Published on August 20th, 2013 | by Caroline Lennon
I’m Not “Whatever” You Think I Am.
I remember when I was about 15 someone made an off-hand comment about me not being feminine. I was a boisterous, loud, and sometimes obnoxious teenager, either full of happiness or in a foul mood, but always LOUD. In this particular instance I was being rather raucous while clambering out of a car in an “unladylike” manner. The common phrase ‘it’s not what you say, but how you say it’ rings true, as I distinctly recall it wasn’t the words that hurt me, but the disdain with which they were said. In fact, the tone implied I wasn’t only doing something inappropriate, but that it was also wrong. How dare I.
In the 12 months leading up to this I’d begun to think about labels. In our mid-teens, pupils at school began to assume what or who everyone was, assigning them the corresponding classification. Living in multicultural London, England, thankfully people weren’t defined by nationality or race, but gender was always considered an acceptable attribute to use for these purposes. It is unfortunate that during the 1990s the word ‘gender’ was considered interchangeable with ‘biological sex’, as this fed the belief that someone’s academic ability, athletic prowess, extra-curricular interests, and musical capability (for example) was predetermined by their biological sex, and therefore gender. Furthermore, because it was presumed that one must conform to the gender-specific criteria for their biological sex, a concept which allowed no room for manoeuvre, there was also no allowance made for being in-between, neither, or undecided.
Mulling things over on my own, confused about so much, I struggled to see what others saw. I remember thinking people are people, and this was as complicated as it got for me. Yes, I used female and male pronouns when speaking about or to individuals (unless otherwise requested); but I considered it absurd for anyone to presume they knew anything about a 14 or 15-year-old, especially someone other than themself! Granted, I thought I knew a lot – even worse, I thought I knew enough – but however short-sighted I was with regards to my own development and future, I wasn’t arrogant enough to speculate I knew anything about anybody else’s.
Growing up in this environment I grew accustomed to presumptuous and oppressive remarks from my peers, but I was always surprised to hear such statements from adults – I secretly hoped that people grew out of this – which meant I was particularly put out by the comment made to me in this instance. While it might have been acknowledged (for the most part) that expecting someone to abide by gender-specific criteria was sexist, I found it distinctly disrespectful for someone to not only presume I aligned myself with the female gender stereotype, but furthermore, tell me I was doing this wrong. The mind boggles.
It’s simply not enough to avoid the trap of expecting someone who is biologically female to become a stay-at-home mother, or male to enjoy DIY, football, and pornography. It should stand to sense that the body parts we’re in possession of don’t predetermine our behaviour, dress sense, and/or interests; but first and foremost, they shouldn’t determine the gender (if either) we identify with. Critically, this is the trickiest part for individuals to grasp. While increasingly there are those, such as myself, who identify as genderfree or genderqueer – individuals who consider gender to be sexism and reject all gender norms or rules – we remain in our minority.
In much the same way I don’t expect everyone to give up alcohol, go vegan, or renounce capitalism overnight, I don’t even dare to dream that everyone becomes genderfree. What I hope to encourage, however, is individuals to make informed choices, and for adults, parents, and peers to create an environment within which this is feasible. It is essential we are all making decisions that are in our own best interests, and the individuals who surround us help to facilitate this. I find no example more chilling than that outlined by Elizabeth Reis on Nurse Clio, which should give those who remain undecided sufficient food for thought.
If I’d taken this comment – the exact words – to heart, considered whether or not I was living up to the expectation of being biologically female (and if this was even something I should aspire to), as well as potentially making changes or choices based upon this, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Perhaps I wouldn’t have the same hair, hobbies and interests, or tattoos that I do now. Perhaps I’d already be married, with children, and a mortgage. Perhaps I’d never have found hardcore and punk music, sobriety, or veganism. I’ll never know. The only thing I am sure about, however, is that I would never have written this post, which is reason enough to be thankful.