Recent public events have led me to reflect on the nature of gender and gender identification. In my peer group, which includes my children and their extensive circle of friends and acquaintances, gender is a flexible concept rather than a defining physical reality. We also currently have discussion in the media about people’s right to define their gender as they wish. Female, male, both neither or trans. All are possible, all are completely acceptable. To be clear I am not talking here about sexual preference which is another related but quite separate issue.
I have found this trend to be liberating as it crushes stereotypes and I have railed against gender defining stereotypes all my life. I was a sensitive boy who loved giving advice to my mum on which dress or ear rings suited her. I was a male dancer when the assumption was that therefore I was gay. I was a single father when that was quite rare.
It was a pivotal and perhaps defining moment in my young life when my mother dressed me as Carmen Miranda for a dress-up competition on a cruise ship when I was about ten. I remember being acutely embarrassed, particularly when my mum came and took me from the girls line to the boys line. What if she had left me in the girls line and I had won a prize, as a girl.
What was motivating my mother is not as important as was the effect that the experience had on me. On reflection I believe that she gave me a great gift. The experience left me with a profound sense of the fact that much of the difference between boys and girls is in the perception of their gender, not in their actual gender. I was not consciously aware of this as knowledge but it has sat on the edge of my consciousness ever since.
As a young man my circle of friends and acquaintances included both gay and straight people and discovering my own sexual orientation was neither traumatic or complicated but throughout life’s journey I have always been a boy/girl. This is a term we used in our family as a compliment. Our girls were free to manifest behaviours that suited them not that met a gender specific mandate.
Being a boy/girl or a girl/boy in a strongly gender defined world is no easy task. I think many young women and men who realise that they have characteristics of both the male and female stereotypes experience gender confusion. I have to reiterate here that I am not talking about sexual preference, I am talking about identity.
At some point I realised that the problem lay not with me but with the way our society defines us in a rather rigid way. I remember often thinking, I cannot be a boy/man because I don’t like to do that, I don’t think or feel that way. I must be a girl. But I can’t be a girl so what or who am I?
Forming a healthy identity is crucial to our wellbeing. We spend much of our lives identifying who we are and our place in the social context. We build a platform, one thought or concept at a time. I am a maker, builder and fixer. I am a nurturer, a carer, a considerate and loving person. I am a thinker. I feel things really deeply and I recognise and empathise with the feelings of others. These are some such self concepts but once we start assigning them to gender, as gender specific qualities, then the real trouble starts.
We are born into gendered bodies, some male, some female and some more complex. As we grow it is natural for girls to look to women to imagine what kind of woman they will become. Boys will look to men to imagine what kind of man they might become. We mimic and model gendered behaviours and we also mimic and model non gendered behaviours. We learn from both the females and the males in our lives.
I think that choice is the key. In a diverse and tolerant society children might feel safe to define themselves more easily, more comfortably, but that is not the society that we live in today. Those that are threatened by difference like to set rules for being, rules for living. We live in a climate of fear, in part generated by those who would seek to slow the process of change, and it takes courage to stand tall and be different but stand tall and be different we must.
Today, at 68 years old, I am glad of the gift that Jo, my mother, inadvertently gave me. The gift of difference and a celebration of the other in the one. I am shocked that I can say this, given what I felt at the time, but life is delightfully strange.