Why Is Gender So Misunderstood?
“Is that a girl, mummy?” I catch, as we wander down the confectionary isle at Coles. The small child who asked is quickly shushed and led away by a pink-cheeked mother, who grimaces a little when we make eye contact. I glance over. Sam doesn’t seem phased, but immediately turns the conversation to the tough choice of selecting the perfect chocolate bar. Sam — tall and slim, with short dark hair that sticks out from under a dark grey beanie, is gender fluid.
Gender fluid is a term used to describe people who do not identify as either a boy or a girl, but as a dynamic mix of the two. Sometimes a gender fluid person feels more like a boy, sometimes more like a girl. Sam, whose birth certificate states male, chooses to use the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’, but is very open about discussing her identity as both a man and a woman.
Gender fluid is just one of the many gender identities that don’t fit in the traditional binary of male or female. While there is no specific data on how many people in Australia identify as gender non-binary, it is far more common than you might think — estimates sit at around eight per cent of the population. So why is gender still so widely misunderstood?
Gender identity, by definition, is how an individual experiences and perceives their own gender — it is completely subjective. Gender identity is independent of biological sex and quite separate again from sexual orientation.
Outspoken online personality Elliott Alexzander is a prominent symbol of the movement toward non-binary gender identity acceptance. On his popular blog, Alexzander explains, “I believe that gender identity is something that an individual has to figure out for themselves. That being said, based on my personal experience with understanding by own gender identity, I can tell you what gender is not. Gender is not the same as your sexuality. Gender does not have to define your sexuality. Gender and sexuality are two different subjects. Gender has nothing to do with your genitalia. Gender is not defined by a doctor, despite what’s on your birth certificate.”
Sam explains her own conceptualisation of gender in a similar way. “I personally think of gender as a sort of spectrum, where there is not just two options but an infinite number of identities,” she gushes, her every movement over-dramatically animated. “I know! I’ll show you!” she exclaims, and whips a notebook out of her satchel. I watch as she draws a ven diagram on the paper, with one circle representing male and one circle representing female. “I think that the male and female spheres overlap for everybody, to a least some extent. But for gender fluid people like me, the two circles are always moving and changing. Sometimes they completely overlap and I feel like I’m male and female at the same time. Sometimes there is a dominant circle. The key is that everyone has a different idea of what their own gender is — where they fit on the spectrum.”
While Sam talks, her perfectly manicured burgundy nails dance back and forth across the paper. It’s mesmerising — I can’t look away. I suddenly feel very self-conscious about my own nails, which are chipped and uneven. But I begin to wonder if my unease stems from my own conceptualisation of gender, and from some engrained idea that by neglecting my cuticle care, I am a less successful ‘girl’. The traditional gender binary of male and female constrains people into believing that their gender identity rests on behaviours of masculinity or femininity — it starts to dawn on me just how limiting some of my own sub-conscious gender assumptions are.
Surely then, the key to greater non-binary gender acceptance is better education and more public exposure to the topic.
A new campaign called #GENDERFLUX, introduced by Elliott Alexzander, is set to provide people with a platform on which they can explore their conceptualisation of gender and learn about non-binary identifications. Alexzander explains, “Gender Identity is part of the mental and emotional understanding of yourself… I hope the day will come when the world will know gender to be a personal understanding of ones self, instead of an outward understanding of everyone else.”
Well-known Australian model, DJ and actor, Ruby Rose, identifies as gender fluid. In her viral youtube video, Break Free she transitions from being a typically ‘feminine’ blond girl into a gender-neutral brunette.
Ruby Rose announced the video on her YouTube channel as “a short film about gender roles, Trans, and what it is like to have an identity that deviates from the status quo.” The film is aimed at tearing down the stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds gender queer individuals.
Imogen Moran, a 24-year old Sydney resident, understands how important gender education is. Her best friend of ten years ‘came out’ as transgender only two months ago. “It was difficult when Sarah first told me, because I didn’t know what all the definitions meant, and there were all these small things that I didn’t even think about, that can actually be quite offensive.”
Learning the proper definitions is, indeed, no small feat. While transgender and gender queer are the terms used most commonly to encompass non-binary gender identities, there are countless other terms that an individual may or may not use, including bi-gender, gender fluid, agender, intersex, genderless, androgynous and third gender. The important thing to remember here, is that whatever a person chooses to identify as, is the accurate term to use.
Using the correct pronouns is also very important. If society embraces the use of a person’s desired pronouns, that person feels accepted and validated in their own identity. In a win for the cause, the Oxford English Dictionary announced last month that they would include the gender neutral pronoun Mx (pronounced mux) in their next edition. This is a strong recognition that gender queer people have the right to identify outside of the limiting Mr, Miss, Ms or Mrs usually provided.
Sarah now identifies as male and chooses to use the pronouns he and his. Imogen says, “One of the most difficult things first off, was using the right pronouns. Obviously I know how important it is to him, but I have to break a ten-year habit of saying ‘her’ instinctively. He was very patient about it when I got it wrong. It’s not that hard at all now actually, and it certainly hasn’t changed our friendship or anything. I just wish he had felt that he could tell me sooner.”
It’s very common for non-binary individuals to have severe anxiety about expressing their true gender identity, even to their close friends and family. While this is a sad fact, it is not unsurprising, given the hostile and even violent way in which society usually engages with people that are ‘different’.
Society loves to pigeonhole people — to classify things, to name them, and to have a shared understanding of what something is, and what it is not. But gender is not like that, and the idea that people exist outside of the traditional categories, causes society a lot of (unfounded) anxiety.
Greater awareness and acceptance of gender non-binaries can only come about through representation and exposure in the media. While there have definitely been improvements in recent years (see Laverne Cox and Orange Is The New Black), gender queer people are still marginalised and often attacked in the public sphere.
Last week, famous ex-Olympian Bruce Jenner came out on the cover of Vanity Fair as Caitlyn Jenner, an openly transgender woman. While there was a lot of support for Caitlyn, there was also an underlying current of negative comments, mostly on social media, that demonstrated just how ignorant much of society is about gender identity. It also shows just how far we have to come before society is truly accepting of people who are different, or who don’t fit the mould.
It is still crucial that high-profile people like Caitlyn Jenner ‘come out.’ The difficulty that these people face is also faced by many, many less-fortunate all over the world who are not able to access the same resources, services and supportive networks. If high-profile cases can help raise awareness and acceptance, even by a little bit, for those that are genuinely repressed for their gender identities, then it is worth it.
A positive example of the power that high-profile cases can have is the campaign that sparked last week, in which gender queer individuals were invited to put their own image and preferred name in the place of Caitlyn’s, in a digitally remastered version of Vanity Fair. It encouraged those who are gender queer to come forward and be proud of who they are.
Imogen and Sam both remain positive about future. Imogen says, “I really think that society will be willing to accept gender fluid or other non-binary people when they learn more about it. It’s no different from all of us — we all think of our gender differently and express it differently, so I think we can definitely improve.”