For so long I’ve wanted a good way to articulate the battle feminists wage over gender. Too often we are accused of wanting to make everyone “the same” (aka. “like men”), but that’s neither possible nor, in my opinion, a helpful discourse in any way. People are not the same. Period. It has very little to do with the sex that they are born into and a whole lot to do with their individual traits, which are influenced but not dictated by primary and secondary sex characteristics. Thus far, I’ve used the terms “cult of masculinity” and “cult of femininity” as shorthand for society mandated gender roles, but they reference more the specific traits seen as “essential” to either gender and less the reality of what forcing people to follow these strict gender binaries really is.
Enter a comment on a mostly unrelated post on the feminist LJ community [emphasis mine]:
There are feminists who believe that the way to solve sexism is to do away with gender, but i think a more practical, interesting, and diversity-friendly approach is just to make gender voluntary or democratic, as opposed to the rigid “caste system” we have now, where your gender is determined by a doctor at birth and is seen thereafter as eternally immutable.[From Not a REAL FEMINIST!!!, comment by sophiaserpentia]
And there it is, in black and white terms that any one should be able to understand: democracy vs. a caste hierarchy. Who, among Westerners at least, would claim a rigid system with little mobile ability to be superior to a system that purports to champion the individual’s pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness? And if you support democracy in your governmental institutions, if you support it for yourself, then you have no leg to stand on when it comes to supporting a caste system over a democratic one when talking about gender.
Even if you believe in gender essentialism – a belief system yet to be proven, or even strongly supported, by science – then giving people the choice to act in a way that befits them hurts no one. If boys are “naturally” suited to x and girls are “naturally” suited to y, then in a neutral environment they’ll gravitate towards that anyway. If girls don’t like science, then why go through extraordinary measures to keep them out? If all boys are so tough, then why take such extreme measures to shame, and in some cases injure, those who show their feelings or other “weaknesses”?
But, the truth is, gender essentialism is a crock. The very existence of intersexed and transgendered people proves that a person’s identity is more than their chromosomes, or their primary sex characteristics, or even their secondary sex characteristics. We see further evidence of this in the visible correlation between more freedom for people to find an individual identity apart from the traditional one assigned their gender and the increased in varied expressions of gender.
Indeed, if we take a look at Southeast Asia, we find that their different views on gender has lead to a vastly different model than the Western one [emphasis mine]:
The concept of gender is much more complicated in Southeast Asia, with the complexities from social relationships, status, history and even religion. For example, it is often said that women in Southeast Asia has always enjoyed a higher social standing because of their roles in household management and their involvement in local trading activities. This means that it is difficult to establish very clear-cut distinctions between the polarity of male and female using gender roles. Both men and women often share these “traits”. Should trade and management of household finances be considered traits in exemplifying masculinity or femininity?
Based on my fieldwork on transsexual performers (kathoey) in Phuket, Thailand, I have found that there are many individuals who cross-dress, for different reasons and there are many kathoey (transsexual males) who are comfortable with having both penises and breasts. These people are therefore, satisfied to be in the “territory in-between” and see no need to transgress the gender boundary to become “totally women”. Gender can no longer be strictly defined in terms of possessing biological genitalia and the situational flexibility of gender and sexuality must be recognized. There has been a gradual increase in the number of people who have come to recognize themselves as constituting a separate “third gender” – the transsexual.
Rather than attempting to cross the gender boundary and passing off as a non-transsexual man or woman, many transsexuals are increasingly seeing themselves as a transgender individual, in a third gender category altogether. Some Western scholars such as Marjory Garber (1992) have advocated the need to escape from the bipolar notions of gender and use a “third category” to describe these new possibilities of gender identification. Transgenderism describes more than crossings between poles of masculinity and femininity. It means transgressing gender norms that are socially-defined. Gender definitions with clear boundaries are also not feasible.[From Transgressing the Gender Boundary by Wong Ying Wuen]
Wong’s study of Southeast Asian comes to a conclusion that many scholars in the West are only beginning to understand: people are not easily pigeonholed into binary categories. Modern feminism has by and large already embraced this concept, at least from my personal experiences as well as the scholarship I have read on the subject. Because of this, it seems so absurd to me when non-feminists/anti-feminists claim that feminists want to make everyone “the same” – if we acknowledge that people cannot, and should not, be forced into a binary caste system, why on Earth would we advocate forcing them into a singular caste system?
No, what feminists advocate, and indeed what all people regardless of their stance on gender essentialism should advocate, is a gender democracy. Everyone should be allowed to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. What that means is that it should be ok for me to cut my hair short, play video games, and have equal opportunity in the job world if that’s what I want. It means that my friends should all be able to choose to be stay-at-home-parents or not, choose to be caregivers or not, choose to cry or not, regardless of their gender.
It’s not wrong to let an individual choose for hirself what is, and is not, good for hir. What’s wrong is when society takes away that choice with laws, traditions, and social pressure. Choosing a gender democracy over a caste system is a win-win situation; it allows for non-traditional genders to co-exist with traditional ones. The only losers in a democracy are those who are more interested in control than the good of the people.