity "nigger": a label gets attributed to you which already has cultural meanings, and you reinvent the meanings rather than attempting the often less successful (in this case probably doomed) process of rejecting the label.

I think maybe if I'd been offered the choice of "Or if you like, you needn't bother with having a gender at all", I'd have taken that instead - in the same way that at some point I chose not to follow a religious path.

What is "being male" supposed to mean, anyway? Gimme any answer to that which isn't purely biological or tautological and I will guarantee that at least some women have it / do it / experience it too. And vice versa for being female. So why not just talk about being nurturing or muscular or strong or assertive or elegant or aggressive or being a good listener or having excellent spatial awareness, or whatever? Why insist on sticking together some semi-arbitrary cluster of those under one label? Why insist that there is any such "thing" as masculine or feminine?

Seems to me the main answer is: Because "masculine versus feminine" is a myth on which people have built up so much, and in which people have invested so much meaning, that they're now unwilling to concede that IT WAS ALL MADE UP!

Mind you, the assertion that gender was created by the thoughts and words of human beings doesn't imply that it's trivial or has less of an impact on the lives of the people who live by it. (And, at the moment, I reckon that's all of us, inescapably, to a greater or lesser degree.) Gender is as real as the value of money, and money has a huge effect on people's lives.

But it's not real like the ground is real or like "people die if they have no air or water" is real.

Even if we all agree that people will be able to live without air or water, our unanimity is insufficient to change the outcome. But when the "cultural agreement" changes, "agreement reality" changes.

For instance, religion has become less taken-for-granted real than it was in the past, to the point where in England it's quite possible to opt out of it (although that may still make you conspicuous in places where Christianity is assumed as the default).

On the other hand, money is more taken-for-granted real now that it was in the past. The people who set up the first banks really knew that they were dealing in human agreement, and that a piece of money paper was worth only as much as their customers trusted it to be worth. Despite inflation, most people don't think in those terms most of the time nowadays. The chances of any few people unmaking that agreement in the present circumstances are minuscule.

For clarity I'd also like to point out that ceasing to invest in "masculine vs feminine" is very far from throwing out all differences. I like the idea that everyone has lots of choices of ways to be different, and to contrast interestingly and erotically with one another (and not only by selecting from other binary pairs, either). But why should those differences be determined by, or named after, a person's genitals or chromosomes? Answer that and stay fashionable!

So I'm wondering what would it be like to have a cultural space that was to gender as atheism is to religion. I've never actually found one yet (though a few individual conversations have headed that way), because i.m.o. the gender-questioning communities or books I've found are still permeated by "hey, maybe we could be a mixture of male and female! or a third gender! or some other kind of gender!". Which is "hey, maybe we could start a new religion with different rules!" What if it were all perceived as a matter of interpretation, and identifying as gendered at all were strictly a matter of personal choice?

I think that would be intriguing. I think I would enjoy the change :-)

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Written 3 & 4 May 2003
Copyright Jennifer Moore 2003

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